PHILADELPHIA — John Fetterman continues to lead Mehmet Oz in the polls, but the Pennsylvania Democrat’s Senate campaign is privately sounding the alarm that things could change if he continues getting outspent on TV.
In an internal memo on Tuesday to big-dollar donors, Fetterman campaign manager Brendan McPhillips warned that Oz and his Republican allies are together investing more in television ads than Fetterman and Democratic super PACs that support him.
“I am writing with a wake-up call,” said McPhillips in the message, which was obtained first by POLITICO. “In the last three weeks alone, Republicans have spent nearly $12 million dollars — significantly outspending us and out-communicating on the airwaves. We cannot allow this to continue unabated.”
Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, dominated the Senate contest over the summer, prompting Republicans to grow increasingly anxious about their chances of holding the seat. Fetterman led Oz in fundraising and won headlines for trolling the celebrity doctor over his ties to New Jersey. Fetterman also had the airwaves to himself for weeks when Oz went dark on TV following his hard-fought GOP primary win.
Recently, though, Republicans have poured millions into TV ads attacking Fetterman as soft on crime, a charge he has denied in his own commercials, pointing to his efforts to reduce homicides as mayor of a steel town.
And the GOP has indeed enjoyed an edge on TV in the last few weeks in Pennsylvania. An analysis of data from AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm, shows that the combined TV ad spending by Oz and GOP outside groups began overtaking the combined totals of Fetterman and Democratic allies on the week of Aug. 23. Republicans are on pace to outspend Democrats $24 million to $17 million between then and the first full week of October.
The GOP is also thumping Democrats in that period in terms of total ads aired, as well as the dollar amount spent on advertising, according to AdImpact. On the week of Oct. 4, however, Democrats have booked more on TV ads than Republicans — though new ad placements between now and then could change that.
Oz, a multimillionaire, is a self-funder and has a super PAC that’s backed him since the primary.
Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May, has come under intense pressure from Oz and the news media to commit to debates. In an interview with POLITICO last week, Fetterman promised to appear at one debate with Oz.
The Fetterman campaign isn’t alone in its concern about spending in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. Some state Democrats who are worried about the recent crush of GOP money are sharply questioning why Washington, D.C.-based Democratic super PACs aren’t emptying their wallets in the state.
“Democrats should be spending on this because they’re going to look like complete fools if they blow this race, because Fetterman’s done everything right and put it into play. And if they’re holding back on it because they’re spending money elsewhere or getting cocky or whatever, shame on them,” said Doc Sweitzer, a Pennsylvania Democratic media consultant. “So many of these Washington groups are dumber than a box of rocks.”
Fetterman is leading Oz by nearly 10 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s public polling average, though individual public polls in the last month have put Fetterman ahead by anywhere from 2 points to a scarcely believable 21 points.
However, McPhillips wrote in the donor message that the election is razor-thin in the Fetterman campaign’s internal polling, describing the numbers as showing “us neck and neck with Oz.”
Reached for comment, Joe Calvello, a spokesman for the Fetterman campaign, said the memo “speaks for itself.”
Asked about the concerns from Fetterman’s camp and other Pennsylvania Democrats, a top Democratic super PAC reiterated that it is investing in the race.
“As we head into the final stretch, we’re making sure that voters continue to see Oz for what he truly is — a self-serving fraud from New Jersey who’s trying to buy a Senate seat,” said Veronica Yoo, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority PAC.
Democrats remain optimistic about the Pennsylvania Senate race, and Fetterman’s campaign is partly seeking to raise money and, perhaps, lower expectations. In the Fetterman memo, McPhillips said that “we’ve surpassed 1 million individual donations and packed venues in red and blue counties across the state,” but “[f]alse attacks on John’s record threaten to drown out our message.”
The closely watched contest could determine party control of the Senate next year.
Despite historical trends favoring the party out of power in midterm elections, political forecasters have described the national battle for the Senate as a toss-up or even favoring Democrats, in part because of weak GOP nominees. Oz has been criticized as a flawed candidate due to his problems uniting the Republican base.
The Supreme Court ruling ending the national right to abortion also improved Democrats’ political standing across the country this summer.
But Democrats have long expected the race to become closer in Pennsylvania, a perennial swing state where the last two presidential elections have been decided by about 1 percentage point or less.
Democrats also anticipated that a wave of Republican money, including from the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, would turn a number of battleground Senate contests more competitive after Labor Day.
Earlier this week, Rick Scott, chair of the Senate Republican campaign arm, announced at a Senate GOP luncheon that an internal poll conducted in Wisconsin now showed incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson leading Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes by 4 percentage points.
A public poll released on Wednesday also showed Johnson with an advantage, though by a slimmer margin. Previous public surveys had found Barnes in the front.