Senate Democrats are standing by Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in his bid to become the state’s next senator amid looming questions about his health after he had a stroke in May.
In public appearances since then, Mr. Fetterman has stuttered and struggled to find words, including in his first one-on-one TV interview since his stroke. Because of auditory processing difficulties resulting from the stroke, Mr. Fetterman used closed captioning technology to translate interview questions into words on a screen.
Critics, including Republican opponent Mehmet Oz, question his ability to serve in the Senate. But Senate Democrats on Wednesday tried to reassure voters he’s fit for the job.
“I was on the phone with him yesterday and had a long conversation with him,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. “John is ready for this job. It’s true that he is going through rehabilitation, and he’s making great progress. Physically, he feels he’s 100%. And when it comes to expressing himself, he’s making progress every day. He’s ready for the Senate.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal also vouched for the candidate’s health, saying he sees “no difficulty” in Mr. Fetterman’s ability to serve with auditory processing issues.
“I think he is perfectly capable of serving as a United States senator,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “I’m not posing as a medical expert, so I don’t know what medical treatment he has received. But people have routinely recovered from the kind of incident that he endured, and I think he will be a very responsible and effective United States senator.”
In the sit-down interview with NBC News that aired Tuesday, Mr. Fetterman pushed back against those who question whether he’ll be up for the gig.
“I feel like I’m gonna get better and better — every day. And by January, I’m going [to] be much better,” he said. “And Dr. Oz is still going to be a fraud.”
The NBC reporter who interviewed Mr. Fetterman, Dasha Burns, said it “wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation” in talks with the candidate without closed captioning.
“That auditory processing barrier — I’ll hear someone speaking, but sometimes to be precise on what exactly they’re saying, I use captioning,” he said.
“I always thought I was pretty empathetic — emphatic? I think I was very — excuse me, empathetic. That’s an example of the stroke,” Mr. Fetterman continued. “I always thought I was very empathetic before having a stroke, but now after having that stroke, I really understand much more of the challenges that Americans have day in and day out.”
Election forecasters give the edge to Mr. Fetterman, but he has seen his lead shrink in recent weeks to a neck-and-neck race with Mr. Oz, a TV celebrity doctor who has the backing of former President Donald Trump.
The Republican criticized Mr. Fetterman for being soft on crime and made his health status a focus in the tightening race that could determine which party controls of the upper chamber.
Mr. Oz accused Mr. Fetterman last week of “hiding and trying to run the clock out” by scaling back public appearances, rebuffing calls to release current medical records and only agreeing to a first debate later this month. The two will square off on Oct. 25 under the condition that Mr. Fetterman can use his closed captioning monitor.
“Fetterman’s health is certainly concerning,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said. “Transparency is always good, even if it’s damaging information. I think voters appreciate transparency.”
Hank Sheinkopf, also a Democratic strategist, likewise said Mr. Fetterman’s condition “doesn’t look good and it doesn’t help him at all” because it gives oxygen to “talking about personal issues rather than national issues.”
Both strategists warned that if Mr. Oz and Republicans overplay Mr. Fetterman’s condition, it could backfire by drumming up voter sympathy.
The White House is also standing firmly behind Mr. Fetterman. President Biden will host a fundraiser for him in Philadelphia next week, according to CNBC.
President Biden’s digital director, Rob Flaherty, took a shot at reporters who have questioned the candidate’s health.
“I mean, would reporters cover a deaf person this way? Or a blind person?” he tweeted. “Or is this kind of sneering reserved only for people who have had strokes?”