Establishment Dems shun John Fetterman though he's almost certain to be Pa.'s Senate nominee

Establishment Dems shun John Fetterman though he's almost certain to be Pa.'s Senate nominee
John Fetterman in 2009, Wikimedia Commons

Pennsylvania has a long history of electing centrist Democrats in statewide races, from former Gov. Ed Rendell to three-term Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. to the late Gov. Bob Casey, Sr. The conventional wisdom among many Pennsylvania Democrats is that while liberals and progressives can perform well in U.S. House races and Philadelphia City Council races, statewide races are best left to moderates.

But in the 2018 midterms, John Fetterman — the former mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania and a progressive who Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont campaigned for — became the Democratic primary nominee for lieutenant governor. Gov. Tom Wolf, with Fetterman as his running mate, was reelected by a landslide in 2018, defeating Republican Scott Wagner by 17%.

Now, Fetterman is seeking the nomination in Pennsylvania’s 2022 Democratic U.S. Senate primary, which will be held on Tuesday, May 17. And if the polls are accurate, Fetterman is almost certain to be the nominee. A Franklin and Marshall poll released on May 5 found Fetterman leading centrist Democrat Connor Lamb by 39%.

Journalist Christian Paz, reporting on Fetterman in Vox on May 12, explains, “His dominance may seem surprising, but behind it is his success in addressing two pressing problems Democrats have struggled with nationally. That their primary voters tend to favor progressive policies more than general election voters, and their party seems unable to clearly define what it believes and who it’s for: It wants to advance progressive ideas without being branded as leftist, and to strike a balance between elite priorities and blue-collar concerns.”

According to Paz, “The quirks of his candidacy mean that Fetterman is able to find a balance between extremes. A longtime politician, he’s promoted progressive causes in the state while also bending to practical, populist concerns…. That’s not to say Fetterman has a lock on the general election. But if Fetterman wins, he and Democratic voters will be making a bet: An unconventional, but authentic candidate who is progressive enough to win a Democratic primary won’t doom the party in a general election.”

On the Republican side, the frontrunner in Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race has been Dr. Mehmet Oz — who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump but doesn’t have the type of commanding lead that Fetterman does in the Democratic primary. Polls have found Oz leading far-right extremist Kathy Barnette by only 2% (Trafalgar) or 3% (Fox News). And Oz’s leads over David McCormick, who Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has endorsed, have also been in the 2-3% range. At this point, according to polls, that GOP primary is a three-way race between Oz, McCormick and Barnette.

Fetterman is unorthodox. With his shaved head, goatee and tattoos, Fetterman doesn’t look like a typical politician; he looks like he could be the lead singer in a metal band. But he’s a great speaker, and unlike some progressives, Fetterman doesn’t come across as abstract. Veteran Democratic strategist James Carville has argued that progressives condemn themselves to failure when they use “faculty lounge jargon” and inundate voters with “woke” terms like “Latinx”; Fetterman, in his speeches, doesn’t use the sort of jargon that Carville complains about.

Nonetheless, many establishment Democrats in Pennsylvania believe that Lamb would be more electable running against a Republican in the general election.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, “Across the state, almost no elected officials have endorsed (Fetterman). A rare exception is Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti, who endorsed Fetterman on Wednesday, (May 11).”

Pennsylvania State Sen. John Kane, a Democratic Lamb supporter, told the Inquirer, “(Fetterman) appears to be the lone wolf. I respect that about him. And I guess it’s his way of doing business.”

Lamb has been endorsed by the Philadelphia Democratic Party. Although Philly is overwhelmingly Democratic and hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the early 1950s, Philly Democrats are hardly monolithic and range from centrists to liberals and progressives — and the Philadelphia Democratic Party believes that Lamb would be more competitive against a Republican in the general election.

Nonetheless, the Lamb supporters the Inquirer interviewed said they will support Fetterman if he wins the nomination.

“Fetterman does have a relationship with at least one potential future colleague: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 presidential campaign Fetterman enthusiastically supported,” the Inquirer observes. “Fetterman got Sanders' backing in his 2018 run for lieutenant governor, and some of Sanders’ former staffers work on Fetterman’s campaign.”

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