Around the city and suburbs of Harrisburg, Colleen Nguyen and her colleagues have been knocking on doors and canvassing voters in advance of the elections in Pennsylvania. They are involved in an organisation called Turn PA Blue which aims to mobilise support to have Democrats elected at all levels.
Pennsylvania is hugely important for both Democrats and Republicans. Its Republican senator is retiring, leaving the seat to be fought over by the parties.
With the US Senate evenly divided, whoever wins in Pennsylvania could have a huge impact, perhaps the defining impact, on which party controls the chamber from next January.
Harrisburg is in south central Pennsylvania, about a two-hour drive from Washington. It and its surrounding area is home to more than 500,000 people, emphasising its importance in the election.
Talking to voters, Nguyen has noticed a shift. “A month ago I would have said everybody wants to talk about abortion, but now we are kind of veering more into the inflation area. It really depends who I am talking to at the door. If it is a Republican they want to talk about inflation, if it is a college-educated woman they want to talk about abortion”, she tells The Irish Times.
The biggest issue Fetterman is facing is his health. Last summer he had a serious stroke and has been in recovery for several months
She suggests the issue of abortion “is not on the top of people’s mind as it was”.
What Nguyen is reporting from the doorsteps is being reflected in the polls. Democrats essentially bet the farm that the supreme court ruling last June to eliminate the federal constitutional right to abortion would be so strong an issue it would be more important to voters than a struggling economy. For a time it appeared to be working. Abortion dominated the political landscape over the summer.
However, with less than three weeks to go to the midterm elections, inflation remains stubbornly high, people are seeing the price of staple goods rise in the supermarkets and the cost of fuel is beginning to tick up again. Polls suggest the opposition Republicans are edging ahead.
On a cold October Tuesday night, Democrats and party supporters have gathered for an Irish-themed musical evening at McMurray near Pittsburgh to fundraise for a local election candidate.
“Five months until St Patrick’s Day”, the invitation proclaims.
The northeast of the United States felt the first icy blast of winter this week, but the political temperature is rising in Pennsylvania as the elections approach.
The Senate contest is between two unconventional politicians. One is John Fetterman, the 6ft 3 ins (2.032m) baldheaded state lieutenant governor who routinely wears hoodies and shorts and portrays himself as a champion of the working class. The other is Mehmet Oz, a millionaire celebrity television doctor who is supported by former president Donald Trump.
The White House is fully aware of the importance of Pennsylvania. On Thursday, US president Joe Biden spent the entire day there. Fetterman joined him in Pittsburgh, where Biden spoke about infrastructure and later travelled on Air Force One to Philadelphia for a fundraiser. Fetterman has “integrity”, the president said. “We need John badly.”
The governorship of Pennsylvania is also up for grabs in a separate election some have portrayed as being hugely important for democracy as the Republican candidate strongly denies that Biden won the White House fairly in 2020.
The Senate campaign has been particularly colourful and spicy.
Gaffes by Oz over the summer allowed his opponents to make hay. Fetterman supporters have tried to portray Oz as a wealthy out-of-touch elitist and a political carpetbagger who lived in New Jersey and has little or no connections to Pennsylvania. In a now famous video aimed at highlighting cost-of-living pressures, Oz said he wanted to get ingredients for his wife to make crudités. He picked up broccoli, asparagus and carrots, as well as guacamole and a tub of fresh salsa and focused on the cost.
“Guys, that’s $20 for crudités and this doesn’t include the tequila. This is outrageous and we’ve got Joe Biden to thank for this.”
Fetterman hit back saying: “In Pennsylvania, we call this a ... veggie tray.”
Oz has also been hit with allegations that animals were abused while he was a medical researcher, which his campaign has strongly denied.
The biggest issue Fetterman is facing is his health. Last summer he had a serious stroke and has been in recovery for several months. The Oz campaign has questioned whether Fetterman would be able to work as a senator. In a recent TV interview he used a closed-captioning device to read questions and has acknowledged that on occasion he misses words and “sometimes I’m going to mush two words together”.
At times Oz supporters took their questioning of Fetterman’s illness to such lengths that they appeared to be mocking his health. One Republican adviser said: “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a big stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.”
Fetterman has sought to turn his stroke into an advantage, highlighting that most people know someone who has had a serious illness and that this should not disbar them for working.
“I had a stroke. I survived it. I know politics can be nasty, but even then, I could never imagine ridiculing someone for their health challenges,” he said.
Fetterman’s doctor on Wednesday said the candidate was showing symptoms of “an auditory processing disorder which can come across as hearing difficulty” but had no work restrictions.
