▶ Watch Video: Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman holds first rally since suffering a stroke

Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman takes photos with supporters following a rally at the Bayfront Convention Center on August 12, 2022 in Erie, Pennsylvania. 

Nate Smallwood/Getty Images

Erie, Penn. – John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, returned to the campaign trail in-person Friday night for the first time since he suffered from a stroke days ahead of the primary three months ago. 

“Three months ago my life could have ended. It’s the truth,” Fetterman said to the packed room in Erie. “But I’m so grateful to be here tonight with all of you.”

Fetterman, who currently is Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, has been carrying out his campaign almost entirely online since his stroke in May.

Fetterman said at the time that he was first made aware of his heart condition in 2017 but failed to follow his doctor’s advice. After the stroke, Fetterman was diagnosed with a heart condition, cardiomyopathy and fitted with a pacemaker. 

“Gisele saved my life” a visibly emotional Fetterman said about his wife, who introduced him to the crowd and stood by his side throughout his speech Friday night. He also thanked the crowd for their support. 

Though he was sidelined for several months, Fetterman’s campaign reported strong fundraising numbers throughout the summer and was able to get TV ads on the air early. Since the primary, the campaign has spent more than $5.2 million on ads including $1.1 million on digital, according to ad tracking by AdImpact. By comparison, his opponent Dr. Mehmet Oz has spent less than $20,000 on digital ads. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent just over $4 million on ads in the race.

At the same time, Fetterman has been holding meetings and actively campaigning over social media, with a mix of posts on the issues, images, memes and videos, often pulling from the trove of videos and pictures publicly available from Oz’s many years as a TV personality. Some of the more pointed videos have gone viral on Twitter and Facebook. What has made the online campaigning success is that it’s authentic, and he’s a funny guy, his campaign says.

On Friday, Fetterman continued to take aim at Oz, calling him a New Jersey resident.

“He’s not from here,” Fetterman said. “He doesn’t care about us.”

On the issues, Fetterman kept it brief in his speech but said of the currently 50-50 split Senate that he’d like to be Democrats’ 51st vote. He slammed the current minimum wage, criticized the overturning of Roe v. Wade and called for ending the filibuster.

Although there are still nearly three months to go before Election Day, voters lined up outside ahead of the rally Friday night.

“He knows our concerns in Pennsylvania,” said Juan Duran, a Republican at the rally who plans to vote for Fetterman in November. “We cannot have somebody from outside really for the Senate.”

For those in attendance, top issues include abortion rights, voting rights and even former President Trump. According to the campaign, about 1,355 supporters showed up to hear him speak, lining up outside all the way to the main road. 

Before his stroke, Fetterman was campaigning all over the state, including in deep-red conservative areas. In the primary, he won all 67 counties.

Choosing Erie for his first in-person campaign stop back on the trail was a strategic decision. The county located in the far northwestern part of Pennsylvania is seen as a bellwether for the rest of the state. President Biden narrowly won Erie county and the state in 2020; but former President Donald Trump narrowly won the county in 2016 and the state. And for statewide officials, in 2018, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf won the county; and in 2016, Republican Senator Pat Toomey also won Erie county in his successful re-election campaign. 

In his first TV interview since the stroke, Fetterman told CBS Pittsburgh on Thursday he couldn’t wait to get back out on the campaign trail and would be “everywhere.” His campaign says the Erie rally is the start of a slow build up in Fetterman’s return to the campaign trail, with more and more activity heading into the fall.

While Fetterman’s campaign has been predominantly online, he’s still been polling ahead of Oz, who is backed by former President Trump, since the primary. The Real Clear Politics average has him up by more than 8 points. But Republican officials expect the gap to close as Election Day nears and more voters begin to pay attention to the race.

Oz has visited the state several times throughout the summer. Recently, he stopped by an American Legion Post to meet with service members and veterans and toured a business that manufactures tools.