Before the stroke that knocked him off the campaign trail, Senate candidate John Fetterman tossed out a question that defines the Democratic Party’s 2022 zeitgeist to a crowd packed, pre-pandemic style, into a rowdy bar.
“Do we have any Joe Manchin Democrats in the room?” Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, said, referring to the moderate West Virginian serving in the 50-50 Senate who has strangled liberal dreams in the first 16 months of President Joe Biden’s term.
“No? That keeps the streak alive,” said Fetterman, a hulking, hoody-and-shorts-wearing Democratic rising star, drawing gallows laughs from activists irked at their party’s struggles to pass a sweeping social reform agenda and who fear the return of Donald Trump-style extremism.
Fetterman was campaigning ahead of Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primaries in gritty York, where America’s founders celebrated the first Thanksgiving. The city nestles in the vast rural heartland between liberal Philadelphia and Pittsburgh known by the nickname Pennsyltucky for its staunch conservative leanings. It’s a deep red fiefdom where, in Biden’s words, his twice-impeached predecessor really is the “the MAGA king.”
Republicans in both the Senate and gubernatorial primaries here are competing to swear loyalty to Trump, fixated on the democracy-threatening lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Democrats have sparred over who’s the candidate best positioned to preserve their narrow Senate majority – Fetterman or the more moderate Rep. Conor Lamb. The Senate seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the traditional Republicans alienated from much of his party by Trump’s hostile takeover, may be the best hope for Democrats to flip a GOP seat.
The 2022 election will take place in what Fetterman admitted was a “tough cycle” for Democrats, with Biden beset by low approval ratings, high inflation and with Pennsylvania gas prices averaging $4.60 a gallon, above the national average, as an energized Republican base seeks revenge for Trump’s 2020 defeat.
As both Democrats and Republicans fight battles over ideology, Pennsylvania’s statewide primaries have become a battle for the soul of both parties – and given the personal prestige and election fraud lies tossed into the race by Trump – for America’s democracy itself.
Republicans charge toward authoritarianism
The unchained Republican fervor is epitomized by gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a state senator who was outside the US Capitol while the January 6, 2021, insurrection raged. On the eve of the primary, Mastriano was on the podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, the former Trump guru awaiting trial for refusing to cooperate with the House’s January 6 investigation. Mastriano basked in the late endorsement of Trump, who lionized him for fighting against the ”deceit, corruption and outright theft” of an election Biden won fair and square.
“President Trump is loyal to those that stand for truth,” Mastriano said, demonstrating his fealty to a former President trying to turn the midterms into a salve for his wounded loser’s ego.
These snapshots of the closing stages of the Republican and Democratic primaries do not just encapsulate the powerful forces tugging at each party in Pennsylvania. They explain why the state is a study in microcosm of a critical election that could tug the entire country to the right and threaten America’s democracy again.
Trump overshadows everything
In Pennsylvania, as in the rest of America these midterms, this election will test the strength of Trump’s stranglehold over the Republican Party as he gears up for what looks like another White House bid in 2024.
His late endorsement of Mastriano looked a lot like an attempt to get behind a possible winner as surging GOP Senate candidate Kathy Barnette threatens the ex-President’s celebrity protégé, television surgeon Mehmet Oz.
“MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” Barnette declared in a debate, conjuring up a vision of a post-Trump “Make America Great Again” movement.
Still, there’s no path to victory in a Republican primary without devotion to Trump’s creed. That’s why one Republican Senate candidate, David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive who would have once been the epitome of an establishment, pro-business Republican, is claiming he’s a more faithful steward of Trump’s legacy.
“The problem is Mehmet Oz isn’t that popular in (Pennsylvania) and he isn’t a conservative – America First conservative – and that’s why his candidacy hasn’t really taken off,” McCormick told CNN on Monday.
The Pennsylvania race also crystallizes grave national questions about democracy, which remains imperiled by Trump’s authoritarian impulses more than a year after his coup attempt.
For example, if Mastriano wins the gubernatorial race in the fall, he would be in charge of running the next presidential election in a swing state that Trump lost in 2020 but that he falsely claims he won.
