Last week Lt. Gov. John Fetterman launched his bid for the Senate seat being vacated next year by retiring Republican Pat Toomey. The plain-spoken former mayor of Braddock, PA, a steel town outside Pittsburgh, has already amassed more than $1.4 million in grassroots donations. A populist Democrat who campaigns on the slogan “Every vote, every county,” Fetterman aims to unify the Rust Belt swing voters of PA in what is expected to be one of the most pivotal and hotly contested Senate elections in the country next year.
In a column he penned to rural Pennsylvanians, Fetterman wrote: “If you feel ignored or underappreciated by the Democratic Party, you have the right to. We as a party have not spent enough time listening to your concerns. That needs to change, and that’s exactly what I’m committed to doing.”
The lieutenant governor is beginning his campaign with the support of two labor unions: United Steelworkers District 10 and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which together represent more than 86,000 Pennsylvanians. “John has always had our back and we are proud to have his,” says Bobby “Mac” McAuliffe, director of United Steelworkers District 10.
Boasting a 6’8’’ frame, the bald-headed, goateed Fetterman has garnered a national following through his unconventional, media-savvy persona. In TV interviews, he is prone to wear Dickie work shirts, while dishing out colorful criticism of the Trump administration. Tattooed on his left arm is “15104,” the zip code of Braddock—a reminder, he says, of Pennsylvania’s forgotten communities. On his right arm are the dates of those lost to gun violence in Braddock during his tenure as Mayor.
Despite his burly, blue-collar figure, Fetterman is a self-described democratic socialist who is not shy about embracing the core issues of his campaign. He emphasizes the importance of marijuana legalization, the increase of minimum wage to $15, healthcare as a fundamental right, and climate change reform minus a ban on fracking.
This will not be his first bid at the Senate seat. In 2016, Fetterman ran as the underdog and lost to Democrat Kate McGinty—who went on to win the nomination—and Joe Sestak, collecting nearly 20 percent of the vote. Two years later, he won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor with nearly 38 percent of the vote in a five-way race.
“Years ago when he burst onto the scene he was just the mayor of Braddock. But now he has a record. He’s not an outsider or the novelty candidate anymore,” says Guy Ciarrocchi, President & CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce & Industry. “He’ll have the challenge of saying what he really accomplished and whether he charts his own course or decides to align with Gov. Tom Wolf. He should be prepared for much more scrutiny than he’s ever faced in the past.”
Ciarrocchi says Fetterman might have to work against Gov. Wolf’s pandemic-era choices, whose polling has seen a slight dip since last February. Additionally, he hopes Fetterman follows through on his promise of addressing the concerns of local communities.
“We can’t be so parochial that we don’t look beyond our county or our state, but at the same time, there are some real challenges that need addressing in Delaware Valley and in Chester County. Pennsylvania is 46th in vaccine distributions, and our unemployment rate is worse than the national average. We’ll see if he’s genuine about it, I don’t know.”
Longtime Republican consultant Christopher Nicholas doesn’t think Fetterman is prepared for the heightened criticism. “I think the whole contretemps around stopping that fellow with his gun and his pickup truck in 2013, the way he handled that, or didn’t handle that, frankly shows that he’s not ready for the big leagues.”
Nicholas says an easier sell for Democrats would be “someone already elected in the Philadelphia area like Chrissy Houlahan or Brendan Boyle because they’re already proven in the mainstream of that area.”
The Cook Political Report released an analysis of the Pennsylvania senate race lists potential candidates they see on the sidelines. Acknowledging the list is “highly speculative,” those names include:
Democrats Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, Reps. Brendan Boyle, Chrissy Houlahan, and Conor Lamb, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, state Sen. Sharif Street, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. Kenyatta announced his candidacy on MSNBC last week.
Republican names include: Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, Mike Kelly, Dan Meuser, Guy Reschenthaler, Lloyd Smucker, G.T. Thompson, former Congressman Ryan Costello, former lieutenant governor candidate Jeff Bartos, and state Sen. Camera Bartolotta.
Craig Snyder, chief of staff to former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter and a one-time GOP congressional nominee in PA-1, has formed an exploratory committee.
Danielle Gross, director of communications and public relations at political strategy group Shelly Lyons believes Fetterman is poised for the challenge.
“I’ve talked to a lot of lifelong Democrats from my hometown in Cambria County who voted for Donald Trump and absolutely love John Fetterman. That Rust Belt appeal he needs is really playing out so far.”
“He’s really acknowledged these folks and what they’re going through in being part of the small rural communities left behind,” she says. “Not a lot of politicians have that “it” factor, and I think John Fetterman is one of those rare politicians who has it. I don’t think he’d like being compared in the same sentence to Donald Trump, but that’s probably one of the only ways in which they’re similar.”