What sort of Democrat would it take to win against Donald Trump’s Republican Party?
He (almost certainly a he) would be young and white, side-parted and square-jawed — as “pleasantly inoffensive” as “vanilla ice cream or a pair of well-pressed khakis,” as The Atlantic put it in 2018. His resume would glisten with public service, with time in the Marine Corps (military!) and as a prosecutor (law enforcement!). He’d defend popular entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid while condemning the GOP’s 2017 tax breaks for the rich. Maybe he’d fire off an AR-15 in an advertisement to prove he “loves to shoot,” but demand stronger background checks in the wake of a mass shooting.
That candidate would, in other words, be Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Penn.), who won his seat during a March 2018 special election in the GOP-dominated district north of Pittsburgh. The 37-year-old had every reason to suspect he could replicate victory at the state level, too.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary voters, however, resoundingly rejected Lamb’s archetypal virtues on Tuesday night. John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, won the U.S. Senate primary in Pennsylvania. The ending matched a lead he maintained for the entire race, despite suffering a stroke late last week and undergoing surgery to install a pacemaker on primary day. Fetterman will now face off against a to-be-determined Republican candidate in a race viewed as the Democrats’ best chance to flip a Senate seat this November.
Fetterman’s success defies easy categorization at a time when Democrats are desperate to identify what sort of candidate can prevail amid their president’s relative unpopularity. Much of that sorting has been about where the ideal candidate sits on the progressive-to-moderate spectrum — with all parties involved, unsurprisingly, arguing that the ideology they prefer on policy grounds is also the one that’s most politically expedient. Fetterman, who has advanced degrees from Harvard but also a Carhartt aesthetic that’s backed by earned credibility among working-class voters, doesn’t neatly fit on that spectrum. And on Tuesday, Pennsylvania’s primary voters picked someone who’s neither a Republican-lite nor a progressive acolyte.
Lamb’s special election victory had been “hugely influential,” in the words of one Democratic operative who worked for the party’s congressional campaign arm that year. Lamb was the mold in which other prized would-be House Democrats were forged: A cautious embrace of the party platform, a staid appeal to suburban voters disgusted with Trump’s chaos, and a vow to vote against Nancy Pelosi, then the GOP’s favorite boogeyman, as House Speaker. Lamb’s victory in a white, working-class district — a one-time Democratic stronghold Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016 — swelled the party’s ambitions as it sought to regain control of the House.
It also swelled ambitions for Joe Biden, born in nearby Scranton and obsessed with drawing disillusioned former Democrats back into the party’s fold. Biden had been the only Democrat Lamb allowed to campaign with him during that first 2018 run. Lamb, in turn, inspired Biden’s own 2020 presidential campaign strategy. After Biden’s 2020 victory, Lamb blamed progressives for the party’s worse-than-predicted performance in down-ballot races. “They and others are advocating policies that are unworkable and extremely unpopular,” Lamb told the New York Times, naming “defunding the police” and “banning fracking” as chief offenders.
Fetterman entered the primary as a frontrunner and never lost his lead, facts that did little to dislodge his anti-establishment typecasting. Some of that has to do with his politics: He endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016 and used his perch as lieutenant governor to hold a 67-county listening tour on legalizing marijuana. Some of that has to do with his aesthetics: The media can’t resist gawking at his 6-foot-9 stature, tattooed, bald, bearded, and often bedecked in a hoodie, black Sketcher sneakers, and baggy gym shorts that fall past his knees (not a “well-pressed khaki” in sight). In addition to the politician uniform, Fetterman also eschewed most other campaign rituals, declining, for example, to seek endorsements from his fellow state lawmakers.
But Fetterman, like Lamb, has defended fracking as a source for jobs and embraced a flavor of police reform more reflective of the center of his party. His pet issue, legalizing marijuana, is perhaps the only culture war issue the left is unambiguously winning. Fetterman also earned party-wide bona fides as he defended the state against Trump’s false accusations that Pennsylvania officials had manipulated vote tallies in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. He holds an enigmatic set of positions that unifies the concerns of old-school blue-collar Democrats (privileging jobs over climate goals, for example) with the beliefs of younger, activist-inclined liberals (LBGTQ rights, prison reform). He’s also had a long political presence in the state that lends a sense of trust.
Now, Fetterman’s campaign enters its next phase, one in which his supporters find out whether his label-defying ideology transcends party lines, too. Trump’s election conspiracies will dominate the state, regardless of who emerges as the GOP Senate nominee. For governor, Pennsylvania Republicans chose Doug Mastriano, a state senator who introduced a resolution in late November 2020 to throw out the 2020 election’s popular vote result and instead install electors chosen by the GOP-controlled state house. Fetterman will have to spend the night watching the Republican Senate GOP results roll in to find out if he, too, will be running against an election conspiracy theorist.