Fetterman's plan to win Pennsylvania: Taking his populist message to Trump country

His map for a general election path to the Senate runs through the reddest areas of the ultra-competitive commonwealth.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, now the Democratic Senate nominee, speaks at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on April 4.Matt Rourke / AP file
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PITTSBURGH — John Fetterman, the 6-foot-8 lieutenant governor who won a blowout victory for the Democratic Senate nomination on Tuesday while he was in a hospital recovering from a stroke and surgery, has a plan to capture the seat this fall.

His strategy is to take his populist economic message all over Pennsylvania, including the reddest parts of this ultra-competitive commonwealth, to speak to everyone (including supporters of former President Donald Trump), and put a premium on areas that have felt ignored or marginalized. He has demonstrated the fundraising prowess to run any kind of campaign he wants.

Fetterman doesn’t yet know which Republican candidate he’ll face in the Nov. 8 election, when the Democratic Party faces a grim landscape and strong political headwinds. But his wife, Gisele Fetterman, told NBC News at his election night party it won’t matter.

“We’ve always run our own race. We care about people, we meet with people where they are. I don’t see how that would change, regardless of who the candidate is on the Republican side,” she said in an interview. “We don’t care if you voted for Trump, or if we thought you’ve maybe felt differently than us. … That’s what we did then, and that’s what we’ll do now.”

She said her husband plans to visit “all counties” in Pennsylvania. “Every single one. More than once.”

Fetterman is as idiosyncratic in substance as he is in style. In his campaign, he has stressed bread-and-butter issues. He supports a $15 minimum wage and is firmly pro-union; he sells T-shirts in favor of legalizing marijuana. He endorsed Bernie Sanders in his 2016 presidential campaign. He also opposes Covid-19 mask mandates (he criticized Philadelphia for briefly reimposing one last month) and broke with President Joe Biden on immigration, saying the Trump-era Title 42 policy should remain.

His top advisers insist that unique mix is an asset.

“John Fetterman doesn’t fit in a box. He’s someone who has a different kind of connection to voters,” Fetterman strategist Rebecca Katz said in an interview. “2022 is going to be a tough year for Democrats. We are very eyes-wide-open about that. But the map for John is different.”

Republican operatives would beg to differ. They are gearing up to paint him as too left-leaning for a state like Pennsylvania.

“The ads write themselves when you are running against John Fetterman,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Chris Hartline. “He has embraced the far left on just about every issue. While there’s certainly vigorous debate in the Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania about the future of the Republican Party, the Democrat primary in Pennsylvania shows that the fight is over in the Democrat Party. The liberals won.”

Sam DeMarco, the Allegheny County GOP chairman, said: “Fetterman denies it, but he’s a socialist.” DeMarco is backing Dave McCormick, the former hedge fund executive who is neck and neck with Trump-endorsed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in a race that NBC rated “too close to call” on Wednesday morning.

Still, other Republicans warn that Fetterman will be hard to beat.

“John Fetterman is far more formidable than people give him credit for,” said Sean Parnell, the formerly Trump-backed GOP candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate seat who dropped out in November and has endorsed McCormick. “He says exactly what he believes all the time and it doesn’t matter if it pisses his base off at all. But I think his base respects him for saying it.”

“He’s done a great job at building an extraordinary base, not just here in Pennsylvania, that’s excited to get out and get the vote for him. But also — his donor base is unbelievable,” Parnell said. “He’s got this reputation in Pennsylvania as a sort of Democrat blue-collar hammer-swinging folk hero. He’s not that. So it’s going to be the Republican nominee’s job to point that out and to show that.”

Some national Democrats wonder if Fetterman can win over Republican-leaning voters. They also worry about his ability, being from western Pennsylvania, to turn out the crucial Black vote, particularly in the Philadelphia area, which can make or break Democratic candidates in statewide races.

“He is a few notches more liberal than any previous Democrat who has won statewide in Pennsylvania. The hope is that he would be able to win over to our side some voters who previously have not been interested in voting for Democrats,” Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., said over the weekend. “At the same time he also needs to hold on to those recent gains we’ve made among more moderate voters in areas like the Philadelphia suburbs.”

“I think he can do it, but it’ll be a challenge,” he said.

Katz said Fetterman rejects “Washington, D.C., assumptions” about how to run in Pennsylvania: “A traditional Democrat runs up the score in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and that’s kind of their whole campaign.” She said Fetterman will seek votes in the “T” — the areas between those two big cities — and limit the margins in the rural parts and towns where Democrats typically get “slaughtered.”

At his election night party, Gisele Fetterman outlined the agenda her husband plans to run on in the general election.

“Too many people in this commonwealth and this country are hurting,” she said. “He’s going to fight for abortion rights; he’s going to fight to raise the minimum wage; he’s going to fight to protect our planet; he’s going to fight to eliminate the filibuster; he’s going to fight to legalize cannabis; he’s going to fight against gun violence; he’s going to fight against inflation and corporate greed.”

On Tuesday night, John Fetterman said in a statement that his team has "a hard fight ahead of us — but Pennsylvania is worth fighting for."

"We’re going to win in November the same way we won tonight — by fighting for every county, and every vote," he said.