Hooked on a feeling: How John Fetterman won Pennsylvania

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John Fetterman, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and Democratic senate candidate, greets supporters after a campaign rally in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. Fetterman and Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz are running to replace Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who is retiring. The outcome of the race could decide which party controls the Senate. Photo by Justin Merriman Justin Merriman/Justin Merriman

Hooked on a feeling: How John Fetterman won Pennsylvania

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BRADDOCK, Pennsylvania — It didn’t matter to voters John Fetterman had exaggerated his claims of rebuilding the borough Braddock, held an innocent man at gunpoint for jogging while black, barely showed up for his current job as the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, and has not been transparent about his heart health before or after his stroke. In the end, the York native won big in Pennsylvania on three things: the relationships he had built before his stroke in Republican areas of Pennsylvania, his smack talk against his opponent’s carpetbagging, and Donald J. Trump.

Exit polls in Pennsylvania showed that voters were more concerned about Republican Mehmet Oz being from New Jersey (60% said it was a problem) than they were about Fetterman’s health (51% said it was not a problem to them). That tells most of the story on its own.

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Fetterman spent most of his campaign running ads and tweeting showcasing Oz’s roots in New Jersey. He started a petition to nominate Oz for the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Fetterman even enlisted very-Jersey celebrities such as Snooki of Jersey Shore to draw attention to his charge that Oz had no authentic connection to the commonwealth and had only been there out of political ambition.

Fetterman’s campaign manager, Brendan McPhillips, gloated over the win by taking the low road in a nasty swipe at the senator-elect’s own party members who had expressed concerns about his health in a vulgar tweet: “If you were an ‘unnamed Democrat’ who wet the bed to the press after the debate, I hope you stub your toe on the corner of your bed frame this morning, spill coffee on your shirt and then lock your keys in your car.”

“But mostly, I hope you know you’re a (expletive) loser,” he added.

For all of McPhillips’s gloating, Fetterman’s 3-point win fell far short of fellow Democrat Josh Shapiro’s 14-point thrashing of Republican Doug Mastriano in the gubernatorial contest — a win that marked the largest victory for a non-incumbent governor in the state since 1946.

As one Democrat said of the Fetterman win, as well as Democratic socialist and Squad supporter Summer Lee winning the Pittsburgh congressional district, “The good news is the Republican crazies lost. The bad news is ours won.”

In March of this year ahead of the Democratic primary here in Pennsylvania, I reported that too many people in the press and in the Democratic party were underestimating the legwork that Fetterman had done ahead of this year’s primary and predicted that he would prevail over establishment favorite Conor Lamb.

The relationships he built held despite all of the reporting done on his resume and his health. It didn’t matter that he could not get back to the voters in the red counties with the same vigor as he had in the other three primary races. It was a relationship built on emotion more than ideology, and they weren’t budging, said former state party Chairman T.J. Rooney.

“It’s a connection,” Rooney said. “It’s visceral and, in the case of Fetterman, at a very human level. Yeah, if you make a Trump analogy in the sense that the ability to appeal to the ‘Everyman’ and ‘Everywoman’ is a unique ability, and sometimes it can be packaged in very, very different forms. But the effect of the ability to move people in emotional ways, in addition to thoughtful policy-driven ways, is a unique gift, for sure.”

Trump, who played an oversize role in whom voters picked in the primary, also played a net negative role in the general election race. In the closing days of the race, he started his negative campaign against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis here at a Western Pennsylvania rally. He closed the week out by letting everyone know he would be announcing his run for president the following week. For a lot of squishy independent voters, this meant that a vote for a Trump-backed Republican meant two more years of election denial. They balked at the voting booth.

No one thing took Fetterman over the line — it was, however, a perfect storm that few saw coming. That includes me, — and also the Democratic pollster I contacted hourly ahead of Election Day who said two days afterward, “Sometimes, you just can’t capture a feeling in a poll.”

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