September 5, 2022

Catch up on the Fetterman vs. Oz race, Rep. Perry’s brush with the FBI and more

Pennsylvanians had no shortage of political news this summer, as Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Dr. Mehmet Oz began facing off in a critical Senate race and the ongoing Jan. 6 investigation revealed new information about a York County congressman.

But don’t worry if you’re lost when someone mentions “crudité” or U.S. Rep. Scott Perry’s cellphone. Here’s a quick rundown of this summer’s political happenings and a look at what the fall might have in store:

Perry’s Italian satellite conspiracy

Evidence presented to the Jan. 6 panel this summer has uncovered more about Rep. Scott Perry’s involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

For instance, an aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told the House select committee that Perry requested a presidential pardon after the riot at the Capitol. The York County Republican has denied he sought a pardon for himself or for any other member of Congress, an assertion he repeated to reporters late last month.

“I don’t know how many times I can unequivocally say no,” he said.

Insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump breach the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Perry also said that to his knowledge no one else asked former President Donald Trump for a pardon on his behalf.

The committee investigating the Capitol attack subpoenaed Perry in May, but he has refused to appear for questioning. He has derided the committee as an “illegitimate body” and accused it of carrying out a “political witch hunt.”

However, the committee has reviewed evidence that Perry was pushing various conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, including trying to convince White House officials that the Italians were using satellites to tamper with the vote count. The congressman also claimed “the Brits” were running an operation to interfere with voting, according to his text messages to Meadows. 

Others have testified about Perry’s efforts to introduce Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official, to Trump and other White House officials. Clark became an important ally to the former president in his attempt to reverse the 2020 election results.

The New York Times has reported that Perry supported ousting the acting attorney general and elevating Clark to the head of the Justice Department

Perry told reporters last month that he remains worried about election integrity.

“I think that many people in our community have concerns about their confidence in the election and the integrity of our elections, and rightly so,” he said. “As their representative, those questions need to be answered.”

FBI seizes Perry’s phone

Perry was back in the news in early August when he reported that FBI agents had seized his cellphone while he was traveling with his family. 

The law enforcement officers were executing a search warrant, but Perry later said his attorneys were assured by the agency that the congressman was not the subject of their investigation. A source has told the Washington Post the seizure was part of a criminal inquiry into the attempt to override Trump’s 2020 election loss

The cellphone seizure took place a day after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida estate. 

President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, on August 26, 2022, in Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo: GREG LOVETT/THE PALM BEACH POST)

Speaking to reporters at a Harrisburg event later in August, Perry echoed Trump in accusing federal law enforcement of carrying out a politically motivated inquiry.

“There’s absolutely nothing I can do about the overreach and the abuse of power by the Biden administration,” he said, adding that he’s instead going to focus on fighting inflation and supply chain issues.

He continued by saying the rank-and-file in the FBI are generally hardworking and well-meaning but said he has questions about some of the organization’s leaders.

“Obviously, I have concerns, and I think that we will take a look at that,” he said. 

In late August, Perry filed a lawsuit to block federal agents from looking at his cellphone’s contents. His attorneys contended that the phone contains privileged information and that the FBI should not be given free rein to explore the data.

More:12 things to know about U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, who is a focus of the Jan. 6 probe

Justin Buchler, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said he’s curious what investigators will continue to learn about Perry’s actions around the 2020 election and what will come of the FBI inquiry. But regardless of what happens, he suspects the congressman isn’t in any danger of losing reelection in November.

“Within the Republican electorate, no amount of legal jeopardy will hurt him. In fact, it helps him,” Buchler said. “And in most congressional districts, including Perry’s, that means he does not really have electoral concerns.”

Fetterman’s stroke recovery

Fetterman, the Democratic nominee in the Pennsylvania race for U.S. Senate, has been off the campaign trail for most of the summer as he recuperates from a life-threatening stroke.

The candidate has said he started feeling unwell while campaigning and that his wife, Gisele Fetterman, pressed him to seek medical treatment. Following the May 13 stroke, Fetterman spent more than a week in the hospital, where doctors implanted a pacemaker to help manage a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. 

The Democrat later acknowledged that he “should have taken my health more seriously.”

“Like so many others, and so many men in particular, I avoided going to the doctor, even though I knew I didn’t feel well,” Fetterman said in a statement. “As a result, I almost died.”

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman speaks to supporters inside the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie on Aug. 12, 2022. It was Fetterman's first campaign event since suffering a stroke on May 13.

His campaign released a letter written by his doctor, who said he diagnosed Fetterman with irregular heart rhythm in 2017 and told the candidate to exercise more and make dietary changes. 

The cardiologist also gave him a prescription and advised him to come back for a followup visit, but Fetterman stopped taking the medication and didn’t return for another checkup until the stroke, according to the letter. 

