Lt. Gov. John Fetterman swung by the heart of Republican country in Southwestern Pennsylvania, in the reddest of red districts, where then-President Donald Trump trounced Joe Biden by more than 55 points and MAGA signs are still apparent on seemingly every other street corner.
But rather than moderate, Fetterman leaned into his progressive views.
As he worked a few dozen voters at the Flyin’ Lion watering hole, while wearing a hooded sweatshirt, basketball shorts and gym shoes on a snowy spring day, Fetterman renewed his push for marijuana to be legalized nationwide, touted the role of immigrants in the US, called for the transgender community to be treated equally, decried efforts to pare back abortion access and backed calls for stricter gun laws, including a ban on semi-automatic rifles.
In an interview with CNN, Fetterman didn’t hide his palpable frustration with Democratic senators, saying, “I am disappointed in our caucus” for not increasing the $7.25 federal minimum wage, and he blamed West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin for blocking the Biden agenda, leaving his party “floundering.”
When asked about calls for more bipartisanship, Fetterman didn’t flinch, asserting there’s little common ground in working with Republicans who undermined the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 victory and tried to outlaw abortion.
“I also want a full head of hair,” said the bald, 6-foot-8 Democrat. “But realistically that’s not going to happen right now.”
Fetterman now is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the Pennsylvania seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, a state that leaders in both parties see as central to the fight for the Senate majority in the fall. Fetterman – and his rivals for the nomination, Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta – are facing the most daunting midterm environment Democrats have seen in a dozen years, with a public weary over the pandemic, voters angry at political leaders over inflation and skyrocketing gas prices and a President whose approval rating has sunk to around 40%.
Still, Fetterman and the other Senate Democratic candidates are defending Biden – and say they welcome him on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania. Fetterman acknowledges that “obviously his approval rating is not where I would want it to be or where I believe it deserves to be.” But he said there were many things to tout, including “hundreds of millions of shots in arms,” low unemployment and an economy that rapidly grew in 2021.
“We’re going to embrace Joe Biden,” Fetterman said in the interview.
For primary voters here, the question is not only what Democrat can flip the seat – and preserve their party’s fragile majority – but also which direction the party should go.
In Fetterman, Democratic voters could choose the lone candidate in the field who has won statewide – a populist, firebrand and blunt-talking politician who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016 and could fire up liberals yet risks turning off middle-of-the-road voters nervous about the leftward shift of the Democratic Party.
In Lamb, Democrats could choose a younger and more moderate candidate from a swing district who has bucked the party line, like when he opposed Nancy Pelosi for speaker and backed extending Trump-era tax cuts in 2018.
And in Kenyatta, Democrats could choose a fresh face – a gay Black Democrat – who would make history but is little-known statewide.
A staunch backer of labor unions, Fetterman supports at least a $15 minimum wage, legal marijuana, universal health care and Black Lives Matter while calling climate change “an existential threat.” But he rejects the notion that he is some kind of liberal.
“I don’t mean to nitpick, but I wouldn’t categorize myself as progressive,” Fetterman told CNN. “I consider myself a Democrat that’s running on the same platform of ideas that every other Democrat in this race is running on. And I can’t think of a Democrat running nationally that’s running on anything functionally different in that regard.”
Fetterman, 52, added plainly: “If a moderate Democrat is somebody that would break with the rest of the caucus and screw up Build Back Better or the Democratic agenda, then I’m not a moderate.”
Democratic candidates chase Fetterman
In the Pennsylvania US Senate Democratic primary, Fetterman dominates in polls and fundraising. This election cycle, he has raised $15 million, Lamb has raised $5.8 million and Kenyatta has raised $1.8 million.
Fetterman says his campaign is “uniquely structured” to flip the seat “despite historically difficult circumstances for Democrats” and that he’s going to “embrace the Democratic platform and principles” while “leaning into” Biden’s Build Back Better domestic agenda. He tells voters that Democrats need to prevent Republicans from winning by “runaway margins” in conservative areas of the state like this one but takes on one of the few Democrats in the Senate who has long been able to get Republican support.
“If you are a Joe Manchin Democrat, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Fetterman said to voters last weekend in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. “But if you are, I’m not your candidate, because I will disappoint you if you are.”
Lamb, who is now aligned with Fetterman on issues like gutting the Senate’s filibuster, acknowledges he’s outraised and outspent. But he says that there is still a large group of potential voters who have not yet made up their minds and could end up supporting him.
