Yout’s no secret that Americans don’t much like what’s happening in Washington right now. A full 41% of voters don’t think their representative deserves another term, Gallup found in July. Similar polls were conducted prior to 1994’s midterm elections. 28% said the exact same thing, right before Democrats got a shellacking.
Just two months remain until Election Day. Republicans and Democrats alike know that this final sprint won’t be won on policy grandiose statements, but instead on the mundane details of campaigns. The voters will decide which issues make a viable campaign topic and which are just curiosity topics that they might enjoy sharing with their friends.
In other words, voters get to decide what’s important, and their discernment could mean picking a fun persona, or ditching a stodgy one, over someone who can actually deliver.
For example, take the Senate race to replace Senator Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. Toomey has been in office for 12 years and is leaving the House after six. In a chaotic GOP primary Dr. Mehmet Ol, an ex-heart surgeon who became a TV personality and had former President Donald Trump backing him, was nominated. Democrats, meanwhile, nominated the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman; a more out-of-the-box character would be tough to spot on their electoral field this year, as TIME’s Charlotte Alter captured in her profile of Fetterman in May, before a stroke curbed his campaign schedule and forced him to skip the first debate.
Both sides have plenty to say about each other. Oz was questioned about his residence, the number of houses he has, as well as his positions regarding abortion in rape and incest. Fetterman should be questioned about his support for unlimited abortion rights in an area where access is at its highest, but not enough to cover all of the population. Fetterman’s backing of Medicare for All and an increase in the number of refugees admitted to the United States are also worth scrutiny.
However, the debate turned sour in the past few days. After Fetterman, still recovering from his stroke, declined a debate invite, Oz appeared to mock his opponent’s health problems—not a good look for someone trying to play up his experience in the healthcare system. During a rally in Wilkes-Barre (Pa.), Trump launched a bizarre attack against Fetterman, accusing him without any evidence of being a junkie. Trump also derided Fetterman’s wardrobe, which is admittedly casual: “He comes in with a sweatsuit on. I’ve never seen him wear a suit. It was a dirty, filthy, and dirty sweatsuit. It’s really disgusting,” Trump said. (As Fetterman bemoaned to TIME in May: “If I wear a suit, I get sh-t; if I wear shorts, I get sh-t.”)
You don’t have to believe that this is just the case of Republicans following the cheap shot route. Just run it back to the days prior, when the term “chopped vegetables” became an issue of political debate. Oz recorded an April recording. videoHe called an imaginary grocery store. WegnersThis appears to be a conglomeration of Redners and Wegmans, which are two shops that actually exist. In the produce section, Oz lamented the price of fresh vegetables while picking up the ingredients for “crudité” for his wife. Fetterman mocked his opponent as an elitist in a state where most would call that a “veggie tray.”
Is this a ridiculous spat? Probably. But the Senate is already tied at 50-50, and even the most incremental of movements can spell victory or disaster for the balance of Biden’s first term. If Republicans net just one Senate seat, they’ll be able to stymie Biden’s agenda on everything except nominees and budgets, although on the latter they can get creative in their obstruction, especially if they have a compliant parliamentarian. This means that a very competitive race such as the Pennsylvania one can quickly get extremely intense.
Ultimately, voters get to decide what to ignore and what to consider as a proxy for the candidate’s character. His critics were persistent in raising the tale of how Mitt Romney tied his dog to his family’s roof while they traveled north on vacation in 2008. Romney simply ran water over the dog’s head and continued their trip. For Romney’s critics, it was a sign of his heartless approach to a four-legged member of the family, while for Romney’s own kids who shared the story with The Boston Globe It was a proof of his efficiency for a 2007 profile. For the Romney presidential campaign aides it was an endless source of frustration.
It was the same for Hillary Clinton’s legal use of a private email server while Secretary of State. Her critics saw just another example why the former First Lady and Senator couldn’t be trusted as she sought the White House for a second time on her own. Voters decided it mattered, even if the Justice Department did not; when the margin is so small, such issues can resonate more than either candidates’ actual views on the issues. “But her emails!” became a proxy for voters looking for a reason to reject Clinton for any reason beyond her gender. Although neither Clinton or Romney could do much as President in the area of email and pet transport, it was important at that time.
This brings us back the microcosmic results of this election to Pennsylvania. Fetterman is absent from the trail in a shocking manner, which is understandable. Skipping a debate isn’t a choice taken lightly. Republicans are beginning to question Fetterman’s fitness for office—a dangerous play that seldom works, but it can. They are also praising Fetterman’s clothes and imagining his drug use. And rather than smack Oz as a carpetbagger beholden to Trump, Fetterman’s team raised more than $1 million off a bad produce-aisle vamp.
Clear communication is key. Voters have the power to select what matters. But both parties seem determined to drive the conversation away from things lawmakers are actually hired to do—like navigate a world in which federal abortion rights no longer exist, economic policy impacts daily lives, and a pot of infrastructure dollars still needs allocating—they’re talking about the extraneous, like what to call vegetables and the merits of hooded sweatshirts. Voters can decide their ballots based on either, but they should also be prepared for what happens if neither Sen. Hoodie nor Sen. Crudité is able to deliver on the things they actually want from their elected officials.
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