Fetterman stroke throws curve into Pennsylvania primary

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s (D) stroke has thrown a last-minute curveball into the state’s closely watched Democratic Senate primary days before voters head to the polls. 

Fetterman, 52, announced over the weekend that he suffered the stroke on Friday and would be off the campaign trail for the near future, including at his campaign’s election night rally Tuesday.  

While Democrats do not anticipate it will evaporate Fetterman’s consistent double-digit polling lead over Rep. Conor Lamb, his main primary rival, it was yet another unexpected development in a Senate race roiled by surprises over the past several weeks. 

“It can be startling at first to hear before you read some of the details,” said Pennsylvania Democratic ad maker J.J. Balaban. “It was more fun when all the drama was on the Republican side. But ultimately, it’s not clear that this changes the strategic equation. It seems very unlikely to change the outcome tomorrow.” 

Fetterman said Sunday that the Friday stroke was swiftly treated by doctors who removed a blood clot and were able to get his heart “under control” after it was “in an A-fib rhythm for too long.” 

The lieutenant governor also said he was “feeling much better” and “on my way to a full recovery,” alongside a to-camera video in which he addressed the stroke, speaking normally. 

He emphasized “our campaign isn’t slowing down,” though the incident did insert a new dynamic in the primary at the eleventh hour. 

Fetterman is the strong front-runner in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s open Senate race for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R). Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta are the other main primary contenders, but Fetterman has maintained a stable double-digit polling lead. 

That advantage is one of several reasons that Fetterman is likely inoculated from any blowback from the stroke. 

With the primary on Tuesday, there’s limited runway for any new information to impact voters, and any impact the stroke could possibly have would likely make only a tiny dent in Fetterman’s yawning advantage. 

On top of that, hundreds of thousands of early mail-in ballots have already been returned, indicating a chunk of voters had voted before the stroke even happened.

“There are a lot of Democrats that have already mailed their ballots in,” said Pennsylvania Democratic strategist Mike Mikus. “I’m pretty convinced he has a big lead in this race. So even if there was some sort of effect, it would not be enough to alter the direction of the race.” 

Fetterman also does not have a history of being in poor health, meaning there is no pattern for the latest stroke to build on, and has a personal brand that some suggest may be uniquely able to deflect any political fallout from the stroke. 

The lieutenant governor, who stands at a hulking 6 feet and 9 inches and sports a goatee and forearm tattoos, is an instantly recognizable figure who stands in contrast with the aura of fragility that could befall another candidate who were to suffer a stroke.  

“John is actually the epitome of a big, strong man,” said Mustafa Rashed, another Pennsylvania Democratic strategist. “There’s not been a history of John having health problems or he’s at an advanced age where you think that that would be something we’d have to worry about. The thing that may work to his advantage is his physical stature. And I think that voters will not perceive this negatively.” 

Building off that perception, the video in which Fetterman addressed his stroke in clear language backed up his written statement that he will make a full recovery and compounded on that “strong man” perception. 

“They were very smart to put him on video so people could see this, while a challenge, is not devastating in any sense. If they just released a statement, no video, I don’t know, that’s where the rumor mills and the gossipers who can amplify that gossip are able to do so. But any potential political downside went away when they released the video,” Mikus said. 

Still, Fetterman’s stroke was the latest development in what has morphed into one of the country’s wildest Senate races. 

The contest has been hit by a flood of surprises, mainly on the Republican side. 

Sean Parnell was considered the GOP front-runner last year after he won former President Trump’s support, only to drop out of the race during a bitter custody battle. Once he withdrew, celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick swooped in to consolidate much of Parnell’s support, launching a personal and expensive back-and-forth. 

Trump later issued a surprise endorsement for Oz, providing him with a late boost in the primary. But unlike Parnell, Oz has been unable to break away, and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, who observers say has a more authentic relationship with the GOP grassroots, has enjoyed a surprising rise out of left field to insert herself into the top tier. 

Since that surge, Barnette has faced a wave of pushback over Islamophobic and homophobic remarks, questions over her biography and her failed House bid in 2020. 

However, unlike those twists and turns, Fetterman’s stroke is unlikely to impact Democrats’ overall chances at flipping Toomey’s seat. 

“When he’s back on the stump, which he will be, and when he shows up the debates, which he will do, and when he answers reporters’ questions and his speech is not slurred, which it is not evidently already … I don’t think people will think about it for five seconds,” said Democratic strategist Neil Oxman.