How John Fetterman beat Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania

hHere’s how John Fetterman won the all-important Pennsylvania Senate seat for Democrats: He knew Pennsylvania.

It’s the Fetterman formula: down-to-earth atmosphere, plus rural outreach, plus pro-labor Democratic politics with some progressive accents (like support for eliminating filibusters.)

He knew Pennsylvania voters would respond to a candidate who looked like a Pennsylvanian who shopped at their grocery stores and supported their sports teams, shared their inside jokes and raised their family the way they raised theirs. He knew they would react badly to his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a wily TV doctor from New Jersey. And he knew how to reach those voters; by going to meet them where they live, even when it is outside the traditional Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, a district-wide strategy that allowed him to boost numbers in traditionally red areas and reduce Oz margins in Trump country.

Fetterman win on vibes; when a stroke prevented him from campaigning that summer, he flooded the Internet with memes mocking Dr. Oz as a backward millionaire from another state, taking every opportunity to remind Pennsylvania voters that Oz was not one of them. Once back on the trail, he ran on volume, resuming his district-wide approach, visiting every corner of the state where Democrats rarely go. His goal was simply to do better than the other Democrats who didn’t even bother to visit him. Fetterman ended up besting Biden by 8 to 10 points in some of the rural counties, even if he didn’t win them outright.

Supporters of John Fetterman react at a midterm election watch party in Pittsburgh, Nov. 8, 2022. (Angela Weiss—AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of John Fetterman react at a midterm election watch party in Pittsburgh, Nov. 8, 2022.

Angela Weiss—AFP/Getty Images

The race was so close that no one expected the results of the Pennsylvania election so early; Fetterman’s own campaign even released a memo warning that it could take days to count the votes in Philadelphia. So when he showed up to speak to supporters at his election night event in Pittsburgh, shortly after the polls called around 1 a.m., he seemed a little taken aback. “I’m not really sure what to say right now,” he said. “What’s up, like it’s 1:30 in the morning and you’re still here waiting?

“We started this campaign almost two years ago, and we had our tagline, it’s on every one of these signs: every county, every vote,” he said. “And that’s exactly what happened. We jammed them. We held the line. I never expected that we would turn these red counties into blue, but we did what we had to do.

Fetterman has been pushing a version of this strategy for years, a style of economic populism that is far more concerned with personality than policy. It’s about being someone that ordinary voters can relate to, and then showing yourself where they live so they can see for themselves. Fetterman has long believed that the left-moderate divide that often stymies Democrats is a Washington invention, and that most voters don’t vote on policy documents or ideological positioning. Instead, he won as a fairly straightforward pro-Labour Democrat; he supports raising the minimum wage, creating more union jobs by “making things” in America, and protecting abortion rights and democracy.

“People assume everyone reads Ezra Klein,” Fetterman told me in an interview earlier this year. But for most voters, “it’s not like they have documents laying out their position.” Instead, he believes, voters decide on a “visceral” sense of whether “this is someone they believe is a good person or will be honest at the end of the day.”

Ultimately, despite a stroke that sidelined him at a critical moment and a shaky debate performance that led many observers to write off his campaign, voters retained that feeling for Fetterman.

“This campaign is about fighting for everyone who has ever been taken down, who has come back,” he said in his acceptance speech. “This race is about the future of every community across Pennsylvania. For every small town or person who has ever felt left out, for every job that has ever been lost, for every factory that has ever closed, for every person who worked hard but never got ahead.”

Some Democrats already see Fetterman’s formula as a model for how Democrats can win in conservative districts. Now it’s up to them to see if anyone else can follow in his footsteps.

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Write to Charlotte Alter c [email protected].

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