Want to know why Washington is broke?  Check out the Pennsylvania Senate race

IIt’s no secret that Americans don’t like much of what’s going on in Washington right now. As many as 41% of voters do not think their representative deserves another term, Gallup found in July. Ahead of the 1994 midterm elections, a similar poll found 28 percent of voters saying the same, just before Democrats rallied.

With just two months to go until Election Day and just weeks before early voting windows open in some states, both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that the final sprint will likely be won or lost based not on grandiose policy statements but on -soon to the ephemerality for which no campaigns are prepared. So it’s up to voters to decide for themselves what constitutes a credible campaign question and what is just a curiosity that might be fun to send to neighborhood group chats.

In other words, voters have to decide what’s important, and their discernment may mean choosing a fun personality or ditching a tough one over someone who can actually deliver.

Take, for example, the Senate race unfolding in Pennsylvania to replace Sen. Pat Toomey, who is retiring after 12 years in the Senate and six in the House. Messed up GOP primaries delivered nomination of Dr. Mehmet Oz, a former heart surgeon turned TV personality who had the support of former President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Democrats nominated the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman; a more unconventional character would be hard to spot in their constituency this year, as TIME’s Charlotte Alter captured in profile of Fetterman in May, before a blow limited his campaign schedule and forced him to do so miss out the first debate.

Both sides have enough dirt on their rivals. Oz faces questions about him residencyhow much houses he owns and his unclear positions of abortion when rape or incest are factors. Fetterman deserves his due questioning on his claims of support for unrestricted abortion rights in a state where such access rejoices all-time record, but still short of majority. of Fetterman support of Medicare for all and an is growing in the number of refugees admitted to the United States are also noteworthy.

But in the past few days, much of the debate has veered in a big way. After Fetterman, who was still recovering from a stroke, declined an invitation to debate, Oz appeared to poke fun at his opponent’s health issues — not a good look for someone trying to play up his experience in the health care system . Meanwhile, Trump unleashed a truly bizarre line of attack against Fetterman during a rally Saturday in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. accusative the Democrat without evidence that he is a drug addict. Trump also poked fun at Fetterman’s admittedly sloppy wardrobe: “He comes in a tracksuit. I’ve never seen him wear a suit. Dirty, dirty, dirty tracksuit. It’s really disgusting,” Trump said. (In the role of Fetterman lamented to TIME in May: “If I wear a suit, I get sht; if I’m wearing shorts, I’m a dick.”)

Now, before anyone starts thinking that this is an example of Republicans taking the cheap route themselves, fast-forward to a few days earlier when what are called chopped vegetables became a matter of political debate. In April, Oz recorded a video from an imaginary supermarket he called Wegners, apparently uniting Wegmans and Redners, two stores that really exist. In the produce section, Oz lamented the price of fresh vegetables as he gathers the ingredients for crudite for his wife. Fetterman derided his opponent as an elitist in what most would call a “vegetable tray.”

Funny fight? Probably. But the Senate is now tied 50-50, and even the most incremental moves could spell victory or disaster for the balance of Biden’s first term. If Republicans win just one Senate seat, they will be able to stop Biden’s agenda everything except for nominees and budgets, although the latter can receive creatively in their obstruction, especially if they have a compatible parliamentarian. Which means a really competitive race like the one in Pennsylvania can get very intense, very quickly.

In the end, voters come to decide what to ignore and what to consider as a proxy for the candidate’s character. When Mitt Romney ran for the White House in 2008, his critics were relentless in raising the history about how he strapped his dog’s crate to the roof of the family car as they headed north for vacation. When the dog got sick, Romney simply hosed the dog down on the roof and the family continued on their journey. For Romney’s critics, it was sign for his heartless approach to the four-legged family member, while for Romney’s own children, who shared the story with The Boston Globe for a 2007 profile it was evidence of its effectiveness. For aides to both of Romney’s presidential bids, it was a source of endless frustration.

So was Hillary Clinton’s lawyer use on a private email server while secretary of state. Her critics saw just one more example of why the former first lady and senator can’t be trusted as she sought the White House for a second time alone. The voters decided it it matteredeven if the Department of Justice I was not; when margin is so small, such questions may resonate more than each candidate’s actual views on the issues. “But her emails!” became a proxy for voters looking for a reason to reject Clinton for any reason beyond her gender. As president, neither Romney nor Clinton could do much about pet transportation or email, but they mattered at this point.

Which brings the microcosm of this election back to Pennsylvania. Fetterman was amazing absent from the trail and that’s understandable. Skipping a debate is not a choice to take lightly. Republicans are beginning to question Fetterman’s fitness for office – dangerously so I play this rarely works, but it can. Yet they also pick on him for his clothes and imagined drug use. And instead of framing Oz as a Trump-loyal carpetbagger, Fetterman’s team raised more than $1 million from a bad vampire from the production aisle.

To be clear, voters must choose what matters. But both sides seem determined to steer the conversation away from the things lawmakers are actually hired to do, such as navigating a world in which federal abortion rights no longer they existeconomic policy impacts everyday life and a bunch more dollars for infrastructure needs allocation. Instead, they talk about the sidelines, like what to call vegetables and the merits of hoodies. Voters can decide their ballots based on both, but they should also be prepared for what will happen if neither Sen. Hoody nor Sen. Crudite can get the things they actually want from their elected officials.

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Write to Philip Eliot c [email protected].

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