meIt’s no secret that Americans don’t much like what’s going on in Washington right now. Some 41% of voters don’t think their representative deserves another term, Gallup found in July. Before the 1994 midterms, a similar poll found 28% of voters saying the same thing, just before the Democrats took a beating.
With just two months to go until Election Day and just weeks before early voting windows open in some states, Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that the final sprint is likely to be won or lost depending not on the great pronouncements on politics, but rather of the ephemeral. for which no campaign prepares. So it’s up to voters to decide for themselves what makes for a credible campaign issue and what’s just a curiosity that might be fun to send out to your neighborhood group chats.
In other words, voters get to decide what’s important, and their discernment could mean choosing a fun person, or getting rid of a boring one, instead of someone who can actually deliver.
Take, for example, the Senate race taking place in Pennsylvania to replace Senator Pat Toomey, who is resigning after 12 years in the Senate and six in the House. A messy Republican primary delivered the nominee for Dr. Mehmet Oz, a former heart surgeon turned TV personality who had the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman; a more innovative character would be hard to spot in his electoral field this year, as captured by TIME’s Charlotte Alter in her profile of Fetterman in May, before a stroke curtailed his campaign schedule and forced him to skip the first debate. .
Both sides have a lot of dirt on their rivals. Oz has faced questions about where he resides, how many houses he owns and his unclear positions on abortion when rape or incest are factors. Fetterman deserves his own take on his claims to support unrestricted abortion rights in a state where such access enjoys an all-time high but has yet to reach the majority. Fetterman’s endorsement of Medicare for All and an increase in the number of refugees admitted to the United States also deserve scrutiny.
But in recent days, much of the debate has gone sideways in a big way. After Fetterman, still recovering from his stroke, turned down an invitation to a debate, Oz appeared to mock his opponent’s health problems; he’s not a good look for someone trying to game his experience in the healthcare system. Meanwhile, Trump unleashed a truly bizarre line of attack against Fetterman during a Saturday rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, accusing the Democrat without evidence of being a drug addict. Trump also poked fun at Fetterman’s admittedly casual wardrobe: “He arrives in a tracksuit. I’ve never seen him wear a suit. A dirty, dirty, dirty tracksuit. It’s really disgusting,” Trump said. (As Fetterman lamented to TIME in May: “If I wear a suit, I get shit; if I wear shorts, I get shit.”)
Now, before anyone begins to think that this is an example of Republicans alone taking the cheap shot, play the tape a few days earlier, when what one calls chopped vegetables became a topic of political debate. In April, Oz recorded a video from an imaginary supermarket called by Wegner, apparently merging Wegmans and Redners, two existing stores. In the produce section, Oz lamented the price of fresh vegetables as he picked up ingredients for the “crudité” for his wife. Fetterman derided his opponent as an elitist in a state where most would call him a “vegetable platter.”
A ridiculous fight? Probably. But the Senate is already tied at 50-50, and even the most gradual moves could spell victory or disaster for the rest of Biden’s first term. If Republicans win just one Senate seat, they will be able to stymie Biden’s agenda on everything except nominees and budgets, though on the latter they can be creative in their stumbling block, especially if they have a compliant MP. Which means that a truly competitive race like Pennsylvania can get very intense, very quickly.
Ultimately, voters can decide what to ignore and what to consider as an indicator of the candidate’s character. When Mitt Romney ran for the White House in 2008, critics of him did not stop bringing up the story of how he tied his dog’s cage to the roof of the family car while they were driving north on vacation. When the dog got sick, Romney simply hosed the dog off the roof and the family continued on their journey. To Romney’s critics, it was a sign of his ruthless rapprochement with a member of the four-legged family, while to Romney’s own children, who shared the story with The Boston Balloon for a profile from 2007, it was proof of its efficiency. For aides to both of Romney’s presidential bids, it was a source of unending frustration.
The same thing happened with Hillary Clinton’s legal use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State. Her critics saw just another example of why the former First Lady and Senator could not be trusted as she ran for the White House a second time on her behalf. Voters decided it mattered, even if the Justice Department didn’t; when the margin is so small, such issues can resonate more than either candidate’s actual views on the issues. “But the emails from her!” she became a proxy for voters looking for a reason to reject Clinton for any reason beyond her gender. As president, neither Romney nor Clinton would likely do much in the areas of pet transport or email, but they mattered at the time.
Which brings the microcosm of this election to Pennsylvania. Fetterman has been incredibly absent from the road, and understandably so. Skipping a debate is not a choice taken lightly. Republicans are beginning to question Fetterman’s suitability for the job, a dangerous move that rarely works, but can. However, they are also poking at his clothes and imagined drug use. And instead of criticizing Oz as a rug hoarder beholden to Trump, Fetterman’s team raised more than $1 million from an evil produce aisle vampire.
To be clear, voters get to choose what matters. But both sides seem determined to steer the conversation away from the things lawmakers are hired to do, like navigating a world in which federal abortion rights no longer exist, economic policy affects everyday life, and budgets still need to be allocated. a lot of dollars for infrastructure. Instead, they’re talking about the weird, like what to call vegetables and the merits of hoodies. Voters can decide their ballots based on either, but they must also be prepared for what happens if neither Senator Hoodie nor Senator Crudité can deliver on what they really want from their elected officials.
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