Who will win the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, May 17, is no big mystery. John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, has been leading polls for months in one of the key races for Democrats to retain control of the Senate.
recent polls leaves him with 30 points ahead of his closest challenger, Rep. Conor Lamb – the kind of moderate Democrats typically put forward in the Pennsylvania Senate races.
His dominance may seem surprising. But behind it is his success in addressing two pressing issues that Democrats have grappled with nationally. That their primary voters prefer progressive policies over voters in general elections, and that their party seems incapable of clearly defining what it believes and who it is for: it wants to promote progressive ideas without being branded the left, and strike a balance between elite priorities and workers’ interests.
Due to the peculiarities of his candidacy, Fetterman manages to find a balance between extremes. A longtime politician, he promoted progressive causes in the state, while also addressing practical, populist concerns. And he did that a lot while wearing it Carhartt Hoodies and basketball shorts†
That’s not to say Fetterman has a lock on the general election. But if Fetterman wins, he and Democratic voters will take a bet: An unconventional, yet authentic candidate progressive enough to win a Democratic primary won’t topple the party in a general election.
Who is John Fetterman?
Fetterman’s parents were conservative Republicans, those of “extremely poorto prosperous because of his father’s small business. He became interested in public service after the death of a close friend redefined his life and career goals. He worked in mentoring organizations before earning a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School, eventually leading a GED program in Braddock, a working-class, primarily black industrial town east of Pittsburgh.
In 2005, he won his first race for mayor of Braddock by one vote, leading the city for a decade before doing his first statewide race in the 2016 Democratic Senate primary to challenge Republican Senator Pat Toomey. (whose chair he is now trying to turn over) ). Although he lost that match, in 2018 he was successful in the election of lieutenant governor.
sen. Bernie Sanders (whom he supported in 2016) supported him in that race, confirming Fetterman’s progressive credentials. A largely impotent office, it has nevertheless given him widespread name recognition, and he has used the position to advocate for marijuana legalization, gay and trans rights (he was in the news for hanging a pride flag from his office in Harrisburg), and prison reform.
In that last area, as head of the clemency council, he could really make a difference. Under his supervisionthe council waived the application fee for those seeking pardons, encouraged more people to apply, and significantly increased the number of pardon and commutation recommendations.
Democratic primaries are not the same as general election voters
Solid progressive, though hesitant to use the “progressive” label, Fetterman occupies an unusual position in the Democratic contest.
He is not as left-oriented as his closest ideological rival, Malcolm Kenyatta, the black gay state representative from North Philadelphia, or an outspoken centrist, like Lamb, the DC-born, retired Marine. But the worker progressiveism Fetterman represents the interlacing of several elements: old-fashioned, centrist concerns for working-class people — often targeting the white working class — and the activist priorities of a younger, more diverse electorate.
On the face of it, Lamb, who won a Republican seat in a 2018 special election by just a thousand votes and managed to retain the seat in 2020, seems like the ideal candidate to win statewide. Often described as “direct from central casting‘, he is more moderate than Fetterman or Kenyatta, and on the campaign trail was willing to criticize big spending proposals that could exacerbate inflation. His support from moderates and centrists was still not enough to match Fetterman in the primaries, though these voters will be crucial to winning statewide.
Lamb “doesn’t scare the Republicans. He’s not exaggerating, he’s not controversial, he’s a Marine. He’s generally the guy,” Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia quarterback, told me. “But it’s hard to get through the primaries that are anywhere near the middle.”
The rise of Fetterman and the downfall of Lamb show a tension in the Democratic electorate of the state that is also repeated across the country. The party has moved to the left, drawing candidates away from the old political center.
At the same time, Democrats need to improve their support among working-class, college-educated voters of all races who might have rejected too radical a message. Only 23 percent of Democratic voters in Pennsylvania describe themselves as very liberal; 44 percent call themselves moderate. And they are almost evenly split between moderates or progressives who want to take control of Washington, according to recently Monmouth University poll† This internal struggle is happening while there are more Democrats in the state reverse their party membership to the Republican Party, and as Republicans close the voter registration gap that would have given Democrats an advantage in previous elections.
