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‘Just a Democrat’: Fetterman tries to carve out his own brand in Pa. Senate battle

But the favorite to win Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate nomination has his own brand.
Lieutenant Governor & Democratic Senate Candidate John Fetterman Holds Campaign Event
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic Senate candidate, speaks at a campaign event in Lebanon, Pa., on April 30.Michelle Gustafson / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

John Fetterman doesn't want to be attached to a label. Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania who is a heavy favorite to win the state's Democratic Senate nomination, bristles at Bernie Sanders comparisons.

“There are no parallels,” Fetterman said. Although he has campaigned for Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, in the past, he says he’s not interested in collecting endorsements from the party’s big names for his own Senate bid. “This is about our own campaign and our own race.” 

But Fetterman has certainly sounded like a progressive Democrat at times, supporting universal health care, a wealth tax and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Asked whether he considers himself to be a progressive, Fetterman said: “No, I’m just a Democrat that has always run on what I believe in, know to be true. And six years ago, this was considered progressive. But now there isn’t a single Democrat in this race or any race that I’m aware of that’s running on anything different. So that’s not really progressive. That’s just where the party is.”

Fetterman is carving out his own path in this campaign, which has been somewhat overshadowed by the Republican nominating contest. When he first ran for the Senate in 2016, Fetterman, the former mayor of small-town Braddock, “barely had gas money,” in his words. In the current race, he has blown his opponents out of the water when it comes to fundraising

Beyond the dollars is the brand. He campaigns in a hoodie and gym shorts. He has been under fire for chasing down a Black man while carrying a shotgun. His vibe seems to be "not your typical Democrat." He speaks plainly: “I don’t mean to be crass, but we need to keep making sh-- in this country,” he recently told a room of steelworkers in Bethlehem. 

In a closely divided state, Fetterman is looking to win back some of the blue-collar voters who swung to Donald Trump. He acknowledges where his party has failed in longtime Democratic strongholds that turned red in 2016. “It’s like this idea that if you feel left behind or you feel that, that you’ve been ignored or you, the party has moved on to something different or better in their minds, like, well, what’s wrong with us?” 

His wife, Gisele, has been front and center in his campaign in complimentary ways. Whereas he’s casual and brash, she’s polished and personable. She grew up as an undocumented immigrant — an experience she says plays a role in Fetterman’s approach to immigration policy. Even today, she says, she gets mistaken as the babysitter of their three children and gets more hate mail than her husband. 

And Fetterman has some choice words for his fellow Democrats in Washington. “We are squandering, in my opinion, an enormous opportunity to do some transformative good through legislation that is being stopped by a senator like Joe Manchin,” Fetterman said, adding that he is in favor of eliminating the filibuster.

But he says his top three priorities in Washington if he is elected will be to raise the minimum wage, codify Roe V. Wade and protect voting rights. 

With less than a week to go before the primary, Fetterman continues to have a large lead in the available public polling. Should he win the nomination, Fetterman — and his style — will carry a share of his party's hopes in this fall's battle for control of Congress.