Fetterman’s early 2022 entrance gives him time to build strength — or set up his fall

By: - February 9, 2021 7:09 am

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller)

Pennsylvania’s crowded 2022 political picture started to look a little clearer Monday, when Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman announced that he was officially running for U.S. Senate.

“Talk is cheap, but for the past 20 years, I have been working to represent, rebuild, and to advance these places,” Fetterman said in an announcement video. “It’s not rural versus urban, it’s rural and urban. I’m going to fight not for one part of Pennsylvania, not for one party of Pennsylvania, but for one Pennsylvania.”

The announcement wasn’t much a surprise. Fetterman’s ambitions for higher office have been clear for years. 

But he’s the first big name to enter a highly competitive race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey. And with control of the federal upper chamber split 50-50, it will attract big names and big money.

In interviews with a half-dozen Pennsylvania political operatives and observers, Fetterman’s early announcement drew a mixed reaction. 

Most agreed he possessed unusual political acumen and appeal, which he could use over the next 15 months to invigorate old supporters and find new ones, and maybe even scare off likely opponents — giving him an easier shot at the nomination.

But it also gives other Democratic primary hopefuls, the national groups likely to invest in this must-win race, and his eventual Republican general election opponent time to sharpen their attacks, and punch holes in his all-important everyman image.

Fetterman — the 6’8” former mayor of a western Pennsylvania mill town known for his social media jabs and informal dress — has built a brand and identity with strong appeal to thousands of avid supporters. 

He ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2016, and used that as a springboard to run for lieutenant governor in 2018 against scandal-ridden incumbent Mike Stack. Fetterman beat him in a five-way primary.

A left-of-center populist, Fetterman blends traditional blue dog appeals to the “union way of life” with socially liberal stances, such as legalizing recreational cannabis and backing LGBTQ rights, wrapped up as compassionate and common sense.

His fandom, which has only grown during the 2020 election as he defended its results against allegations of fraud, has delivered in early fundraising totals.

A month since announcing an exploratory committee, he’s already raised an $1.3 million, with contributors from all 67 counties in the commonwealth, according to his campaign.

Such small- donor prowess could come in handy in a race that could attract tens of millions of dollars in political spending.

Within hours of his announcement on Monday morning, Fetterman already had secured three on-brand endorsements from the cannabis legalization group NORML and two statewide unions — United Steelworkers District 10 and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776.

Wendell Young, president of Local 1776, told the Capital-Star the union’s elected executive board agreed to the endorsement last month, before Fetterman, let alone any potential opponents, had even officially announced.

“While it may seem early with the midterms over two years form now, let’s face it: That election started last year,” Young said.

Toomey’s exit kick-starts 2022 guesswork among Pa. politicos

“It’s going to be a tough race and we want to take advantage of the momentum he has created,” he added.

Fetterman told the Capital-Star on Monday that he would use his perch in the Senate to safeguard abortion access, increase the federal minimum wage, legalize cannabis and reduce prison populations nationwide.

“My focus will never change. People said ‘what will you do as lieutenant governor?” Well, we remade the commutations and pardons process,” Fetterman said.

Fetterman has worked to accelerate clemency programs in Pennsylvania by simplifying the application process, eliminating fees, and traveling to state prisons to encourage aging prisoners to apply for commutations. In 2019, the first year he took office, the state Board of Pardons voted on 41 commutations in public hearings — its highest volume in decades.

Such a message, and results, will be important for a western Pennsylvania politician, Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia-based political operative said.

Fetterman “has an ability to talk to people from all over the state, from all parts of the party, and Republicans,” Rashed told the Capital-Star. 

For example, Fetterman barnstormed the state in 2019 to gauge support for cannabis legalization, showing his face in every county in a way many statewide politicians don’t.

But the “one area he will have to figure out … is how to perform well in the southeast,” Rashed added. That means appealing to suburban white voters, but also Black voters, and most critically, Black women. 