“The fate of Pennsylvania Democrats in 2022 depends very much on maintaining their modest gains among working-class white voters and stopping the bleeding among non-white working-class voters,” longtime Democratic analyst Ruy Teixeira writes† “So how are they? Not good, not good at all.”
A pro-Lamb super PAC seemed to emphasize this point when it aired an ad calling the lieutenant governor a “self-described.” democratic socialist(although Fetterman doesn’t call himself that). And that attack, along with Kenyatta’s questions about a… moment in 2013, when the then-mayor confronted a black jogger with a shotgun after he thought he heard gunshots, it raises a central question about Fetterman’s candidacy: whether he’s progressive enough to win a Democratic primary, but too progressive and unconventional to win general elections.
Fetterman’s campaign argues that he has been successful in part because of his ability to transcend this ideological dichotomy.
“John goes to some of the reddest counties. He talks to the people in the reddest counties and the bluest counties. He goes everywhere,” Joe Calvello, the campaign’s communications director, told me. John is another type of Democrat who can appeal to people in these forgotten cities—places that used to vote Democrat, but Democrats don’t even visit anymore. He can call on these people because he shows up and he listens.”
The polls suggest primary voters also believe Fetterman will have no problem with a more moderate general electorate, as he gets more support from them than his rivals. He has deep roots in the state, feels like an outsider even though he has held political office for 16 years, benefits from his outspoken advocacy for abortion rights, and exemplifies a populist progressive: one who holds on to his beliefs for even if some of them, like support for fracking and gas tax suspension, put the economy ahead of bigger left-wing climate goals.
Pennsylvania’s Changing Landscape Will Test Democrats’ Struggle for Identity
This Pennsylvania contest is ramping up as Democrats struggle nationally with an identity crisis. They just got Washington under control and screwed up their signature legislative plan. They don’t know whether to insist on climate change mitigationwhether the social safety net for families should be expanded, or how? talk about inflation† Americans are frustrated and usually blame one party: those in power.
That poses a major challenge to Democrats, including in Pennsylvania, where polls in recent months show that the economy is the primary concern of voters. A growing plurality of voters say they are in worse shape than they were a year ago, and only a quarter think the country is on the right track. If we look specifically at Democratic voters, the general trend remains the same: Democrats are mixed whether the country is on the right track. In Washington, Democrats disagree on how best to tackle this problem — and it’s possible, if not likely, that no legislation will be passed before November to address economic problems.
Fetterman has no federal legislature. But he has displayed a reporting discipline that suggests voters he hears their concerns and has a plan to follow in Congress if Democrats retain their majority. He has often talked about creating more jobs, raising the minimum wage and abolishing the filibuster to do just that if necessary.
Voters also seem to trust Fetterman on other issues polls say are important to Democrats, such as the war between Russia and Ukraine, health care costs and voting rights. And after a draft Supreme Court decision was quashed… Roe v. Wade leaked, he has also brought abortion rights to the forefront of his campaign. Pennsylvania allows abortion up to 24th week of pregnancy according to the lawand a Republican-led state government could enact tougher restrictions or bans even as Pennsylvanian becomes more pro-abortionist.
His authenticity is also evident in his pragmatism, something that mainstream progressive and national democrats tend to put second to ideological purity. He is not aligned with many on the left of his party on climate issues, for example, where he champions fracking as a source of jobs and revitalization of industrial communities.
Based on his campaigns, Fetterman seems to have been successful thus far for understanding the Pennsylvania landscape; he has charted a path between the political left and the center, developing a strong personal brand as a pragmatic outsider. His primary election win will test whether this kind of populist progressivism is enough to keep the Biden-Obama coalition of moderate suburban and progressive urban voters together as they cut moderate and conservative support for the eventual Republican candidate in November.