Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the unconventional, tattooed figure into whom Democrats poured their hopes of preserving their tenuous hold on the Senate, defeated Mehmet Oz to capture Pennsylvania’s Senate race on Tuesday, according to New York Times projections, flipping a seat that had been in Republican hands.
It was a huge victory for Democrats on a night that many expected would deliver a rebuke to the party nationally, as Republicans framed the midterms as a referendum on President Biden over high inflation, immigration and crime.
Mr. Fetterman, 53, suffered a near-fatal stroke in May, and returned to campaigning months later with hesitant, altered speech, while portraying himself as “fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down.”
He held off Dr. Oz, the former heart surgeon and celebrity TV host, who gave up a lucrative show, faced criticisms of carpetbagging and sought to woo politics-weary voters with a final promise of “balance” — even after a campaign that mocked Mr. Fetterman’s health and fanned fears of rising crime.
Democrats shoveled more than $100 million into the Fetterman race to capture the seat held by the retiring senator Pat Toomey. Democrats saw it as their best opportunity to add a Senate seat, in perennial battleground Pennsylvania, where Joseph R. Biden Jr. eked out victory two years ago on a tide of exhaustion over former President Donald J. Trump.
It was never a sure bet. Mr. Fetterman’s double-digit lead in polls over the summer steadily narrowed up until Election Day, when surveys showed the race was a dead heat.
It seems unlikely that an event some pundits predicted would be a turning point — the only debate between the candidates on Oct. 25 — played a large role. Surveys by major nonpartisan pollsters afterward showed no statistical differences from pre-debate polls.
For many voters, the debate was the first time they had heard Mr. Fetterman since his stroke, and the auditory processing issues he still experienced contributed to a rocky performance. He jumbled words and sounded halting or sometimes off-key. He opened by saying “Good night.”
Although he pointed to a letter from his doctor dated Oct. 15 testifying that he faced “no work restrictions” and would be able to serve in the Senate, Mr. Fetterman refused to release detailed medical records.
Dr. Oz dodged during the debate when asked if would vote for a 15-week national abortion ban. He said that he wanted “women, doctors, local political leaders” to set abortion rules in each state. Democrats jumped on the awkward formulation to suggest Dr. Oz would open the examining room to a county commissioner or state lawmaker.
The steady tightening of the race coincided with a barrage of attack ads against Mr. Fetterman on crime. They singled out his advocacy for clemency for a small number of long-incarcerated men convicted of murder.
Dr. Oz, over the same period, slowly consolidated Trump-centric voters who had been wary of his lateness to conservative positions on abortion and guns, and of his arm’s-length attitude toward Mr. Trump’s election denialism.
In the race’s final days, Dr. Oz, 62, pivoted to try to appeal to the small number of undecided voters. He called for “balance” and opposed “extremism.” In his final ad, he adopted the bedside charisma that had made “The Dr. Oz Show” a long-running success on daytime television. “I’m running for Senate to improve peoples’ lives; that’s what doctors do,” he said.
Mr. Fetterman countered by holding rallies on the Saturday before Election Day with former President Barack Obama, who tried to puncture Dr. Oz’s appeal with a reminder of dubious health advice he had offered on his show.
“If somebody is willing to peddle snake oil to make a buck, then he’s probably willing to sell snake oil to get elected,” Mr. Obama said. He warned that with Republicans in power, the country’s democratic pillars would tremble.