From the beginning, Mehmet Oz faced an uphill battle in the Pennsylvania Senate race, carrying so much baggage that even a gold-plated endorsement from Donald Trump did not guarantee a victory in the primary. The MAGA faithful were suspicious of his Hollywood background, his equivocation on culture war issues, and his reputation—not entirely undeserved—as a wealthy New Jersey carpetbagger. And for once, these were all things that moderates worried about, too. What self-respecting Pennsylvanian mixes up Redner’s and Wegmans, or misspells the name of the town he allegedly lives in, or forgets how many houses he owns out of state?
But over the past several weeks, and after some constructive criticism from at-their-wits-end G.O.P. powerbrokers, Oz has slowly closed the gap between himself and John Fetterman, his hulking, shorts-wearing, over-the-top authentically Pennsylvanian Democratic rival, to the point where he now trails Fetterman by only 2.3 percentage points, per FiveThirtyEight—solidly within the margin for a likely mini-red-wave election cycle where conservative candidates are expecting a rally to the upside. Republicans who were beginning to write off Oz have since rediscovered their faith. The Senate Leadership Fund, the Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC, and associated groups have been redirecting millions of dollars from New Hampshire into Pennsylvania in the final days of the campaign, funding a tidal wave of ads pummeling Fetterman as soft on crime.
On Tuesday night, of course, Oz caught his biggest break of all when he faced off with Fetterman for their first and only debate. Oz, a well-coiffed daytime television veteran, is a smooth talker even when his political instincts fall flat. But Oz, despite landing a handful of pre-baked performative talking points designed to neutralize Democratic attacks, didn’t need to win the debate so much as simply allow Fetterman to lose.