She reportedly made no mention of Mehmet Oz, the Republican and former TV personality whom Winfrey had long ago dubbed “America’s Doctor” — and who is now running against Fetterman, the Democratic lieutenant governor, for Pennsylvania’s enormously consequential open Senate seat.
“It is an honor and privilege to have Oprah’s support in this race,” Fetterman said in an emailed statement. (Politico reported that Fetterman’s camp had been angling for an Oprah endorsement for months.) “She is a leader on so many issues — fighting for our democracy, passing common-sense gun reform, and ensuring racial justice,” the statement continued. “I’m grateful for Oprah’s support and trust on the issues that matter to people across the country and Pennsylvania as we close out this campaign.”
Winfrey’s silence-breaking endorsement comes at the end of a long campaign filled with medical drama and debate drama and hors d’oeuvres drama and too many social media burns to count, and it remains to be whether her opinion will be a difference-maker.
“I don’t think she has that same amount of influence anymore,” says Craig Garthwaite, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “She’s still obviously influential, but she’s been out of the public eye.”
Garthwaite estimated that Oprah’s endorsement of then-candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary handed him 1 million additional votes, tipping the scales in his contest against Hillary Clinton. But the circumstances of that race, that endorsement, and that particular moment in Oprah’s trajectory were unique. Between her talk show, magazine, book club and overall empire, Winfrey’s star power was near its peak. It was also her first major political endorsement, and it happened at a time when political media wasn’t as fragmented, says Garthwaite. Winfrey’s level of involvement was also different — she hosted fundraisers and appeared at rallies with Obama.
“This one felt much more like an aside,” says Garthwaite. “It has nowhere near the pomp and circumstance of the Obama endorsement.”
During the virtual event Thursday, Winfrey expressed support for other Democrats, too — Beto O’Rourke in Texas, and Raphael G. Warnock and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. As an indication of her politics, the media mogul’s support for Fetterman is not particularly newsworthy. But Winfrey’s opinion on the Pennsylvania Senate race was of particularly intense interest since many hold her responsible for Oz’s star power, which he is now trying to redeem for political power for the Republican Party.
Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon, hosted a show on the Discovery Channel in the early 2000s called “Second Opinion with Dr. Oz.” He was later featured on Winfrey’s popular talk show more than 60 times, which led to a spinoff program, “The Dr. Oz Show,” which was co-produced by Winfrey’s company, Harpo Productions. The Washington Post has reported that Oz’s show provided a platform for questionable weight-loss advice.
Some have asked for Oprah to apologize for her role in elevating Oz’s public profile. “I’m still waiting on Oprah to apologize for forcing Mehmet Oz on all of us,” tweeted actress Bette Midler on Nov. 1. In June, Jimmy Kimmel made a parody video of Oprah’s apology for his show. “I made him a household name. I [messed] up,” said an Oprah impersonator in the video, referring to Oz. “I owe you each a candle and fuzzy pair of slippers. I’m really sorry.”
Others have argued that the current, Donald Trump-endorsed version of Oz is not Oprah’s responsibility. Some felt that the public was being harsher on Oprah, a Black woman, than they were on, say, Mark Burnett, a White man who similarly provided former president Trump with a platform for “The Apprentice.”
“Please stop blaming women in particular black women for problematic men,” one person tweeted.
“I think it’s incredibly myopic to imagine that somebody should have read the tea leaves during the Oprah show days or anticipated this,” says Matthew Baum, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School who has studied the impact of talk shows on politics. “I don’t think very many people saw this coming, even in political circles.”
Still, her decision to stay out of the fray for nearly the entirety of the race had been notable. She is not apolitical, having flirted with the possibility of running for office before. Until this week, Oprah’s only comment on Fetterman vs. Oz was a statement issued last December, through her spokeswoman, Nicole Nichols: “One of the great things about our democracy is that every citizen can decide to run for public office. Mehmet Oz has made that decision. And now it’s up to the residents of Pennsylvania to decide who will represent them.”
Oz said last year that he had told Oprah not to comment on his run. “I asked her to stay out. Don’t support me because if you get involved in any way, you’ll get hurt and I don’t want my friends hurt,” Oz said at a Manhattan Republican meet-and-greet. Janice Peck, professor emerita at the University of Colorado Boulder and the author of “The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era,” suspects that Oprah finally spoke up to preserve her reputation.
Fetterman is more liberal than the type of candidates she usually endorses, says Peck, who describes Oprah as a “very centrist, corporate Democrat.”
“The more Oz has moved in the direction of becoming controversial,” Peck says, the “more blowback she got.”
Baum, the Harvard professor, suspects that Fetterman’s debate performance — in which he stumbled over some words, a lingering effect of the stroke he suffered earlier this year — amplified calls for Oprah to speak up.
“She probably went against her instinct to get involved in it,” says Baum, “It got harder to stay out of it over time.”
Though Baum says it’s unlikely that Oprah would convert any Oz supporters into Fetterman voters, one area where she might move the needle is turnout particularly among Black voters.
“It’s not going to have a massive effect, but it doesn’t necessarily need to,” says Baum. “All indications are that it’s really close. So, you know, a half-a-percent of increased turnout in an important constituency could make a difference.”