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After summer of memes, voters yearn for substance in Pennsylvania race for US Senate

LATROBE, Pa. — Barbara Griffin all but rolls her eyes when asked who she wants to represent Pennsylvania in the United States Senate.
This combination of photos shows Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Oct. 8, 2022, in York, Pa., left, and Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Sept. 23, 2022, in Allentown, Pa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Matt Rourke

LATROBE, Pa. — Barbara Griffin all but rolls her eyes when asked who she wants to represent Pennsylvania in the United States Senate. 

Her dog Romeo tugs on his leash as Griffin considers her options: Pennsylvania's hoodie-wearing Democratic lieutenant-governor, John Fetterman, or television celebrity and Donald Trump acolyte Dr. Mehmet Oz. 

"It's not much of a choice," says the 77-year-old one-time mayor of Latrobe, a former mining and steel town best known as the birthplace of Mr. Rogers, Arnold Palmer, the banana split and Rolling Rock lager. 

"They never want to talk about policy much at all," Griffin finally says. "All they ever seem to do is talk about each other." 

In Pennsylvania, the battle for control of the Senate has been all about trolling for votes — quite literally. Fetterman's campaign has gone all-in on using social media to depict his Republican rival as a political opportunist and snake oil salesman with deeper ties to New Jersey than the Keystone State. 

On Sunday, the Fetterman campaign posted a video calling Oz a phoney fan of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. Near the stadium where the Eagles defeated Dallas that night, a billboard delivered a stinging rebuke: "Dr. Oz is a Cowboys fan."

"He has no core and no real beliefs," Fetterman campaign manager Brendan McPhillips said in a statement. 

"He's a fair weather Pennsylvanian at best, and we can't trust him to stick around and be on our side when it's not in his own self-interest."

In places like Latrobe, where the aging husk of a once-burgeoning steel industry still looms large on the edge of town, people have largely given up on the prospect of hearing a hopeful vision from campaigners, Griffin said.

She recalled her own experiences on city council more than a decade ago, when councillors shouted over each other to be heard, ignoring all calls for decorum — an experience that soured her on politics for good. 

"I had Robert's Rules of Order sitting on my desk," Griffin said. "I'd say, 'If you want to speak, ask me, and I'll say yes.' But it didn't matter." 

Kristin Kanthak, a political-science professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said she expects the Senate campaigns in Pennsylvania to become more substantive as the Nov. 8 elections draw closer. 

But she acknowledged the risk of Fetterman — still recovering from a stroke he suffered in May — being branded as someone who'd rather make fun of his opponent than address the serious issues people in the state are facing. 

"It's hard to know when the sincerity is supposed to kick in," Kanthak said. 

"It's really difficult to run an election campaign that's based on really clever memes, and then turn around and say, 'I really sincerely care about people like you.' It's just hard, because people are feeling cynical."

That includes Elliott Pacini, a retired sociology professor who moved to Pittsburgh from San Diego earlier this summer with his wife, a practising obstetrician. 

"When you think about how celebrity plays out and that cult of personality — it's formulaic," said Pacini, who has a Fetterman sign on his lawn. 

"I like his policy ideas; that's why I support him. But I do hate that it's, like, lowball politics, mudslinging, instead of actually talking about what they would do in the job, which is what I would rather hear myself." 

Oz, for his part, spelled out his own strategy Monday during an event with campaign volunteers and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. Talk about three things, Oz said: the economy, drugs and crime. 

All three are aimed at exploiting deep-seated dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden and the long-standing pattern of midterm voters opting to punish the party in the White House.

"Here's the basic question: 'Are you happy with the way America is headed?' That's the only question you have to give voters, friends, colleagues — whoever you're going to call — to focus on," Oz told supporters. 

"The only thing Joe Biden ever built back better is the Republican party." 

Thanks in large measure to Biden, whose approval ratings were plumbing new depths earlier this year, Democrats were never supposed to be contenders in any of the key 2022 battlegrounds. 

But they are back in the game, due to a motley slate of controversial Trump-backed candidates including Oz, as well as the Supreme Court's explosive decision in June to reverse Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion decision. 

Biden pulled out all the stops on the latter issue Tuesday, vowing to sign a law that would enshrine a woman's right to an abortion if Democrats are able to retain control of Congress. 

"That's why these midterm elections are so critical, to elect more Democratic senators to the United States Senate and more Democrats to keep control of the House of Representatives," he said. 

"If we do that, here's the promise I make to you and the American people: the first bill that I will send to the Congress will be to codify Roe v. Wade."

It's about the only play the Democrats have left, said Pacini, who described the current climate as "terrifying" for medical professionals who specialize in female reproductive health.  

"I think the only trick left for the Democrats to use is to play this card, and it's the only one they got," said Pacini. 

"I think they're playing it well, but … when you've got one drum, it sounds like a good song." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press