At the Italian restaurant in McMurray, Jim Lambe is on stage with a guitar — singing Irish songs and ballads — at the fundraiser for Chris Todd who is running for election to be a state representative
Lambe is the Irish honorary consul in western Pennsylvania. His brother Michael Lamb is the elected Pittsburg city controller — essentially the watchdog on how taxpayers’ money is spent — while his nephew is US congressman Conor Lamb, who lost out to Fetterman to be the Democratic Party nominee to run for the US Senate seat.
Michael Lamb tells The Irish Times that in Pennsylvania the candidate who is seen as the most centrist usually wins. He says Fetterman and Oz are pitching for that position and trying to paint their opponent as being more extreme.
He says the economy and rising prices are hurting Democrats in almost every contest and that if it had not been for the abortion ruling, the party would be “sunk”. He says abortion and the economy are battling each other and it remains to be seen which will have the largest impact on influencing the vote. On the doorsteps around Pittsburgh inflation has traction but “there are clearly people who are very strong about basic freedoms and women’s reproductive freedoms and it is a very forceful issue”.
At the University of Pennsylvania, professor of political science Daniel Hopkins says polls have for most part been indicating that Fetterman has a meaningful but not an insurmountable lead. He cautions that polls have to be taken with a grain of salt as in recent years they have tended “to underestimate Republican support rather significantly”.
Fetterman’s focus on where Oz has lived may seem trivial to outside observers. However, Hopkins says Pennsylvania is a state with a high proportion of people who were born there.
“Many, many voters have lived their lives in Pennsylvania and charges that someone is not from here could resonate more in Pennsylvania than in some other places.”
Over breakfast at a traditional American diner in the Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, David Hickton says that in midterm elections the party in power usually has to swim against the tide.
Hickton is a former US attorney in western Pennsylvania under the Obama administration — essentially the chief federal law enforcement officer — and director of the University of Pittsburgh institute for cyber law policy. He believes revelations about the January 6th attack on the US Capitol by supporters of Trump could have an impact on the elections.
“As each disclosure of the wanton disregard of our laws and norms around elections and the seditious conspiracy to stop the peaceful transfer of power, my sense is core Republicans in large numbers have become repulsed at the Trump Maga (make America great again) movement.
“Typically this type of election would be framed about do we need to have change. This has become a choice election about which vision of the country are we going to follow. Many mainstream centre-right and even right [wing] traditional republicans appear to be interested in sending a message that they still believe in the rule of law and if they do not make that stand now it may be harder to make it two years from now.”
Later, in a taxi back to Pittsburgh from the diner, the driver volunteers a very different perspective. He is deeply unhappy with the Biden administration. He says under Trump he was better off. At that time he could fill his car tank for about $30 but now it costs $50 to $60. Democrats, he says, are seeking to bribe voters “by offering them free stuff” — presumably a reference to initiatives such as Biden’s student debt relief scheme.
He launches into the host of conspiracy theories about how Biden could not have won the presidential election, repeating many of the talking points about fraud expressed by those on the extreme right.
Lamb says that one of the most effective lines of attack by Oz has been on crime. Essentially he has contended that Fetterman is soft on crime and has focused on his role as chair of the state’s board of pardons. Republicans have spent several million dollars on TV ads accusing the Democrat of “trying to get as many criminals out of prison as he can”.
The Oz campaign did not respond to request for an interview from The Irish Times. However last week it specifically accused Fetterman of lying “about his radical record of pardoning convicted first-degree murderers”.
It claimed he had endangered communities in Pennsylvania by putting killers back on the streets.
The Oz campaign also attacked Fetterman as being soft on drugs and on drug cartels. “We have seen a record amount of smuggling, drugs and crime in Pennsylvania. John Fetterman should look around and see what his disastrous policies are doing to our communities already, let alone what will happen if he succeeds in decriminalising heroin and fentanyl in PA. We need a leader who will crack down on cartels and criminals, not enable them. Dr Oz will support policies to secure our borders and stop the flow of drugs into the hands of Pennsylvanians.”
Nguyen reports that on the doorsteps the Republican crime ads are resonating with voters. She says people “have a lot of questions about John Fetterman” as well as wanting to talk about abortion and the cost of living.
“They are curious, they do not understand what they are seeing in the ads and it takes some time to explain what the real story is. The attack ads are saying he wants to let out all the criminals and that sort of thing.”
She says it is crazy, but the advertisements linking Fetterman to be soft on crime are hitting home.
The White House can read the polling numbers which suggests momentum is shifting back to the economy. However, the president still seems confident. Stopping to eat in Pittsburgh on Thursday lunchtime he ordered a Pitts-Burger sandwich and left a tip of $40 while discussing the campaigns.
How do you feel about the election?
“Will Democrats hold the Senate?”
“I think so. It ain’t over till it’s over.”