You might have expected the Pennsylvania Senate race to provide a glimmer of optimism in an ugly political landscape.
Just consider how unusual the parameters of the race were from the outset: A two-term senator retires, leaving a vacant seat in one of the country's bellwether states at a time when the Senate is split 50/50. Both major political parties see their preferred candidates go down in flames in the primaries as voters flock to anti-establishment choices. Since the race is one of the most important in the country, suddenly, two political outsiders have a national stage from which to broadcast new ideas and solutions.
Almost sounds inspiring.
Compared to what it could have been, the Pennsylvania Senate contest between former coal-town mayor John Fetterman and TV doctor Mehmet Oz is easily the most disappointing in this cycle. Worse, perhaps, it's also become the stupidest. Both campaigns have been relentlessly negative, with neither Fetterman nor Oz doing much to establish a positive argument for their candidacy.
Just look at the opening moments of last month's debate between the two. In response to the first question from moderator Dennis Owens—"What qualifies you to be a U.S. senator?"—Fetterman did not offer a single complete sentence to justify his place on the ballot before attacking Oz. "I'm running to serve Pennsylvania; he's running to use Pennsylvania," Fetterman said before accusing Oz of lying in television ads and during the debate (a debate that had literally just started).
Opening and closing statements are probably the most carefully scripted part of any political debate—and that's doubly true in Fetterman's case, as he's still recovering from a stroke and noticeably struggled in more impromptu moments—and yet that's all you've got?
Oz did no better. "I'm running for the U.S. Senate because Washington keeps getting it wrong with extreme positions," he said, before quickly flipping the switch. "John Fetterman takes everything to an extreme, and those extreme positions hurt us all."
If you're keeping count, that's three mentions of "extreme" in about 30 words. Reader, that's no accident. For weeks, Republican attack ads have been organized around the vacuous idea that Fetterman is too "extreme" for Pennsylvania. "Since Labor Day, Republicans have spent at least $5 million on television ads portraying Fetterman as a far-left radical who wants to let criminals out of jail," The New York Times reported last month. One ad sponsored by MAGA Inc., a Trump-aligned group, says Fetterman "wants ruthless killers, muggers, and rapists back on our streets, and he wants them back now."
All that is pegged to Fetterman's support during his one term as the state's lieutenant governor for streamlining the state's clemency process—with a focus on granting pardons and commutations to nonviolent drug offenders. It's ridiculous to equate that with turning rapists loose on helpless suburban families.
Ads backing Fetterman, the candidate in the race who has a bit of a political record to run on and a semi-interesting personal story, have gone sharply negative as well. One accuses Oz of "selling fake medical cures." Lots of them focus on the fact that Oz is a carpetbagger from New Jersey who hasn't spent much time in the state he wants to represent. And how many campaigns involve one candidate literally accusing the other of being "a puppy killer"?
In fairness, both Fetterman and Oz are rich targets for negative ads. Some of them have even been pretty clever, like the one that inserts Oz into The Wizard of Oz. Through mid-October, the Pennsylvania Senate race was the most expensive in the country for outside groups. More than $98 million has been dumped into ads in the state, according to Open Secrets, which tracks political spending.
"They've been overwhelmingly negative and targeted at the other candidate and their liabilities: Oz as a Hollywood outsider, Fetterman as an uber-progressive, extreme liberal," says Chris Borick, a professor of political science and head of the polling project at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
But it remains notable that neither campaign has a lot to work with when it comes to selling a positive message. Remember Oz's attempt to look like a normal person who definitely goes to a grocery store with regularity? Yikes. In response to criticism, Oz's campaign released an official statement suggesting that if Fetterman had "ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn't have had a major stroke." Double yikes.
Fetterman, meanwhile, stuffs loads of personality into his iconic black hoodie but has never been much of an ideas-driven politician. His campaign website contains the usual progressive pablum about Pennsylvanians "getting ripped off by corporate greed" and promises a "five-point plan to fix our economy and hold Washington accountable." The first item on that list: "Make more sh*t in America." So edgy.
In the wake of the stroke Fetterman suffered just before the primary election in May, there's been an understandable focus on his health. That was underlined by Fetterman's shaky debate performance last month. But the relentlessly negative tone of this campaign was established long before the debate and has little to do with Fetterman's health.
Even though Fetterman had a big lead in polls taken throughout the summer, there was always an obvious opening for Oz to stage a comeback, with or without the stroke.
"Most Fetterman voters said they liked Fetterman. Most Oz voters said…they didn't like Fetterman," The Washington Post's Philip Bump wrote in September as he dissected a YouGov poll. "That's a great example of negative partisanship: casting a vote not for a candidate but against one. This tendency was enormously useful for Democrats in the past two election cycles, with the party gaining a majority after 2018 and the White House after 2020 largely because Americans were frustrated with Donald Trump. Now, it's probably helping keep Oz afloat."
Oz was not particularly popular among Pennsylvania Republicans when the race started—he won a seven-way primary with a mere 31 percent of the vote after former President Donald Trump's endorsed candidate dropped out due to domestic abuse allegations. And Fetterman's attacks about Oz being out of touch and from out of state were obviously meant to keep him unacceptable in the eyes of many Republicans.
But the intensity of negative partisanship seems to have swung around in Oz's favor over the past month.
"Negative partisanship—the fear of the opposition—is drawing people back to their party. And I think Oz has really rested his case on that dynamic, and we see it in our polling," Borick says. Compared to earlier polls, the shift has been noteworthy. Oz has focused on making Fetterman unacceptable to Republicans to such a degree that they overlook his inadequacies.
"I think it has worked," Borick says. "For lots of Republicans, he's not their cup of tea…yet he gets 90-plus percent of Republicans in our polling saying they're going to vote for him."
In other words, the lack of a positive argument from either candidate is deliberate. It might even be the smart move, albeit a deeply cynical one.
This is the dead end of negative partisanship. Oz is not well-liked even within his party and has done little to make the case for why he'd be an effective or useful U.S. senator. But he's got a good shot at winning anyway.
It's a scenario that cries out for alternative choices. Unfortunately, the spirit of zero-sum politics tries to erase those too. Everett Stern, an independent candidate mounting a write-in campaign, had polled as high as 3 percent, but he dropped out last month to endorse Fetterman's flagging effort. Libertarian candidate Erick Gerhardt says there's no way he'll drop out, but he's been excluded from debates and most polls.
"As long as they keep toeing the two-party system, it's never going to really change," Gerhardt, a 37-year-old master carpenter from Montgomery County, tells Reason. "And they're always going to be fighting each other for power. We need third parties in there. We need more voices in there."
Still, the vast majority of Pennsylvanians who vote on Tuesday will cast ballots for Fetterman or Oz. Neither man seems to have proven that he is deserving or capable of being a potential tie-breaking vote on issues affecting all Americans for the next six years. But one of them will win, largely by not being the other guy.
In our current political moment, that's good enough. For the country, it's not good at all.