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‘He is unconventional’: John Fetterman’s unique persona is put to the test in Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary

<i>Hannah Beier//Reuters/FILE</i><br/>John Fetterman's unique persona is put to the test in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary.
Hannah Beier//Reuters/FILE
John Fetterman's unique persona is put to the test in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary.

By Dan Merica, CNN

A win for John Fetterman in Pennsylvania on Tuesday would be a win for the unconventional candidate.

Scores of Fetterman supporters across the commonwealth were drawn to the candidate because of his uniqueness. They loved that he looked miserable at a White House event, has people not-entirely-jokingly guessing whether he owns a suit and literally stands out of a crowd with his 6-foot, 8-inch frame. His stances drew them in, too, from legal marijuana to climate justice to his focus on “forgotten areas” throughout Pennsylvania.

But with Fetterman on the precipice of winning the Democratic Senate primary — polls show the lieutenant governor up around 30 percentage points over Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta — many of those same supporters have a dilemma: Is the lieutenant governor too unique for a broader electorate?

It is not an uncommon question among both the Fetterman faithful and even some Republicans drawn to his persona. His supporters still love him.

“Very few politicians feel like that they are going to go to war for you,” said Andrew Charles, who attended a recent Fetterman event in homemade T-shirts supporting the candidate. “They feel like they have their own agenda and John’s agenda seems like it’s for the people instead of for money of big business.”

But with Democrats’ sole goal being winning in November — flipping the open Senate seat is key to the party retaining control of the chamber — some have begun to question whether the same uniqueness that drew them in is what will turn off a broader, more politically diverse set of voters.

“I know that John Fetterman does own a suit. I have seen him in it. … And I know he has a wife who tells him from time to time, ‘John, you need to put on the suit,’ ” said Jen Porter, an active Democrat who had already cast her ballot for Fetterman. “But he is unconventional. … I hope that would not be held against him.”

Karin Tatela, an educator at the event, said when she had to tell a friend about the Fetterman appearance she was going to, the comparison she used was to a long-haired, tattooed rocker: Bo Bice, the runner up on the fourth season of American Idol who lost to Carrie Underwood.

“When I was texting my friend this morning that I was coming, I said he is the Bo Bice of politics,” said Tatela, who wondered whether that uniqueness could hurt him in the long run. “That’s my one reservation, because I want somebody that can beat the Republicans.”

Fetterman’s campaign is now in a unique position with a unique candidate.

Fetterman announced on Sunday that he had a stroke on Friday, sidelining him from the campaign trail for multiple days while he recovers in a Lancaster area hospital. The candidate says his doctors have “assured me that I’ll be able to get back on the trail” and that there was no “cognitive damage” done by the stroke, but the injection of a health issue just days before the primary throws yet another question into what will likely be one of the most closely watched Senate campaigns of the 2022 cycle.

“It was certainly a shock,” said Porter, who was at the Lancaster-area event that Fetterman was meant to attend before he checked himself into the hospital.

Her support of Fetterman is not diminished — “I am putting out signs at my precinct in my district tomorrow, she said — but Porter worries the stroke could become an issue in a general election.

“Politics is so dirty these days,” she said. “I think the Republican could uses it as an issue. I don’t think they should, but I think they could.”

‘He definitely is a different kind of candidate’

The lieutenant governor entered the race as a formidable candidate, but no one thought he would so easily dispatch Lamb, a more traditional Democrat who has racked up endorsement after endorsement but whose campaign has failed to ever launch. The Fetterman campaign announced on Friday that they had more than 200,000 individual donors, an impressive feat that helps explain why Lamb was so easily swatted away: The lieutenant governor has broad Democratic appeal.

But, should he win on Tuesday, Fetterman will have to face a wider swath of voters, not just Democrats eager to vote in a primary. And that is where the fact that he doesn’t look like a traditional politician could become more complicated.

“He definitely is a different kind of candidate,” said Tracy Rekus, a Scranton-area voter who used to vote for Democrats but now plans to back Republican Kathy Barnette in the Republican primary.