Republican grandees in the state, however, have mounted frantic late efforts to block Mastriano and Barnette – who has a history of anti-gay and anti-Muslim statements, as revealed by CNN’s KFile – amid fears they are so extreme they will lose in November. KFile also reported Monday that Barnette told a radio host on the day before the insurrection that she’d lead buses of “pissed off patriots” to Washington for “our 1776 moment.”
If they win their nominations, Barnette and Mastriano would cement an impression that the Republican Party has turned against democracy itself, which could be a liability among more moderate voters.
But it’s also possible that the fierce headwinds blowing in Biden’s face will prove so insurmountable for Democratic candidates that a red wave could sweep extremist GOP candidates into office anyway. That would change the character of the Republican coalition in Washington and further bolster Trump’s power. Barnette, for example, warned also on Bannon’s podcast Monday that she would oppose Sen. Mitch McConnell’s leadership of any Republican majority.
Epicenter of the abortion storm
Just weeks before election day, another development underscored just how far this election could change Pennsylvania. The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion, which suggested the court could overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing the constitutional right to an abortion, means the matter would return to states to decide their own policies.
Pennsylvania, where Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, could introduce draconian restrictions if the GOP wins the governor’s mansion, which is currently held by term-limited Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. Mastriano, for instance, has compared the fight to abolish abortion with the effort to eradicate the slave trade.
Abortion rights has, meanwhile, become the linchpin of the pitch by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is running unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial nod. “Who we elect as our next governor will quite literally decide whether women’s reproductive freedoms continue to exist in Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said in a statement in April.
Abortion is also shaping battles on the other side of the aisle. Barnette’s admission in a debate that she was conceived after her mother was raped could endear her to conservatives, who believe such assaults should not lead to exceptions in anti-abortion laws.
Fight for the Democratic Party’s soul
News of Fetterman’s stroke, following his absence from campaign events for several days, was an 11th-hour bombshell that added drama to a Democratic race that had been relatively tame compared to the expensive GOP slugfest. Fetterman has said he will make a full recovery and is carrying on with his campaign, though he is not expected to appear at his election night party on Tuesday. He tweeted an eight-second video from his hospital room and urged Pennsylvanians to vote.
The lieutenant governor bills himself as a blue collar, straight-talking candidate and came to the attention of national Democratic donors on television during Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election.
Last Thursday night, the 6-foot, 8-inch Democrat shook almost every hand in his crowd in the Holy Hound Tavern in York. It was a demonstration of the charisma that supporters hope could insulate him against Biden’s eroded approval ratings.
He laid into the Republican Senate field.
He blasted Oz as a “weirdo celebrity doctor,” saying he and McCormick were “two carpetbagging Republicans” who spent $50 million tearing one another apart.
Fetterman also vowed to wage a culture war counter-attack against Republicans. “If you get your jollies or you get your voters excited by bullying gay and trans kids, you know, it’s time for a new line of work.”
And he promised to inject steel into a Democratic Party in Washington that saw Biden’s hopes of a vast multi-trillion social spending and climate program founder on Manchin and another party moderate, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. He vowed to vote to abolish the Senate filibuster to pass legislation codifying Roe v. Wade, to pass voting rights reform and to enact “common sense gun reform.”
Although he backed progressive champion Bernie Sanders in 2016, Fetterman has tacked to the center in the campaign, partly to offset Lamb’s claims that he’d scare off moderates and independents and partly to defuse future GOP claims he’s a radical leftist.
In an interview with CNN’s Kasie Hunt last week, Fetterman rejected a progressive mantra that some Democrats blame for hurting the party in 2020 congressional campaigns.
“We can’t ever turn our back or make them out to be the enemy. I’ve never been for defunding the police, just the opposite,” Fetterman said.
Conversations with Democratic voters in the Holy Hound revealed an activist base frustrated with media coverage of Biden’s presidency, especially over inflation. But while the President is seen favorably by many of Fetterman’s crowd, there is a clear yearning for more of a fighter in Washington.
And there was palpable fear that Republicans could succeed in turning Pennsylvania from a perennial swing state that helped pave the President’s path to power two years ago into a GOP stronghold, just as happened in neighboring Ohio, with all that could mean for abortion rights and free elections.