As she window-shopped with friends on leafy West State Street, Jill Walters offered a blunt assessment of the Senate candidates battling it out in the Keystone State.
“I don’t really love either of them,” she said here in Media, Pennsylvania, about a half-hour drive west of Philadelphia in the seat of Delaware County.
The 46-year-old plans to vote for Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman over Republican candidate Mehmet Oz next month in the Commonwealth’s fiercely contested Senate race. A registered Republican before 2016, Walters switched to the Democratic Party after the rise of former President Donald Trump.
“I’m going Fetterman,” she said, set in her choice but unenthused. “It’s tough. Here’s the thing: It’s too polarizing on either end.”
More on key Senate races
Delaware, Montgomery, Chester and Bucks counties – Pennsylvania’s “collar counties” – flank Philadelphia on the south, east and north, creating a largely educated, affluent buffer between the urban Democratic stronghold and the more rural, and increasingly conservative, central expanse of the state. More than 20% of the votes cast in Pennsylvania in the 2020 presidential race, roughly 1.5 million, came from these four suburban counties, where Joe Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton by an average of 4.2 percentage points, with larger turnout, while Trump stayed about level with his vote-share from 2016.
Biden ultimately won the state by about 81,000 votes, outpacing Trump by more than 293,000 votes in the collar counties. When Clinton lost Pennsylvania four years earlier, by more than 44,000 votes, she came away from the counties with an advantage of only about 188,000. In exceeding Clinton’s margin here, Biden more than made up for marginally underperforming Clinton in Philadelphia.
Now, with the midterm elections less than three weeks away, the state’s Senate race – which will be critical in determining whether Democrats can maintain their razor-thin majority in the body – is increasingly focused on these Philadelphia suburbs. Both candidates have, in their messaging and stump schedule, zeroed in on this broad swath of swing voters, especially undecided or uncommitted women, who appear poised to decide the race. Fetterman will be holding an event, focused on suburban women, with Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar in Chester County this weekend.
For Walters, who has a teenage daughter, the future of abortion rights was a key determining factor in Fetterman’s ability to lock down her vote, along with Oz’s alliance with Trump.
Asked how much of a role Trump had in her decision, she paused, then answered pointedly: “I switched parties because of him. One guy.”
Trump’s influence is impossible to escape here – for better or worse. Speaking to CNN on the main drag of Doylestown, in Bucks County, Sharon Jackson said she too had switched parties in 2016, from Democrat to Republican.
“I know he is controversial, but he got the job done,” Jackson said of Trump. “I felt safe. I think a lot of people in our country felt safe with him.”
Though she described herself as “pro-choice,” Jackson pointed to concerns over the economy – inflation in particular – and police and public safety.
Oz is her pick, she added, because “to me, he seems fair. He is going in a better direction. Fetterman is for defunding the police. He’s for a lot of things I don’t believe in.” (Fetterman has been critical of the movement to “defund the police.”)
Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College, which has polled the race, estimates that about 10% of eventual voters statewide are still undecided – and that the Philadelphia suburbs will be home to the “decisive vote.”
“We know in the more urban centers, Democrats have an advantage. The key question there for Democrats will be the turnout and the support they get among minority communities,” Yost said. “But in the suburbs, it’s really going to be an interesting push-pull between these concerns voters have about the economy and inflation, and then concerns about abortion rights.”
Fetterman has sought to address those issues across the board, but in the closing months of the race has, like so many Democrats across the country, leaned hard into the abortion rights fight after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade over the summer. At a September rally in Blue Bell, a Montgomery County suburb, his campaign handed out pink T-shirts with “Fetterwoman” written across the front. The candidate, in his speech, declared that “women are the reason we can win – don’t piss off women.”
“If every abortion is a ‘murder,’ that means that Dr. Oz considers every woman who had to choose an abortion is a killer,” Fetterman said during a tele-townhall in August, referencing a remark made by Oz first reported by the Daily Beast.
Oz campaign spokesperson Brittany Yanick has said the Republican is “pro-life with three exceptions: life of the mother, rape and incest. And as a senator, he’d want to make sure that the federal government is not involved in interfering with the state’s decisions on the topic.”
Oz has not directly answered whether he would vote for a bill, proposed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, that would institute a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks and provides exceptions required to protect the life of the mother, and if the woman becomes pregnant through rape or incest.
While they largely split on abortion, both candidates have been doing their best to win over suburban voters. A recent soft-focus ad from Oz put the competition into sharp relief. In the spot, titled “Less Extremism,” he laments the state of the economy and, with a note of regret in his voice, says, “Guys like John Fetterman take everything to the extreme.”
“Extremism on both sides,” Oz says, “makes things worse.”
Fetterman’s campaign promptly responded to the 30-second ad with a web video that begins with Oz’s comment, then – with a record scratch sound effect – cuts to a mash-up of interview clips and news reports in which Oz expresses “major concerns” about red flag gun laws, his comment calling abortion “murder,” an interview in which he rejects describing the events of January 6, 2021, as an “insurrection” and end with Trump himself shouting out, “Dr. Oz, who is with our MAGA movement all the way.”
Madison Marinelli, a 19-year-old first-time voter whose family owns a farm and orchard in Delaware County, told CNN she would’ve voted for Trump twice had she been old enough, but remains undecided between Oz and Fetterman in the Senate race.
Her family’s business has been hit hard by the economic downturn and the cost of gassing up her truck, at an estimated $120 per week, is a sore spot for the young Republican, who is currently studying at Delaware County Community College.
“I think that (Biden) didn’t handle a lot of things the right way,” Marinelli said. “I think that he didn’t really prioritize correctly.”
Still, she did not intend to use her vote in the Senate race to send a message to the President.
“I look at the person and what they are going to do, what they’re going to change. It’s not really like, ‘Oh, I’m a Republican.’ I don’t believe in that whole thing,” Marinelli said. “I don’t go completely right. I don’t go completely left.”
In the end, she said, her decision would come down to an accounting of which candidate “holds more beliefs that I hold to my moral standards.”
Atop the list among those “moral” positions: abortion rights.