Fetterman’s path to Washington a complicated one

Mike Wereschagin
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Chad Baker knows he’s going to lose.

For the chairman of the York County Democratic Party, in the T-shaped Republican heartland between Pennsylvania’s two major cities, the winner of a countywide election is rarely in doubt.

But the margin is.

If a statewide Democratic candidate grabs 40% of York County’s vote, they whittle down the GOP’s advantage in rural areas and stand a good chance of winning statewide, he said. His corner of the state isn’t Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or the collar counties, but it matters, he said.

“Those of us that are part of the Democratic Party in the T have asked statewide candidates to pay attention to us,” Baker said. “John has listened.”

That would be Lt. Gov. and newly minted Democratic U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman.

Improving: That Fetterman won all 67 counties might be less important to the Democratic Party’s fortunes than how he won some of them, analysts said. From his first, unsuccessful Senate primary in 2016 to this year’s victory, Fetterman improved his share of the electorate in some of the state’s reddest counties by as much as 68 percentage points.

Take Fetterman’s native York County.

In the 2016 primary, he won 17% of the vote. In 2018, when he beat incumbent Mike Stack for the lieutenant governor nomination, he won 38%.

This year, 81%.

In Adams County, he grew his support from 13% in 2016 to 81% this year. Lebanon County, 13% to 80%. And in Franklin County, home to GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, Fetterman’s primary vote share increased from 15% to 79%.

“Look at what he did [as mayor of] Braddock. That was a town that as on the brink of falling apart,” Baker said. “A lot of communities in Pennsylvania see ourselves in that — struggling, feeling like we’re not represented. In the 2016 election, there were people who shifted Republican because they felt the Democratic Party hadn’t been paying attention to them.”

Opposition: But primaries and general elections are two different contests. Both President Joe Biden and Gov. Tom Wolf remain deeply unpopular among conservative voters in these areas, and Republicans will spend the next several months making sure Fetterman is “tagged, rightly, as part of the Biden/Wolf team,” said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican consultant who worked on four of former Sen. Arlen Specter’s campaigns, two of which he ran.

“We strongly encourage Lt. Gov. Fetterman to keep campaigning in rural areas,” Nicholas said. “When voters realize how far left he is, what his positions are on abortion and guns, what he wants to do in Washington, that’s good for Republicans.”

The change in Fetterman’s primary-election margins aren’t just the result of a single campaign but of a project that began during the 2016 presidential contest. When former President Donald Trump began hosting events in smaller, postindustrial areas that summer, both Fetterman and former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell saw a potential weakness for their party.

Rendell called Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters that year in a fruitless attempt to get them to send Fetterman into industrial towns similar to Braddock, as well as other sparsely populated, white, working-class areas, Rendell said in a 2018 interview for The Caucus.

Then, as now, the goal wasn’t to win those deeply conservative counties. It was to cut into Republican candidates’ margins of victory, leaving fewer paths for the GOP to undo the leads Democrats rack up in urban centers from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

The question is whether enough of those voters will warm to Fetterman.

“If you get 100 more votes in Elk County than you normally would, that’s a nice story, but the numbers don’t necessarily add up,” Nicholas said.

Fetterman will also have to deal more with party leaders in urban areas — the very people his chief rival, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb courted — who will demand he spend more time in their communities to convince the Democratic base to turn out, Nicholas said.

Where to spend time: It’s the same conundrum every statewide candidate confronts: where best to spend the finite amount of time before the Nov. 8 election and to whom to tailor the campaign’s message.

“There are a million stories about the urban/rural divide,” said Kristin Kanthak, political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “But there are aspects that people aren’t getting right.”

Chief among them is that politics is the art of telling a story — whether about a candidate or an issue — that people can recognize, no matter where they live, Kanthak said.

Fetterman’s is rooted in populism, said Joseph DiSarro, political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College.

“He has a way of relating to the common person,” DiSarro said. “In spite of his Ivy League background (Fetterman earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University), he’s an everyman.”

While his chief rival, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, racked up endorsements from the Democratic establishment, Fetterman burnished his credentials as a foe of the elite by publicly spurning the insider game. When he took office as lieutenant governor, he declined to move into the state-owned mansion that comes with the office.

“You know that old cliche, ‘Which candidate would you like to have a beer with?’” DiSarro said. “I’m a Republican. I’m a conservative. I’d love to sit down for a beer with John Fetterman.”

The language: Most explanations for that fixate on the Carhartt work shirts, hoodies, shorts and tattoos that cover Fetterman’s 6-foot-8-inch frame. But if politics is about telling a story, those are just a regional accent.

“What’s different about him is he uses the language of the right,” Kanthak said.

Such as on the issue of transgender rights.

“When he talks about it, he talks about it as being about not bullying people for who they are,” Kanthak said. “A lot of the conservative movement, particularly after Trump, has been about this feeling of being bullied. I think that’s something that a lot of folks on the left don’t quite have a handle on.”

Trump’s message is that he bullies back; Fetterman’s is that people deserve not to be bullied, Kanthak said.

Same story, different moral.

“The simple message is nobody likes bullies,” Kanthak said. “We all saw ‘The Karate Kid’ when we were growing up. Nobody likes Cobra Kai. And we’re all looking for, ‘Who is Cobra Kai?’”

In a polarized country, where many Republicans doubt the validity of the 2020 election in part because they know nobody who voted for Joe Biden, Fetterman is testing whether a single message can resonate through a divided audience, Kanthak said.

“There are two questions here. One is, does it work? And the other is: does it get you elected?”