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Sidelined by a health scare, Fetterman readies a return to the Senate campaign trail

The campaign of Pennsylvania Democratic U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman says the candidate, who's seen here on May 10, is set to soon return to the campaign trail after suffering a stroke.
Michael M. Santiago
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The campaign of Pennsylvania Democratic U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman says the candidate, who's seen here on May 10, is set to soon return to the campaign trail after suffering a stroke.

It was a careful step back into the spotlight for Pennsylvania Democratic U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman.

Sidelined for two months by a minor stroke suffered just days before the primary in May, Fetterman walked into a campaign office in Pittsburgh last Saturday, surprising a couple dozen volunteers there for a weekend training session.

They stood and cheered the sight of the candidate they hope can flip a Republican-held Senate seat in November. In a political environment that's expected to be difficult for Democrats, they know the task will be difficult, and a healthy Fetterman is important to accomplish that goal.

There were no reporters in the room to witness the moment. Visual evidence came in the form of a short campaign video shared by Fetterman later that day.

In the clip, the candidate enters the room with his wife Gisele (who filled in for him with a rousing speech at his primary night victory party in May). Fetterman is wearing his usual — and now well known — campaign attire of basketball shorts, sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt.

Not using a microphone, he shouts out, "It's incredibly special to be back here in this room with all of you." Fetterman looks healthy, though his voice is not quite as booming as it was during primary campaigning earlier in the year.

He does appear to choke up a bit as he talks of what he's been through.

"I gotta tell you, it was nearly, almost was the end of my life." He then adds, "And it's totally changed my life since then."

While Fetterman was hospitalized, he acknowledged that in 2017 he'd been diagnosed with a heart condition — atrial fibrillation. But he largely ignored it and hadn't seen his doctor in the past five years. His current doctors said that condition is what led to his latest health troubles in May.

Now, as Fetterman's team says he plans to return to in-person campaigning, it comes as issues such as abortion rights and gun violence have taken on a new intensity.

Stroke sparked concerns among Democrats

Fetterman's health scare roiled the Senate race, in which he's running against Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz — a first-time candidate better known as the daytime television personality. Oz has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, and won the GOP nomination by just a slim margin after a recount.

In the days and weeks after Fetterman's stroke, his supporters wondered what it would mean, both for him and for the election.

Greg Boulware, 43, a city worker in Philadelphia, told NPR last month, "Oh, that was a little scary. Like, it was day to day, getting different news bits about what was going on." There were more questions than answers, he added: "Whether he would maintain in the race. Whether he would drop out. What was going to happen?"

But another Fetterman voter in Philadelphia, 63-year-old IT worker Carlton Sampson, had no such worries. "I got a heart condition too, so, it's like it makes me feel even closer to him," he said, laughing. "You know, means he's mortal too."

But Sampson did advise Fetterman to follow his doctor's advice.

The candidate — who has now had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted — is known as an energetic, unconventional campaigner. He's a Democrat who spends a lot of time in union halls, family restaurants and VFW posts shaking hands and having conversations in rural Pennsylvania — a part of the state often referred to as Trump Country. He's a former small town mayor with a blue-collar vibe — though his resume also includes an MBA and a master's degree in public policy from Harvard.

Abortion and guns rise as campaign issues

The coming months will determine if voters see his health as an issue. But while he's been recuperating, other major issues have come to the fore in the election.

Top among them are the horrific mass shootings of recent months, and abortion rights following the Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Polling shows that Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly support legal abortion, which means the court's decision could motivate more moderate voters to back Fetterman, who pledges to end the Senate legislative filibuster to codify Roe into law. Oz, meanwhile, has praised the court's ruling.

That said, economic anxiety and soaring inflation still top the list of voter concerns in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Add in President Biden's dismal job approval ratings and Oz is counting on voters holding Democrats accountable.

Berwood Yost, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, says pocketbook issues are not likely to fade in importance in the state. So that's seen as good news for Republicans.

"The economy and President Biden's performance are both at the same place they were in May during the primary," Yost said. "And so the foundational issues that are shaping this campaign have stayed in place."

What isn't known is just how potent abortion and gun violence will be in motivating voters.

"We've never had a circumstance in a midterm election where an established fundamental right has been rescinded by the court," Yost said, referring to abortion. "So we don't really know what it means."

While recovering from his health incident, Fetterman has been using abortion rights and the need for stronger gun regulations to try to drive interest among suburban voters, who often make the difference in the closely divided state.

Democratic activists across Pennsylvania are already doing the same. Heather Isbell Schumacher, 38, works as an archivist and lives in Delaware County outside Philadelphia. She says the abortion ruling makes things especially urgent. Her focus is on both the Senate and gubernatorial races.

"We have to hold the line in Pennsylvania," she said. "To me, this is holding the line, protecting a basic right."

She said she sees what's already happening in states around the country, where strict anti-abortion laws have already kicked in. She pointed to a place she once called home: "I lived in Texas for many years. I have family still there. I honestly feel like if we don't elect these two Democrats [in Pennsylvania], are we going to be Texas? That's scary."

Fetterman's campaign stresses that he'll keep talking about his plans for the economy, as well as for abortion rights and gun violence. For the past two months he's continued doing just that on social media and in op-ed pieces in local newspapers.

His campaign won't say exactly when he'll start doing events for the general public, offering only that it'll likely be in the next week or two.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.