WASHINGTON ― John Fetterman’s gradual recovery from a stroke has become a Republican attack point in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, but two senators who recently suffered strokes said Fetterman’s health shouldn’t be an issue.
Like Fetterman, Sens. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) had strokes this year, but both returned to work and have been doing their jobs. They said Fetterman would be able to do the job, too.
“We’re walking around, we’re having conversations, we’re talking to people, we’re engaged,” Lujan told HuffPost on Wednesday. “Cognitive ability is strong. And so I’m confident of the work that John Fetterman will do when he’s elected U.S. senator.”
Lujan, 49, was treated for a stroke in his cerebellum in February and returned to work a month after a surgery that relieved pressure in his brain. Van Hollen, 63, was hospitalized briefly in May after suffering a “minor stroke” caused by a venous tear at the back of his head.
“I believe he’ll be able to rebound and, based on what I’ve heard him say his doctor said, he’ll have a full recovery,” Van Hollen said. “I think it’s smart for him to take the time he needs.”
Each stroke was different and has had different aftereffects. Lujan returned to work in a month; Fetterman resumed campaign events with the press three months after his stroke.
Republicans have demanded that Fetterman, who suffered his stroke in May before winning the Democratic primary, agree to a series of debates against Republican nominee Mehmet Oz, suggesting that his ongoing recovery and sometimes halting speech on the campaign trail should disqualify him from being able to serve in the Senate. (Republicans in other federal contests, such as the Georgia Senate race, have refused to debate their opponents.)
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who is retiring, amplified the attack this week, arguing that a senator must be capable of thorough debate and discussion in order to do the job properly.
“If he’s not able to do that, then frankly, he’s not going to be able to be an effective senator, and Pennsylvania voters ought to know that,” Toomey said while campaigning in the state for Oz, a retired surgeon and former TV show host.
On Wednesday, Fetterman agreed to one debate.
“We’re absolutely going to debate Dr. Oz, and it was always our intent to do that,” he said in a statement. “It has simply only ever been about addressing some of the lingering issues of my stroke, the auditory processing, and we’re going to be able to work that out.”
Fetterman, 53, has said his stroke was due to a blood clot caused by atrial fibrillation in his heart. He said he suffered no cognitive damage but has previously acknowledged that the stroke impaired his auditory processing and speech. When he returned to the campaign trail, his speech had noticeably slowed.
But his campaign energetically mocked Oz for using the word “crudité” to describe a veggie tray in a video.
The Oz campaign responded with what might be one of the most judgmental health insults in campaign history: “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.”
Lujan said he had reached out to Fetterman “to offer support” and that the two had spoken several times. The New Mexico Democrat said he greatly appreciated how Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) had sent him “daily inspirational videos” after his stroke.
“It got to the point where I would look forward to that video, and sometimes it was emotional, but it meant a lot to me,” Lujan said. “When any of us during times in our lives are going through something that can be tough, support helps.”
Lujan received a bipartisan standing ovation when he returned to the Senate chamber just a month after his stroke.
Fetterman’s campaign released a letter from his doctor saying that if he takes his medication and follows medical advice, “he should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem.”
Van Hollen called GOP attacks over Fetterman’s health “out of bounds.”
“I don’t think politicians should be second guessing the judgments of medical professionals, and I know that Dr. Oz sometimes presents himself as one of those. I would listen to doctors who know what they’re talking about in this area,” he added.