News stories covering the primary races for Pennsylvania’s US Senate seat generally go like this: Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is the Democratic frontrunner pulling ahead big time; now let’s talk about the tit-for-tat attack ads between Republicans Dr. Oz and Dave McCormick for twelve paragraphs.
Sure, the Republican primary is developing every day, as Oz and McCormick exchange polling leads faster than Kyle Busch and Kyle Harvick. But at the end of the day (on May 17), GOP voters will have one of two, nice-looking, middle-aged, super-rich Trump wannabes representing them.
What happens after the primary is where things really get interesting.
Fetterman stands around six feet, eight inches tall and frowns a lot. He has a goatee, tattoos, and is pretty much never not wearing Carhartt. He reminds me of a typical guy I’d see lifting weights at my local YMCA after the prison guard shift ends at 3 p.m.
Except, unlike my other gym buddies who wear “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirts, Fetterman is a “progressive.” He supports Medicare-for-All, raising the minimum wage to $15, unions, and legalizing marijuana. He’s anti-filibuster and fracking, though on the latter, he’s calling for a “de facto moratorium because the transition is going to be toward green and renewable energy.” When it comes to immigration, a top issue for Pennsylvania voters, Fetterman told Politico:
We should not end Title 42 until we have a detailed plan in place. And look, we don’t only need a long-term and detailed plan here for ending Title 42, but we still need to fix our broken immigration system as a whole.
Fetterman ran for Senate in 2016, and back then his own party didn’t take him seriously. Now, as Fetterman goes rogue (with $15 million in the bank), portraying himself as a tough guy with a sensitive side (he flew some pro-LGBTQ/weed flags from his Harrisburg office) who’s not afraid to skirt party lines, he’s attracting a new breed of overlooked rural Democrats. And establishment liberals are warming up to him.
“DC Dems get out of frontrunner Fetterman’s way in Pennsylvania,” reports Politico, citing Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who said he is “the kind of populist that I think would do very well in Pennsylvania.”
Fetterman’s main — but distant — rival is Congressman Conor Lamb, who sets himself apart by being pro-fracking and more of a Blue Dog Democrat.
In 2018, Lamb aired an ad that said he (a former Marine) “still loves to shoot,” along with a photo of himself at the gun range firing an AR-15. Yet rather than depicting him as a “moderate,” such messaging may just come off as confusing, as Lamb, like his fellow candidates, favors expanded background checks and banning “high-capacity magazines.” Lamb now supports a ban on so-called “assault weapons,” which he opposed a few years ago.
Speaking of the gun issue, it’s a matter of contention — kind of — for Fetterman, whose role in a 2013 incident when he was the mayor of Braddock (a Pittsburgh suburb) continues to haunt him. Fetterman alleges to have heard what he thought were gunshots in his neighborhood, so he grabbed a shotgun, chased a man who was running, and detained him. NBC reports on the rest:
It turned out that the man was jogging and wearing running clothes. According to a police report, the man was unarmed and said the sound of gunfire was actually fireworks, although two witnesses thought they heard shots.
The man Fetterman pulled a gun on is Black … Fetterman said he couldn’t tell the jogger’s race initially because of how he was bundled up in the winter cold.
“Large white man pulls gun on unarmed black man.” How many times have liberal journalists’ fingers longed to type those words? Yet an incident that would have been considered a damning hate crime had a Republican done it doesn’t seem to be a problem for Fetterman. He hasn’t apologized, and despite the story coming to light over and over, his lead in the polls has only grown.
Fetterman is a Democrat in Republicans’ clothing, literally. Yet his “I’m one of you guys” shtick seems to be winning over Pennsylvania Democrats, especially blue-collar union workers living in Trump country. It may also work on young Republicans, who are more likely to support liberal social policies, such as same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana, than older generations. Young people also likely see Fetterman, his tats, his angsty crossed arms and his slobby dress — err, sorry, “everyman stylings,” per the Washington Post — as cool, especially compared to Lamb, who comes off as the most clean-cut, nerdy Mormon missionary you ever saw knocking on your front door.
A Politico magazine article on Fetterman claims he “hates having his picture taken,” though every photo I’ve seen of him indicates he’s practiced the tough guy act and has it down pat. And if he hates the limelight so much, why is this Harvard-educated “outsider” allowing big-name, glossy publications to profile him? Why is he running for a high-profile leadership position at all?
The answer lies in Fetterman’s “unapologetic white-guy-in-cargo-shorts vibe.” From what I can tell, he’s a hipster, preferring showy social programs to solid policy strategies that do more than throw money and art projects at problems. He lives in a 3,100-square-foot loft reportedly renovated with family money. Back when Covid was still the way to show you were virtuous, he wore a Carhartt neck gaiter inside his own home. Instead of calling himself a “politician,” he’s a self-identified “social worker who holds a public office.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports:
[A]lthough he has previously reported receiving no income himself, [Fetterman] has drawn on family money to help constituents with their own financial problems.
“My guiding principle is that I will never make a dime off the plight of my community,” Mr. Fetterman said.
“Drawing on family money” to help (bribe?) constituents sounds a lot like some “income inequality” tax the rich scheme to me.
But the most telltale sign this guy is not one of the real-deal, blue-collar, bench-press guys I know well is in the clothes. Fetterman’s Carhartt garb never has a grease stain on it. It isn’t tattered. And he seems to have the disposable income to afford a hoodie in every color there is.
So John Fetterman may not be the trustworthy “everyman” he purports to be. Then again, plenty of Republicans are also skeptical of their candidates, so expect this to be a weird year in Pennsylvania politics.