Voices: Did the primaries help John Fetterman and doom Mandela Barnes?

Pennsylvania lieutenant governor John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for the state’s US Senate seat (AP)
Pennsylvania lieutenant governor John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for the state’s US Senate seat (AP)

Two new polls dropped on Wednesday showing how things stand in the Senate races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Democrats have their two best shots at flipping seats. But they also revealed something about how the primaries in both states set the stage for what’s happening now.

The two surveys showed the Democrats headed in opposite directions. Where CBS News’s Pennsylvania poll showed Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman still leading Republican Mehmet Oz 52 per cent to 47, a survey from Marquette University Law School found that Wisconsin Democratic nominee Mandela Barnes’s seven-point lead over Republican Senator Ron Johnson has eroded, with Johnson now leading the race 49 to 48 per cent.

Fetterman is holding up in Pennsylvania despite an onslaught of Republican attacks. At one point, Dr Oz’s campaign even claimed Fetterman was using the stroke he suffered earlier this year as an excuse to avoid debates. Meanwhile, former president Donald Trump and other Republicans have pummeled him for supposedly being soft on crime.

Even though the poll showed that Pennsylvanians consider gas prices and crime their top issues – which logically should help Republicans, given they’re out of power – a whopping 67 per cent believe that Dr Oz has not been in Pennsylvania long enough to understand the issues. A mere 24 per cent believe he has the right experience for the job, as opposed to 56 per cent who give the same credit to Fetterman – who after all is both a former mayor and the current lieutenant governor. And Dr Oz’s mockery of his post-stroke recovery seems wide of the mark, with 59 per cent of Pennsylvania registered voters believing he is healthy enough to serve. All of this comes as Fetterman announced that he will debate the TV doctor on October 25.

Barnes’ prospects in Wisconsin make quite a contrast. Charles Franklin, who runs Marquette’s poll – perhaps the most credible survey in Wisconsin – pointed to a shift among independents in Johnson’s favor. But he also said that Barnes “faced very little criticism during the Democratic primary”, something that has changed since the general election got underway.

And this might be the differentiating factor. Despite the fact that Fetterman stomped his Democratic primary opponents Representative Conor Lamb and state legislator Malcolm Kenyatta, he still had to defend himself hard before he suffered his stroke – not least when his opponents hit him for a 2013 incident where he pulled a shotgun on an unarmed Black man. But after the primary, all was forgiven.

Incidentally, one of Fetterman’s biggest defenders for his use of captions in his upcoming debate is state legislator Jessica Benham, the first openly autistic state legislator in Pennsylvania who supported Kenyatta. Benham tweeted at your reporter and put it simply: “Primaries are Thanksgiving dinner…a little family bickering expected. General elections are like Steelers games…there’s only one right choice and we all know what it is.” She also said the way Fetterman handled his disability improved her confidence in how he would address it as a Senator.

Barnes was never forced to steel himself the same way. His Democratic primary challengers, among them county official Tom Nelson, state treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, all dropped out and endorsed him. They did so in part to avoid a contentious primary and focus more on defeating incumbent Trumpist Johnson – who, despite being stridently anti-vaccine and a notorious promoter of 2020 election lies, has avoided the same national ire earned by other Republicans in safer red states, like Marco Rubio or Lindsey Graham.

Once Barnes became the nominee, Republicans began laying into him for supposedly being soft on crime. The National Republican Senatorial Committee ran ads featuring him next to Squad members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

Both Fetterman and Barnes released ads pushing back on the soft-on-crime attack. But where Fetterman’s ad framed Dr Oz and his “Gucci loafers” as ill-placed to understand crime when compared to a candidate who funded the police while serving as mayor of the hardened steel town of Braddock, Barnes ran an ad that simply said “That’s a lie”, insisting that he did not want to defund the police or abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement – before simply pivoting back to his agenda.

Let’s also be completely frank: However much the primaries and the aftermath have shaped the candidates’ images, Republicans were always going to struggle to lump Fetterman in with the Squad simply because he is white. Barnes is Black – and it seems the attacks may be working.

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