National Republicans have spent millions of dollars trying to depict John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, as a soft-on-crime radical. But they’re also ramping up their efforts to depict him as a racist vigilante.
On the one hand, Mehmet Oz, Fetterman’s Republican opponent, and the Senate Leadership Fund, a national GOP super PAC backing Oz, have hammered Fetterman for recommending as many pardons and commutations as he has. (As Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, Fetterman chairs the state board of pardons.)
Many of these attacks, such as criticism of Fetterman’s support for ending mandatory life sentences for second-degree murder, have been misleading. Fetterman has held up cases like those of the Horton brothers, who were serving mandatory life sentences for acting as unwitting getaway drivers for a murderer, as an example of how mandatory life sentences for such cases can be excessive.
Guy Cecil, chair of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, told HuffPost in September that the attacks on Fetterman and other Democratic candidates’ crime records are a standard feature of Republican “race-baiting, fearmongering, divisive tactics.”
At the same time, different national GOP groups are escalating their spending on ads that depict Fetterman as a shotgun-wielding racist.
The Republican Jewish Coalition announced Tuesday that its super PAC is spending $1.5 million on two TV ads blasting Fetterman for a January 2013 incident in which Fetterman responded to the sound of gunshots by pursuing a Black jogger near his house with a shotgun until the police arrived. The RJC Victory Fund’s two ads each feature a Black voter from the Philadelphia suburbs discussing how Fetterman’s actions upset them.
The investment, which targets Black voters in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh media markets, effectively triples down on a similar ad campaign by another Republican super PAC.
In September, American Leadership Action, which like RJC supports Oz, mounted a $500,000 ad buy hitting Fetterman for the 2013 incident. The ad features footage of Christopher Miyares, the man Fetterman pursued, discussing the incident.
Miyares turned out to be unarmed during the 2013 incident and was released immediately, though he is currently in prison for committing another crime. He has said he forgives Fetterman and supports his Senate candidacy.
Fetterman claimed that he was unaware of the man’s race when he stopped him, and that he acted only out of immediate concern about the threat of gun violence in Braddock, a troubled steel town where he was serving as mayor at the time. During the Senate primary, Fetterman nonetheless disappointed some prominent Democrats by refusing to apologize for his actions.
The two-pronged Republican strategy of trying to paint Fetterman as a soft-on-crime radical to a more conservative and whiter audience, and as a racist vigilante to Black voters ― in hopes that they either break for Oz or stay home ― strikes Democrats as inconsistent and opportunistic.
“The Republican attacks on Fetterman are contradictory, brazen and cynical,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist who is not working with Fetterman or groups tied to him. “They’re trying to tell white people that he’s soft on crime, and they’re telling Black people that he’s so tough on crime, he’s a racist.”
“In essence, they are arguing against themselves, which is why these desperate, brazen attacks will fail,” he added. “People will see through their nonsense.”
But Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, denied a lack of consistency in the two lines of criticism.
“There is nothing at all inconsistent about being soft on crime and also showing what’s truly in your heart when you see an unarmed Black man jogging at night in your town,” he said.
In fact, the incident with Miyares took place in the late afternoon, but the sunlight was likely limited because of the time of year.
A spokesperson for American Leadership Action declined to comment for this story.
One way or another, Republican attacks on Fetterman appear to be having an effect. His lead over Oz in a recent public poll is down to two percentage points ― an advantage within the polling margin of error ― and The Cook Political Report has downgraded the race from “Lean Democrat” to “Tossup.”
Pennsylvania state Rep. Jordan Harris (D) considers Republican ads designed to suppress Black turnout by highlighting the 2013 incident to be an insult to Black voters and encourages his fellow Black voters to prove the party wrong.
“Why is the GOP scared of Black people voting?” he asked. “We as a community have to continue to weed through the rhetoric and continue to support people who will give us results.”
This is not the first time that Republicans have sought to brand a prominent Democratic candidate as racist while simultaneously using ads with racist overtones to paint them as being soft on crime.
In 2020, a super PAC supporting then-President Donald Trump funded ads that used out-of-context quotes to depict then-presidential candidate Joe Biden as racist.
At the same time, Trump tried to tie Biden to the “defund the police” movement with ads combining assorted footage of rioting across the country. Biden has never supported reducing police funding, and has in fact increased federal funding for the police.