But Rekus exemplifies the complications that a unique candidate like Fetterman will face. She supports the legalization of marijuana, but she also “wasn’t a fan of the flags that he put out in front of his office,” referring to a flag with a marijuana symbol he hung outside his office in Harrisburg.

“You don’t have to show it in front of the people’s house,” she added.

Lamb has also tried to cut into the idea that Fetterman’s persona will help him at all with more working class, rural voters that Democrats need to win to cut into Republican margins in large swaths of the state.

“Those people don’t care how we dress. They’re not going to make their decision based on how we dress. They’re going to make it based on issues,” Lamb told CNN recently, arguing that what he believes “distinguishes our two campaigns is I’m willing to talk about swing voters in this state and who they are and what it takes to appeal to them, and John’s never had to do that.”

Lamb’s argument is also that Fetterman is too progressive to win in a state like Pennsylvania, something a super PAC supporting the congressman has driven home by regularly calling the lieutenant governor a socialist.

That messaging resonates for lean Republican voters like Sharon Brooks, a Bucks County resident who voted for former President Barack Obama twice before voting for former President Donald Trump twice.

“I believe he is too progressive. Conor Lamb is much more of a centrist than John Fetterman. If I had to vote Democrat, I’d vote for Conor,” said Brooks, who is deciding between voting for Barnette and celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz in the Republican primary.

This is not Fetterman’s first run for Senate or the first time his uniqueness has been a question headed into an election day — he ran and lost in 2016 to Democrat Katie McGinty.

McGinty’s primary campaign manager, Mike Mikus, said their focus groups at the time showed Fetterman’s style was both a clear strength and a nagging question. Mikus said multiple women would comment in these groups about how a woman candidate “could never get away with dressing like that.”

“That happens with candidates like him. There are people who are just a little more traditional. Even if they want to buck the system, they still want someone who looks that part,” he said. “With some voters, he will have some work to do and he will need to convince them just because of the way he dresses and the way he looks and the tattoos that he is serious.”

‘I think it’s a problem’

Much like the socialist charge, accusations that Fetterman will struggle to win the support of Black voters in Pennsylvania are certain to nag him in a general election.

Kenyatta, a 31-year-old Black gay state representative, has made this one of his most potent critiques against Fetterman, using a string of debate performances to specifically question a 2013 incident in which Fetterman left his home, shotgun in tow, to confront what turned out to be an unarmed Black jogger, after hearing the sound of gunshots in the area and calling 911.

“For somebody who has cut an image as an incredibly tough guy, you’re so afraid of two little words: I’m sorry,” Kenyatta said in April. “The problem is that John still, nine years later, refuses to do one of the most important things that you want from any leader.”

In an interview with CNN, Kenyatta stood by his statements.

“I think it’s a problem. I thought it was a problem on the debate stage. I’ll think it’s a problem on Wednesday,” Kenyatta said, arguing that “midterm elections are turnout elections” and Black voters have shown they are not motivated to vote “in this next election.”

“We need somebody who can really talk to these people,” Kenyatta said. “And I can talk to these people because like I’m one of those people.”

Fetterman has defended himself by noting that he was reelected following the incident and, during the debate, said while it was “not a situation that anyone would want to be involved in,” he was the “only Democrat on stage who has successfully confronted crime and gun violence.”

And Joe Certaine, a Fetterman supporter and voting rights activist in Philadelphia, said whether the incident impacts Fetterman’s ability to reach black voters “depends on how Jon handles it on the stump.” Certaine said he has handled it well so far, but that he imagines Republicans are certain to make it part of their attacks against him.

“Republicans have a way to twisting everything,” he said, arguing that Fetterman is “not just a guy who came out of the woodwork to run for office” and that his “experience in Braddock” leads him to “trust John to handle things well” if he is the commonwealth’s next senator.

To Kenyatta supporters, Fetterman’s answers are not good enough — and their concerns will persist beyond the primary.

“Whether he would inspire the minority community to come out and vote for him could be detrimental to the Democratic Party,” said Lillian L. DeBaptiste, the mayor of West Chester and a Kenyatta supporter. “(Fetterman) is not inspirational to marginalized people, and that’s Black, that’s brown, that’s immigrant communities. That’s anybody that doesn’t look like him.”

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