John Fetterman has won the Democratic nomination in the Pennsylvania Senate primary, the Associated Press projects, setting up the race to fill the seat of retiring Republican Pat Toomey. With a stuffed war chest and something of a cultlike following in Pennsylvania and nationally, Fetterman, currently the lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth, was the front-runner for the majority of the race, a position he maintained despite suffering from a stroke in the final stretch of his primary campaign. He won handedly, blowing Conor Lamb, a former Marine and prosecutor turned House representative, and Malcolm Kenyatta, a Pennsylvania state lawmaker, out of the water. And to do it, Fetterman explicitly dismissed Democrats’ winning 2018 strategy of playing to the middle; he rocked the boat.
At a towering six feet eight inches, sporting a goatee, a shaved head, and often a uniform of Carhartt and shorts, Fetterman is a physically striking candidate, particularly when he was juxtaposed against his main rival in the race, Lamb, the polished politician, typically seen with neatly combed hair and a crisp collared shirt. Back in early 2018—months before the now infamous blue wave midterm election—Democrats’ formula worked well for Lamb, propelling him to victory in a Trump district and cementing him as one of Nancy Pelosi’s poster kids for how to win in a frontline district. And yet, Lamb, who failed to garner the same recognition and suffered from lackluster fundraising throughout the race, was easily eclipsed by Fetterman.
So why did the face of the Democratic-wave election in 2018 fall so resoundingly flat in a high-profile Senate race? There are the usual explanations. “There were too many candidates in the race and a lot of people just didn’t want to put money there” and were instead looking ahead to the general election, Christine Jacobs, the executive director of Represent PA, said of Lamb. Plus, “he was not well known in [Eastern Pennsylvania], where most of the Democrats are,” she said. Lamb’s embrace of a James Carville–backed super PAC—despite his call for Citizens United to be overturned—didn’t help the congressman’s chances. And the Republican primary—a clown car of candidates all fighting for the MAGA stamp of approval—eclipsed the Democratic contest. The Pennsylvania media market was inundated with largely negative Republican political ads throughout the primary season, Kadida Kenner, the executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, which works to expand the electorate, lamented. “I think that the GOP is doing what they do best, which is sucking all the air out of the room.”
But in a post–January 6 world and at a time of gridlock in Washington—despite Democratic control of both chambers of Congress and the White House—when women’s reproductive rights are under assault, it’s likely Pennsylvania Democrats were motivated by a greater dynamic at play.
The Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary was billed along ideological lines; Lamb in the moderate, centrist lane, often boasting the benefits of bipartisanship, and Fetterman, conversely, positioning himself as a progressive outsider in the race. While Lamb’s traction in the polls wasn’t substantial, his endorsements were, with the backing of labor unions, the mayors of both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and many state representatives, including those from critical suburban districts. Notably, Lamb initially buddied up to Joe Manchin—a “moderate” if there ever was one—before seemingly distancing himself after the West Virginia senator scuttled a series of critical Democratic priorities. Fetterman cast his few endorsements as a positive, not a detriment. Unlike Lamb, Fetterman had garnered a national profile during the George Floyd protests and displayed savvy on social media, which he translated into name recognition and fundraising dollars. His pitch: I won’t be another Manchin in the Senate. Fetterman’s campaign has described him as a “Democrat with a backbone”—perhaps a nod to Republicans’ well-worn dismissal of Joe Biden as spineless.
As Amy Walter recently suggested in the Cook Political Report, it seems Democratic base voters “want fighters, not unifiers as their candidates.” A democratic strategist in Pennsylvania echoed this notion. “They think Fetterman is the answer to Trump because he’s the guy that can win them back Trump voters. He has that rustic feel, he dresses down and he’s this tall, tough guy…. They think that he is the antidote to Trump,” he told me. “They do not want to put themselves behind a milquetoast candidate that seemingly appears good.”
“I think if it was 2014, they would vote for Lamb. I think in 2022, with Trump leaving a very, very interesting stain on this nation, Democrats are recalculating the kind of candidates they put themselves behind,” he added.
Earlier this year, when I spoke with both Lamb and Fetterman, Lamb intoned that he would be returning to his 2018 playbook for winning. “I think we’re gonna be victorious because I believe deep down that the Democratic Party still gets that at a base level, which is why we chose Joe Biden as the nominee in 2020 and why we’re gonna succeed in 2022,” Lamb said. He also had a more subtle dig at the Fetterman camp’s prolific online base—one that has picked up some traction from the Bernie Sanders–supporting crowd. “I don’t think it’s as simple as people in the media have a tendency to turn it into moderate versus progressive…. I think it has more to do with people who define progressive by the results you achieve and people who define progressive by what you say on Twitter, regardless of the results you achieve. And that seems to be the distinguishing point in our primary,” he said.