Criminal justice and cannabis, the enforcement of which has disproportionately hurt African-American communities, could be a way to win over Black voters, Rashed added.

Fetterman’s disadvantage is the “inverse for all other candidates,” Rashed said. But few of those “other candidates,” likely from the Philadelphia area, have thrown their hats in the ring.

So far, one Montgomery County resident, 51-year old former Norristown Councilmember John McGuigan, has announced a run.

Otherwise, the other 2022 rumored Democratic Senate hopefuls include U.S. Reps. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District, and Brenden Boyle, D-2nd District, as well as Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia.

Politicos agreed that, with Fetterman’s western support apparently locked down, a one-one-one matchup will provide the best odds for an eastern opponent. Too many candidates from Philadelphia and its suburbs could split the region’s growing political power, similar to the 2018 primary that brought Fetterman to statewide office. 

Fetterman’s path could be further complicated if another western candidate, such as U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District, joins the race. In such a scenario, the race could look more similar to the crowded Democratic auditor general primary of 2020, in which Philadelphian Nina Ahmad emerged victorious.

Another point raised was who national Democratic groups would back. With Senate control balanced on a knife edge, most politicos speculated that the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee under new Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would play in the primary. 

Who they throw their weight behind is still an open question.

“Fetterman being the first one out doesn’t mean he’ll be the establishment candidate. He’s not an establishment figure,” said Larry Ceisler, a western Pennsylvania native who now runs a liberal-leaning Philadelphia-based public affairs firm.

If the right candidate received some well timed backing from Schumer and other outside groups, it could be enough to beat Fetterman. But Fetterman would also thrive running as an outsider against the power brokers that rejected him, operatives noted.

The final question mark, politicos noted, is how deep Fetterman’s Democratic opponents dig into his past. 

Opponents could be hesitant to tarnish Fetterman’s image with negative attacks, in case they lose and the material becomes fodder for the Republican candidate. But his personal history includes some stories that could be toxic to the very Democratic voters he needs to win — such as chasing down and brandishing a shotgun at an unarmed Black jogger in 2013.

Republicans were already teasing the message Monday. Mark Harris, a political advisor to Toomey, tweeted that Fetterman’s brand is “nothing more than a gimmick” of a “spoiled trust fund baby,” while referencing the jogger incident.

Likely Republican candidates to replace Toomey are U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District; 2018 lieutenant governor nominee Jeff Bartos, of Montgomery County; former suburban Philly congressman Ryan Costello; 2020 U.S. House candidate Sean Parnell, and former House Speaker Mike Turzai, both of Allegheny County, among others.

Both parties have reasons to be optimistic. An open race means an easier flip for Democrats, who’ll hope to expand their slim control of the Senate in support of new President Joe Biden. 

But midterm elections typically swing against the party with power in Washington D.C., which gives Republicans an edge.

All these trends will then coalesce in Pennsylvania, a swing state whose voters have, in the last four years alone, backed former GOP President Donald Trump in 2016, reelected Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf by a landslide in the 2018 blue wave, and then flipped to Biden in 2020, while kicking Democrats out of two row offices and expanding Republican control of the General Assembly.

But even if Fetterman can rebut the negative attacks and make in-roads with new voters, he’ll still face one more critique he can’t easily answer: The fact that, as the Democratic Party prioritizes diversity, his victory would likely complete a top of the party’s ticket composed entirely of white men.

That’s because state Attorney General Josh Shapiro is widely expected to run for governor in 2022 to replace term-limited Tom Wolf. Few expect a serious challenge to Shapiro.

Christine Jacobs, the executive director of Represent PA — a statewide group that backs pro-choice women — said she was “very concerned” that the party seemed “to be set on anointing two white men” with statewide nominations “all in the name of securing Democratic victories.”

“We have never had a woman or person of color in either position,” Jacobs told the Capital-Star in an email. “If we do not fight for change in 2022, it will be another decade before we have the opportunity again.”

Either way, Fetterman says he welcomes the competition: “The more voices in the races, the better.”

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed to this story.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.