Lamb, a 37-year-old former federal prosecutor and Marine, made the argument that they’ll be swayed to support a congressman who came on the scene by winning a high-profile Trump-won district in 2018.
“If we don’t take the Senate seat, it will be almost impossible to have a Senate majority,” Lamb said. “I have faith in the common sense of the basic Democratic voters to see that with me, you’ve had someone who’s been in this kind of spotlight before, who’s won the sorts of swing voters that we need to win.”
He argues that Fetterman is too risky to nominate – calling him “kind of out of the mainstream for the statewide level” – at a time when the party in Pennsylvania is in peril. Lamb said that the “Democratic brand” in the state “actually didn’t do that well in 2020, even though we helped get President Biden elected, obviously, we lost ground in a lot of other ways.”
“We’ve never nominated a Democrat in Pennsylvania that supports ‘Medicare for All,’ ” Lamb warned.
“I mean, he’s a Democrat, as far as I know,” Lamb later said of Fetterman. “But I think the issue is more that the Republicans will call any of us socialists who run against them. That label sticks more to some people than others.”
Fetterman called Lamb’s attacks “disappointing.”
“I will do something Conor will not,” Fetterman said. “I will tell you Conor Lamb is not a socialist, and neither am I. And it’s disappointing to have somebody that I would have considered a friend and even helped campaign for, help him win his first race, would turn around and use an attack tactic that has been used on him and me.”
Asked if he’s a socialist, Fetterman responded, “Never have been.”
Lamb’s opponents don’t believe he can excite Democrats to win in a dramatically different midterm election than the one that sent him to Congress.
“We’re not going to win by reading a bedtime story to our base,” said the 31-year-old Kenyatta, a Philadelphia native who thinks that voters are frustrated by what they’re seeing in Washington.
“I think people are looking around for real and just saying, ‘What the hell are we doing?’” Kenyatta said.
Penn Progress, a super PAC, has tried to come to Lamb’s rescue by aiming to raise $8 million. But in the first three months of the year, it raked in only $1.8 million, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports.
The veteran Democratic strategist James Carville is associated with the effort. He said they would continue raising money through the May 17 primary. Carville defended the group’s haul through March, telling CNN that it’s “a pretty big number.”
Fetterman faces attacks over 2013 incident
One politically sensitive issue for Fetterman is an incident when he pulled a gun on a Black jogger in 2013 while serving as Braddock mayor when looking for a suspected shooter. No one was injured in the incident, and Fetterman faced no charges. But his opponents have made sure to highlight the controversy.
“I just think it’s fatal to his campaign to think that you can point a shotgun at an unarmed Black man and, you know, not really have to answer for it,” Lamb said.
Kenyatta said Fetterman “still refuses to say the simple words of ‘I’m sorry.’”
“If he can’t say sorry about something he did nine years ago, how do we expect he’s going to engage with voters when he takes a vote that people don’t particularly like or when he makes a statement that is off base?” Kenyatta asked.
The lieutenant governor blames the revival of the nine-year-old incident on Lamb’s lackluster campaign, noting that the majority Black, small town reelected him twice as mayor after it.
“It never once came up in any of the primaries while I was mayor, and it’s coming up more than nine years later because, I suspect in large part, because Conor is having problems both in his polling and his ability to raise money,” Fetterman said.
“The circumstances that happened that day were done out of protection for my community,” Fetterman said, noting he had made a “split-second decision” and stopped the jogger, who was wearing a ski mask.
Asked if he regrets his role in the episode, Fetterman said: “It’s not something I would want to go back to. But at the end of the day, I’m proud of the record that I achieved in Braddock.”
Yet Fetterman’s Braddock experience is also tattooed on him – literally. His forearm includes tattoos of the dates people were killed while he served as mayor, something he pointed to while discussing his support for banning assault weapons.
“I’ve been at every scene, I would show up in every scene because their lives mattered,” Fetterman said. “And it was tragic.”
As he wrapped up his remarks before the crowd in rural Pennsylvania, Fetterman promised he wouldn’t change – not in a general election against a well-financed Republican nor in the Senate if he wins in November and saves the imperiled Democratic majority.
“You will never pick up your phone and find out that I changed my mind about minimum wage, or unions, or gay/trans equality or women’s reproductive freedom,” he said. “You will never do that. You will never hear about that from me. I promise you. I promise you.”