Welcome to April! The campaign homestretch has started in earnest, and we’re wondering where all the time went.

📮🆕 Expect some more emails from us soon about our most important and interesting 2022 election stories.

There are 41 days left until the Pennsylvania primary.

— Jonathan Tamari, Julia Terruso, (@JonathanTamari, @JuliaTerruso, election@inquirer.com)

The politics of fracking

Let’s talk about fracking. Candidates in Pennsylvania certainly are.

The issue — which always carries a mix of economic and symbolic power in the state — is even more prominent this year as gas prices rise and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows the dangers of relying on foreign energy.

Ask the Republican candidates for Senate and governor about their top priorities, and energy is almost universally at the top. The Senate contenders often use the same language, calling for an Operation Warp Speed or Marshall Plan for energy.

They offer few specifics, making it impossible to gauge how effective their ideas would be and what environmental trade-offs they’d entail. But they’ve staked out strongly pro-drilling postures in a state that ranks third in supplying energy to other states, with natural gas as the dominant source.

“This is the long pole in the tent of economic renewal for Pennsylvania,” Senate candidate David McCormick said at a recent GOP forum in Erie.

Rival Mehmet Oz boasted about an endorsement from former Texas Gov. and Trump energy secretary Rick Perry.

“Energy is freedom,” added Kathy Barnette. And GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain just launched two new ads on energy and gas prices.

Josh Shapiro, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, has sued fracking companies for environmental hazards as state attorney general. He’s said he’d implement safeguards recommended by grand juries in those cases, but not that he favors outright bans.

Natural gas drilling is arguably the biggest policy difference in the Democratic Senate primary. State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia wants a moratorium on new fracking sites, a contrast with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Congressman Conor Lamb, who are both from Western Pa., where drilling is big.

“We still do not know right now what chemicals are being put into our groundwater,” Kenyatta said at Sunday’s Democratic debate. Oil and gas companies, he said, “have a pattern and practice of abuse.”

But two years after the Green New Deal captivated some Democrats, Lamb and Fetterman are taking a softer approach.

“There are a lot of Democrats that are just kind of afraid to talk about fossil fuels and the way that we all rely on them every day,” Lamb said Sunday.

Fetterman, in 2016, tried to outflank his Senate rivals on the left, calling for a drilling moratorium until tougher standards were imposed. He said then that Pennsylvania’s extraction processes were “an environmental abomination.” But now he says the regulations he wanted have been imposed, so he doesn’t favor a ban.

When a supporter asked him about climate change Sunday, Fetterman emphasized the importance of “energy security” and said that, while fighting climate change, we “have to honor and take care of” workers and communities that depend on the industry: “We as a party can’t just say, ‘Well, go learn how to code.’”

While the issue is big in campaigns, it’s unclear how much fracking actually moves voters. Recent polling indicates a slight increase in favorability for the industry compared to 2020, though surveys on the issue have long been a mixed bag. And despite the heavy political focus, the industry employs – directly and indirectly – between 20,000 and 50,000 people, a tiny fraction of Pennsylvania’s workforce.

Still, for some voters, a politician’s stance on fracking represents their overall posture toward the kind of industrial jobs that are still revered in parts of Pa., even after so many are gone. (Think of the power of Hillary Clinton’s coal miner comment in 2016).

And while fracking itself doesn’t make the list of issues Pennsylvania voters say they’re most concerned about, the economy, including inflation — and those rising gas prices — are at the top.

On the campaign trail with Jonathan

We talked a few weeks back about the power of personality over policy in politics, especially in primaries. We got a firsthand look at that dynamic Sunday at John Fetterman’s campaign stop in Chambersburg (above).

“He shows up in his Dickies… and he’s just a real person,” said Steve Smith, 39, explaining why he supports the LG.

“I trust him,” added Jenny Boxler Shifler. Fetterman and his wife Giselle “just seem like actual normal people,” she said.

As Fetterman posed for photos in his signature gray gym shorts and a maroon Carhartt hoodie, Smith said he regularly switches parties to vote for whichever candidate “is a real human being… and doesn’t just tell me what they think I want to hear.”

Smith explicitly said he doesn’t vote on policy, because he assumes he’ll disagree with every politician on something. But he’s drawn to outsider personas: He had a Donald Trump bumper sticker in 2016 before switching to Bernie Sanders.

Almost none of the Fetterman supporters we interviewed led with his policies — and this was among some of the most engaged voters you can find, people who spent part of a Sunday afternoon at a campaign event. This isn’t to say Fetterman is the only candidate whose persona is part of his appeal — far from it — but it illustrates how personal attributes can matter as much, or even more, than policy or ideology.

Fetterman’s Republican and Democratic critics argue that his image is a facade, one they’re aiming to puncture. And policy contrasts will be more pronounced in the general election. But among Fetterman supporters, his persona is a major part of the appeal.

“He speaks his mind,” said Sharon Bigler, 71, a Chambersburg Borough Council member, “and I love it.”

What else you should know about

  • Giffords forum. Democratic Senate candidates will speak at a gun violence forum at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Monday at 5 p.m. The event is being held by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who will also attend.

  • Cash crunch. Even Democrats who don’t like Fetterman are wondering how anyone can get around his money advantage. He announced yesterday another $3.1 million raised in the first quarter of the year, signaling he’s got the cash for the homestretch. That’s important because his opponents have to bring him down — but he’ll almost certainly have more money than rivals to communicate with voters. Lamb, who has less to spend, has been off the air for two weeks. But a super PAC supporting him has stepped in with TV ads attacking Fetterman (though at least one station removed the ad after Fetterman’s camp challenged its accuracy). We’ll find out later this month how much the group has raised.

  • Draft picks. One of the easier questions Lamb and Kenyatta got at Sunday’s debate: Name your favorite Pa. microbrewery. Kenyatta dodged the question, noting he’s on the state House liquor committee. Lamb name-dropped Duquesne Brewing in Latrobe, and Pittsburgh’s IC Light. But then he seemed to lose some points with the Allentown crowd by adding, “I know you all probably drink Yuengling.” The crowd booed and Lamb sighed. “I just lost a lot of votes, didn’t I?”

Hope you drink something good this weekend. See you next week.