POlitics can make life difficult. Even if a candidate speaks in their teens, it is still fair game. Ask Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about the critics who tried to weaponize a video of her dancing with friends in college, or Abby Broyles, whose poor behavior during her kid’s middle-school sleepover ushered her from a House race in Oklahoma. Parents, spouses and children are all fair game. And all of that is even before journalists, allies in the parties and rivals seeking the same seat start to ask about a candidate’s health.
Which brings us to Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. Lieutenant Gov., the Democratic frontrunner, has withdrawn from all events. John Fetterman (Democratic front-runner), cancelled all events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday because of an unspecified medical issue. He and his wife revealed that he was in hospital after suffering a stroke on Sunday. Fetterman, 52, said there was no lasting damage and that he’d soon be back on the trail.
Still, his campaign announced on Monday that he wouldn’t be joining his supporters on Tuesday night to hear the results of the primary, and that his wife, Gisele, would instead join the crowd near Pittsburgh.
It is this kind of development one can easily imagine rivals exploiting to their advantage. Despite Fetterman making clear in a statement that doctors told him he didn’t “suffer any cognitive damage,” the existence of the stroke itself is the type of unplanned occurrence a consultant working on a lagging campaign might be tempted to exploit.
However, the Pennsylvania primary contours, just days before votes are counted in Pennsylvania, suggest that such tactics would not be a good strategy at all, at least until then.
Fetterman has enjoyed a consistent double-digit lead in the polls, is known statewide, and has captured the attention of national Democrats with his decidedly non-traditional approach to politics, as TIME’s Charlotte Alter chronicled in a recent profile. And Republicans appear to be in a three-way grudge match for their party’s nomination, perhaps meaning they’re not as focused on potential general election challengers.
But it still remains remarkable, however, that most of Fetterman’s rivals—on both sides of the political divide—put out seemingly sincere wishes for his fast return. However, this isn’t always true.
Mehmet Oz was a celebrity doctor who ran with support from Donald Trump. He sent a clear message of encouragement to Republicans. “I have cared for atrial fibrillation patients and witnessed the miracles of modern medicine in the treatment of strokes, so I am thankful that you received care so quickly,” Oz tweeted. “My whole family is praying for your speedy recovery.” David McCormick, a business executive who has the backing of the party’s Wall Street wing and some conservatives, did the same: “Wishing you a fast recovery.”
Kathy Barnette, whose campaign has recently taken off despite past statements that might relegate her to the G.O.P.’s heap of unelectable write-offs, said in a tweet that she was praying for Fetterman, adding, “We want you healthy for our race this fall.”
Nearly everyone sang the hymn in unison, even among Democrats. “Hayley and I are keeping John and his family in our prayers and wishing him a full and speedy recovery,” said Rep. Connor Lamb, who was surprised to hear the news during a television interview and remains down 31 points behind Fetterman. Malcolm Kenyatta (state representative) is six behind Lamb. note: “My prayers are with him and his family as he recovers from this stroke. I look forward to seeing him back on the campaign trail soon.”
Timing is a major factor in this. There are many votes already cast. The primary takes place on Tuesday. It’s never a good look—although it can be an effective one—to kick an opponent while he’s recovering. Although Fetterman’s primary results give him an edge that virtually nothing can match, Democrats remain skeptical about the polling portraying him as an invincible force.
Even the smallest error can have a devastating effect across the board. 15% of Republicans indicated that they weren’t sure about their decision over the weekend to one pollster.
To be clear, such civility—no matter how performative it may be—is hardly the rule. In the majority of cases any perceived weakness can be used to your advantage. It’s Candidate Boot Camp 101: turn a rival’s strongest asset into a weakness and rework your own deficits into advantages. It is how Barack Obama’s relative inexperience morphed into “Change” and John McCain’s decades-long resume became the same-old politics in 2008.
Trump is the best at this trick. Whereas there is a long history of campaigns using whisper campaigns to foster doubts about a rival’s health and honor, Trump just blurted it out, raising questions without evidence in 2016 about Hillary Clinton’s health, a cynical strategy that paid dividends when she had an initially unexplained episode at a 9/11 anniversary event.
And, for a slice of Trump’s base, it worked; 68% of Republicans told pollsters in 2016 they thought Clinton’s health was poor or below average in the wake of her wobbly Sept. 11 appearance.
If Fetterman wins his party’s nomination as expected Tuesday night, the coming weeks could see his Republican opponent or an outside group trying to make hay over his recent medical episode. But there’s a good reason to think that won’t happen, at least not through candidate-controlled channels. Pennsylvania’s purple hue means candidates aren’t trying to just turn out their base; the numbers of those hardcore partisans aren’t sufficient. The candidates still have to reach a significant number of voters. This includes the 15% of voter rolls who are not affiliated with any political party. State data shows that voters with no political affiliations are growing at a faster rate than the other parties. They are most likely to be the largest margin for victory.
While Trump won there in 2016, Joe Biden came in second. Four years later, Trump lost it. But, he still retains some goodwill in the state where his family was raised and where civility is alive and well.
So, as voters prepare for Tuesday’s vote, the candidates’ efforts at empathy may be as much a signal about a fleeting flash of civility in an otherwise crusty business as it is a hint about the behavior they think Pennsylvania voters could reward. Voters may interpret those efforts as honorable, even if the candidates themselves are, at worst, delaying the inevitable questions about who is fit—or not—to serve.
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