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The Keystone State Holds The Key To The Senate— But A Danger Lurks

Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz face off in Pennsylvania in the 2022 midterms.

John Fetterman; Mehmet Oz
Kriston Jae Bethel/AFP via Getty Images; Mark Makela/Getty Images

All eyes were on Pennsylvania as senate candidates John Fetterman and Dr. Mehmet Oz faced off on Tuesday evening in their one and only debate of this midterm cycle. The stakes remain high for both parties.

In an evenly split senate, the GOP needs to pick up only one seat in order to win the majority. They have targeted four Democratic incumbents—in Arizona, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Nevada—with a decent shot at flipping at least one of them.

But conversely, a win by Fetterman would mean the GOP would need to flip at least two of those four seats, and that’s when the math gets much harder for Sen. Mitch McConnell and the senate GOP leadership.

So where do things stand in the Keystone state?

Let’s do a drive-by analysis, which is all anyone really can do at present, given the changing nature of the race and the less than two weeks that remain. Then I’ll game out a weird quirk in Pennsylvania election counting process that could have all of us on edge well past Election Day—or even see a repeat of the 2020 election chaos.

Polls, Schmolls

The press loves a horse race, and it’s no surprise that they are breathlessly reporting that we have one now in Pennsylvania, with Fetterman’s lead over Oz now within the margin of error. But experienced political analysts are not surprised at all at this news.

Earlier, during the summer months, polls showed Oz trailing Fetterman by high single digits after a bruising primary left many Pennsylvania Republicans uncertain whether they could support him. The shift back to a more competitive race is more or less those Republican voters “coming home” to their party, as they do routinely.

But there has never been a poll showing Oz actually leading Fetterman, and some polls are now showing Oz’s surge subsiding a bit. That also doesn’t mean that much, however, if the polls themselves are off in any way as they were in 2016 and 2020.

Polls can be useful early on for gauging where national party dollars should flow, but close polls near the end of the race only tell us what we already know: It will come down to turn out, so ignore the polls and just vote.

Crime, Inflation, Trump and Abortion

Apart from hand-wringing over whether Fetterman’s auditory challenges from his stroke would impair him in Tuesday’s debate (he did mostly fine and at the start of the debate even addressed the “elephant in the room” about his possible stumbles), the bulk of attention was on substantive issues.

And it seems the candidates have fought things to a draw along quite predictable lines. On balance, that is good news for Fetterman, who is less easy in such a format and doesn’t have the polish of Oz, who has far more experience up on a stage.

To hear Oz put it, Fetterman is soft on crime and will let every prisoner out on parole. He accused Fetterman of aligning himself with Joe Biden on economic issues and believes he and the Democrats should be blamed for the inflation that is hurting working families in the state.

From Fetterman’s standpoint, Oz is an abortion extremist who won’t even answer directly on where he stands on a national ban. Oz opposes even a minimum wage for working Pennsylvanias and is an ardent supporter of the former president and his potential candidacy in 2024, making him complicit in attacks upon our democracy.

In short, whether you support Oz or Fetterman depends largely on what issues you prioritize, and these issues split almost exactly along party lines.

The Independent Wild Card

A somewhat unexpected announcement also came Tuesday from independent candidate Everett Stern, a former Republican who was in the race as a potential spoiler:

“I am polling around 3% which places Democracy at risk."
"In the interest of protecting the United States I am dropping out of the U.S Senate Race in PA."
"I fully endorse John Fetterman. The Democrats must win."
"PA must be Blue. It has been an honor running.”

In a tight race, three percent (where Stern in fact did poll in late September) could prove decisive. That Stern not only dropped out but endorsed Fetterman enthusiastically could tip thousands of votes Fetterman’s way, even though Stern’s name still appears on the ballot.

Mail-in Voting

Pennsylvania has had mail-in voting in place for some time, despite GOP lawmakers attacking their own system they voted for in the courts because they didn’t like how much Democrats adopted it. The mail-in ballot totals this year heavily favor Democrats, both in mail-in ballots requested and the number returned.

The totals show Democrats taking 73 percent of the 635K mail-in votes cast so far, with Republicans taking 19.2 percent.

There were 1.3 million mail ballots requested in 2022, meaning voters have returned about half of them so far, with Democrats also returning more of their ballots as a percentage than Republicans (50.5 of Democrats to 46.6 percent of Republicans).

Democrats are thus building a sizable lead that the GOP will need to overcome on Election Day itself, which has always seemed to me like a risky bet for Republicans, given uncertainties such as the weather or a last minute shift in the race.

Banking votes early reduces both of those risks considerably, but the Republican base has been taught to mistrust mail-in ballots so here we are.

The 1.3 millions total ballots mailed out this year is far less than the some 3.1 million that were mailed out in 2020, but that drop off isn’t unusual in a midterm election, and there were widespread pandemic fears around in-person voting in 2020.

Democrats comprised 64.7 percent of returned mail ballots in 2020, with Republicans at 23.7 percent, so it appears thus far that Democratic enthusiasm so far is outpacing that of 2020.

Note that this does not mean that the GOP can’t come back and take the race on Election Day. But it does mean that the Blue vote wall will be harder to scale.

One more point here. Pennsylvania is a state that leans slightly blue statewide but has a Republican controlled legislature with a lot of extremists in power due to partisan gerrymandering. So when voters turn out statewide, that’s generally a good sign for the Democrats, and so far this is looking like a big turnout election as midterms go.

It does not help Republicans that at the top of their ticket in the governor’s race is a MAGA extremist who has trailed significantly in the polls and may be pulling down the entire party with him.

But Wait. There’s a Scary Scenario

With all that said, on Election Night there will be a weird and possibly stomach churning phenomenon that the GOP likely will seek to exploit. Under state law, mail-in ballots can’t start being counted until Election Day at 7am.

This means a large number of them will have been counted by the time polls close, but still many will remain uncounted. (That law really needs to change; state election officials have been begging to allow the counting to begin earlier, but the GOP cynically won’t permit it.) This odd process means some of the first results to be reported likely will include a crush of Democratic mail-in ballots.

And that will make it look like Democrats have sailed to victory.

But hang on.

The same-day votes will be reported next, which likely will come in decisively for the GOP. That “Red Mirage” could then make it look like the Republicans have taken a big lead, perhaps an insurmountable one, by late at night on November 8.

Trump and others will likely start to call for the votes to stop being counted because Republicans have won. In fact, Trump has already said he intends to challenge the results in Pennsylvania as fraudulent, even before the votes are cast, and we should believe him.

Election workers will still be processing mail-in ballots late into Wednesday before we have a clearer picture. With each batch counted, the public will see the gap close, just as we saw in the 2020 election when it looked like Republicans had a huge lead but then Democrats came back to crush their total by tens of thousands.

That “Blue Shift” likely will happen again this year, and we should be ready for it. Trump and the MAGA election deniers know why it’s called the Red Mirage, but they have trained their followers to view any blue gains as fraudulent when in fact it is just votes being counted.

The somewhat hair-raising conclusion from this?

If the balance of power in the Senate hinges in any way upon Pennsylvania’s results, the shifting leads over election night will become fodder for conspiracy theorists and extremists to denounce or even protest the outcome, and we could see a mini repeat of the chaos of 2020.

Election officials are well aware of the risks this time around, however, and have taken precautions against disruption and misinformation.

We’ll have to see if it is enough.