How Fetterman is pulling away in Pennsylvania

The gloves have yet to come off against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in Pennsylvania’s Senate Democratic primary — and those waiting for a blue-on-blue bloodbath aren’t likely to get it. 

Tatted up with an outsized personality, a pile of cash and a playbook that mirrors past populist campaigns, Fetterman is pulling ahead in the party’s nominating contest. If he wins, he’ll face off against a Republican for an open seat in a state that could decide who controls the Senate.

Liberals say he can do it. They see the over six-and-a-half-foot-tall Fetterman — bald, straight-talking, with a semi-permanent scowl — as an outsider capable of wooing voters in the battleground Joe Biden and Donald Trump each won by less than 2 points.

On policy, he leans mostly to the left. But don’t call him Bernie Sanders, a socialist or even a progressive. He’s hard to brand, and that’s part of the appeal, some Democrats say.

“He is not adopting a lot of the litmus tests that you have seen progressives try to urge upon candidates,” said Adam Jentleson, executive director of Battle Born Collective and former deputy chief of staff to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). 

“He’s managing to cross over into normie world in a way that I don’t think you’ve seen from other so-called progressives,” he said. “That’s why I think the label doesn’t quite fit.”

An iconoclast he is not. Fetterman plays well with the establishment and holds some of their views. He propped up President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure plan and helped Terry McAuliffe try to win Virginia’s governorship. He’s against expanding the Supreme Court and supports fracking. He hasn’t criticized the party. He even gets the occasional retweet from White House chief of staff Ron Klain.

“He’s not trying to check all of the boxes,” Jentleson said.

That’s not to say he’s a centrist, either.

Fetterman, pro-union with a rotation of rolled up shirts to match, wants higher wages for workers and likes small-dollar donations for his own bid. His campaign’s average contribution is $28, just one dollar higher than the $27 that fueled Sanders’s first presidential run.

He wants more government involvement on things like “Medicare for All,” the universal health care proposal where even some progressives are divided. He sees climate change as a racial justice issue. He also wants weed to be legal, full stop. 

“John,” as aides and allies call him, has long been in favor of those things, they say. They are popular in polls across the country.

“Voters don’t have to be convinced that John’s not like other politicians,” said Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s communications director. “They know as soon as they see him step out of his truck. In 2022, that’s an especially good thing.”

Some establishment figures aren’t convinced.

Democratic operatives are looking to the late May primary, in which Fetterman will compete against Rep. Connor Lamb, a Marine veteran and rising star among moderates in the House, and Malcolm Kenyatta, a Black state House representative who’s openly gay, as a test of electability in the Midwest.

Biden won purple Pennsylvania by 1.8 points in 2020, and Republicans are trying to make sure the retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R) seat stays in GOP hands.

A super PAC supporting Lamb, in a move first reported by Politico earlier this week, laid the groundwork for attacks over electability, effectively presenting Fetterman as just as tied to the left as Sanders or the “Squad” and painting Lamb as a more palatable alternative. 

While some moderate Democrats concede Republicans may try and paint Lamb as similarly liberal, they believe it won’t ring as true.  

“The ability of a progressive Democrat to flip a Republican Senate seat to a Democratic Senate seat, historically that’s a very difficult thing to overcome,” said Christina Proctor, who chairs the Democratic Party in Washington County.

“It’s much more likely that we will switch from a Republican Senate seat to a moderate Democrat. In my mind, it makes more logical sense for Democrats to choose the moderate candidate,” she said. 

Democrats who support Lamb, 37, believe their best shot at beating Fetterman, 52, is to say he also can’t win in swingy areas and that his views don’t align with the direction of the party. They view him as too far to the left to succeed in the state that the president, a native of Scranton and moderate himself, won so narrowly.

“They will weaponize him as being a socialist and those types of talking points that Republicans really like to go at,” Proctor said. 

But some Democrats are skeptical it will work. With less than two months to go, questions about electability have so far mostly fallen flat. 

Fetterman won statewide as lieutenant governor, a success allies say shows he’s more of a Pennsylvania pragmatist than fire-breathing progressive. On style and substance, he’s different from others who shunned the party orthodoxy. 

“I don’t think it’s a moderate versus progressive battle,” said one well-placed liberal strategist. “It’s [about] a candidate who embraces the issues the majority of Pennsylvanians stand with.”

In another high-profile Midwestern primary, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who co-chaired Sanders’s last campaign, was defeated by Rep. Shontel Brown (D), who took a more moderate posture and received endorsements from prominent centrists. Turner famously went after Biden, which created more ill will. The two are headed for a rematch later this year.

Stylistically, Fetterman has taken a different approach. He’s seen as a reliable friend to fellow Democrats from the administration to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which have each been neutral in the race. 

“He’s not saying he’s here to take over or change the Democratic Party, but rather that he’s here to run as the strongest Democrat in the race,” Jentleson said. 

Fetterman has prioritized immigration and gun reform, LGBTQ and women’s rights and a $15 minimum wage — all Biden-approved positions. And he hasn’t said he wants to “defund the police,” another careful choice not to side with activists over a contentious slogan.

Multiple sources close to Fetterman told The Hill they see that willingness to work with the party faithful as an asset. A letter with polling from Lamb’s PAC showed Fetterman up by double digits, according to the Politico report. 

Moderates who are already skeptical that Fetterman can win, however, expect any urge to go negative last minute will come from political action committees, not the candidates themselves. 

“Someone’s going to do it. And it will be outside,” Proctor said.  

But so far the mudslinging has been minimal. Even progressives — who like to use purity tests to assess a candidate’s dedication — have not ragged on him for being against court packing or leaning on the infrastructure bill more than “Build Back Better.” 

There are also personal qualities to consider.

The way fellow populists Sanders and Trump had electoral overlap, including with working-class and rural voters, there’s potential for Fetterman to grab voters who are searching for something different in pockets of Pennsylvania that are traditionally overlooked.

“Fetterman has united people who understand that to win these races, Democrats need to once again strengthen our support in rural areas,” the progressive strategist said.

That approach has worked for Sens. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, John Tester in Montana and even Joe Manchin in West Virginia, who have all tapped into qualities that resonate at home and get them reelected by voters across party lines. 

Fetterman is hoping to connect with people “as human beings,” the strategist said, not just over politics. “In order to persuade voters, you need to have that authenticity.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Harry Reid Joe Biden Joe Manchin Pat Toomey Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Democratic primary Pennsylvania Senate race Ron Klain Sherrod Brown Terry McAuliffe
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