“The prognosis I can give for John’s heart is this: if he takes his medications, eats healthy, and exercises, he’ll be fine,” the cardiologist wrote. “If he does what I’ve told him to do, and I do believe he is taking his recovery and his health very seriously this time, he should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem.”

Oz, the Republican nominee in the race, has hammered his opponent for not making public appearances, accusing him of hiding in his basement. The GOP campaign even launched an online “basement tracker” that kept count of how many days the Democrat had been sidelined. 

More:John Fetterman, US Senate nominee, holds rally in Erie. First event since stroke in May

Fetterman held a comeback rally in Erie in mid-August and has spoken at a few other public events since then. 

Still, the Oz campaign is criticizing Fetterman for not taking questions from the press at these gatherings and for not, as of yet, agreeing to any debates during the general election season. 

But Buchler says he doesn’t suspect that line of attack will do much damage to Fetterman’s candidacy. 

“Debates for the most part just don’t matter,” he said. “Most people don’t watch debates, and the few people who do watch debates tend to be committed partisans.”

The meme wars

The Senate candidates have gotten a lot of attention for trolling each other during the summer, both of them using memes and online jokes to jab at each other’s weaknesses. 

Buchler sees this as evidence of “negative partisanship,” or the idea that people get more excited about bashing an opposing political party than supporting their own. 

“When we observe campaigns that are more about trolling than anything else, that looks like a manifestation of negative partisanship,” he said. 

Fetterman’s attacks have largely focused on questions about Oz’s residency. 

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz leads a roundtable discussion focused on agriculture, small businesses and the Pennsylvania economy at Mobilia Fruit Farm in North East Township on June 14, 2022.

After living for about three decades in New Jersey, the cardiothoracic surgeon says he relocated to Pennsylvania and started renting his in-laws’ Bryn Athyn home in late 2020. He’s since purchased a home nearby but has not yet moved in, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

The recent move has given Fetterman fodder to portray his opponent as a carpetbagger who has no real understanding of Pennsylvania. 

Fetterman has enlisted New Jersey celebrities, including musician and “Sopranos” actor Steven Van Zandt, to help heckle Oz. In a video that Fetterman posted online, Van Zandt asks the Republican what he’s doing in Pennsylvania.

“Everybody knows you live in New Jersey and you’re just using your in-laws’ address over there,” Van Zandt says. “And you do not want to mess around with John Fetterman. Trust me.”

Fetterman’s campaign has also tried to get Oz inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame and flew a banner plane above the Jersey Shore to welcome the physician home. 

Oz’s online trolling, on the other hand, has tried to depict Fetterman as a slouch who’s hiding at home rather than campaigning. In one move, the Republican rolled out a “basement bum” website that featured a photoshopped image of Fetterman’s face on the body of a shirtless man lounging in front of the television. 

The GOP campaign has also launched online attacks against Fetterman for getting financial support from his parents well into adulthood and has tried to characterize him as a far-left radical. One Oz video captioned “what’s in Fetterman’s head” includes an animation of the Democrat’s head swinging open and releasing a bong, high gas prices and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

More:Oz talks to farmers about U.S. Senate campaign during Erie County stop

But the Republican candidate has also played into Fetterman’s hand online, bearing the brunt of widespread internet mockery for a viral campaign video in which he was supposedly shopping for vegetables to make a “crudité.” Fetterman and other internet users blasted Oz for using a fancy term like “crudité” while trying to sound like an everyman and for botching the name of the grocery store where he was shopping.  

Fetterman has been outperforming Oz in recent polls and also has a fundraising advantage in the critical contest that will help decide which party has a U.S. Senate majority. Even former President Donald Trump, who endorsed the celebrity doctor, has privately predicted he would lose, according to Rolling Stone. 

But while many onlookers say Fetterman’s campaign has the momentum, GOP strategist Vince Galko predicts the polling gap between the candidates will narrow moving into the fall. 

“Oz is going to have the resources, and outside groups will come in to help tighten that,” he said.

Abortion rights on the PA ballot?

Pennsylvania lawmakers in July pushed forward a package of proposed constitutional amendments, including one on abortion rights. 

Republicans in the General Assembly advanced the proposal in the late-night hours just before the beginning of their summer recess, raising concerns over a lack of due process. 

One of the changes would stipulate that “there is no constitutional right to taxpayer-funded abortion or other right relating to abortion,” a provision that could pave the way for further efforts to restrict or eliminate the procedure.

Another of the proposed constitutional amendments would require voters to present identification when casting their ballots, while another would call for audits of each election. 

The Pennsylvania Capitol is shown in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.

Yet another proposed change would allow gubernatorial candidates to select their running mates. And finally, the package of amendments would give Pennsylvania lawmakers more power to reject regulations put forward by the executive branch.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has sued the Legislature to block the proposed constitutional changes, claiming lawmakers can’t package together amendments on vastly different topics.

The governor does not have the power to veto the amendments, but the package of proposed changes still has to clear the Legislature during a second successive session to appear on the ballot. The next legislative session begins in January.

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