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Conor Lamb and John Fetterman are running like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

Three months before Democratic voters pick their nominee in one of the country’s most competitive Senate races, Fetterman and Lamb are running very different campaigns.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, left, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, right, are running very different campaigns in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary.
U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, left, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, right, are running very different campaigns in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary.Read moreTom Gralish, Tim Tai/Inquirer Photographers

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb spent weeks calling members of Pennsylvania’s Democratic State Committee angling for the party’s endorsement of his Senate campaign. He’s befriended politically powerful unions, party activists, and insiders. And a group of Democrats from inside and outside the state are trying to raise $8 million for a super PAC to boost his campaign.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman avoids the traditional politicking — and some of the key rooms — that come with running for office. Very few elected Democrats are backing him for Senate. His campaign dismisses all that as an outdated political playbook, saying the primary “won’t be won in ballrooms.”

It’s the inside lane against the outside lane.

Three months before Democratic voters pick their nominee in one of the country’s most competitive Senate races, Fetterman and Lamb are running very different campaigns. It’s a sort of Pennsylvania-sized version of Joe Biden vs. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary.

It’s not a perfect comparison: Fetterman is, after all, the second-ranking official in state government, hardly a political newcomer. Neither was the “outsider” Sanders, a longtime U.S. senator. But like Sanders, Fetterman has attracted the liberal wing of the party, raising gobs of money from politically engaged progressives across the country who keep making small online donations.

And Lamb has cast himself as the kind of moderate Democrat who can recreate the Biden coalition that narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2020. While Fetterman is partly known for his tattoos, informal attire, and cable news appearances, Lamb is a clean-cut former prosecutor and Marine.

“Fetterman’s whole persona is a bit of an outsider, he doesn’t look like your typical candidate for statewide office, he doesn’t operate like a conventional politician,” said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist who isn’t working for a candidate in the race. “Whereas Lamb has a different profile. He can’t be John Fetterman, he’s not that guy, so they’re both playing the cards that they have.”

» READ MORE: The Pennsylvania Senate money race in 8 charts

Lamb’s team rejected the notion that he’s running an “insider” campaign, saying he’s just “working harder than the other candidates” and that Fetterman “doesn’t do the real work that wins elections.” That prompted a biting rejoinder from Fetterman’s campaign, which said his army of small-dollar donors shows he’s the candidate with “widespread and enthusiastic grassroots support ... something that even $8 million of dark money can’t buy.”

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.) has tried to run a campaign that blends a bit of both, uniting elected officials, unions, and grassroots supporters in his bid to bring working-class experience to Washington.

The ”outsider” candidates have better records in Pennsylvania Democratic primaries in recent decades. Ed Rendell, then the mayor of Philadelphia and little known outside the city, won the 2002 gubernatorial nomination over Bob Casey, the son of a former governor. Joe Sestak beat Arlen Specter in 2010, after almost the entire party apparatus backed the party-switching former Republican. And Tom Wolf was the political newcomer in a 2014 Democratic primary for governor that included a congresswoman and a state treasurer.

A notable exception: Katie McGinty beating Sestak in the 2016 Senate primary.

John Fetterman’s outsider campaign

Fetterman is recognizable for his gym shorts, Dickies work shirts, and 6-foot-8 frame. He comes from a wealthy family and got a master’s degree from Harvard before being elected the mayor of small, struggling Braddock, outside Pittsburgh. His campaign sees his unconventional story line and style as an asset — especially in what’s expected to be a brutal midterm election year for Democrats.

“In a year when traditional Democrats, and traditional candidates, are going to struggle, John doesn’t have to convince people he’s not like other Democrats or other politicians — they can see it for themselves,” one campaign memo to supporters reads.

“Make no mistake,” it continues, “other candidates will have more endorsements from elected officials. But that’s okay. ... In a year that will be as tough as 2022, you cannot win in Pennsylvania by running the same old playbook.”

And unlike previous “outsider” candidates, Fetterman, 52, enjoys a profile both inside and outside Pennsylvania. He’s a known political character from running two statewide campaigns and being featured in national magazines like Rolling Stone. That’s something candidates like Sestak, who was largely unknown outside the Philadelphia area, just didn’t have.

“He’s Harvard and he’s Braddock,” said Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “And that combination, in a Democratic electorate that’s got a lot of highly educated folks and a lot of working-class Pennsylvanians, may be pretty potent with a lot of resources to help push it along.”

» READ MORE: We're tracking the candidates running for Senate in Pennsylvania

Fetterman has managed to be the Democratic front-runner without much help at all from the party.

“We’re used to this politician who is gregarious and just out there trying to please people,” said Kimberly S. Adams, a Democratic consultant and political science professor at East Stroudsburg University. “He’s not that.”

He recently skipped a forum with Philadelphia Black clergy members who vocally criticized him for it later, and some Democrats have argued that he’s ducking scrutiny. Bob Brady, the former congressman and longtime chair of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, openly gripes that he’s never heard from Fetterman.

“I ain’t taking his call. It’s too late for me,” Brady said.

“No one knows him,” Brady added. “There’s no personal contact whatsoever. When you have a lot of money and you want to buy an election and you don’t have any substance, why would you want to talk to the people? You just keep on buying it.”

One has to look pretty far down the ballot to find elected Democratic supporters.

“He’s not traditional, but his differentness is appealing,” said Joelisa McDonald, the mayor of Rankin, which borders Braddock. “In politics sometimes you have to be willing to stand alone, and the person that is willing to do that speaks volumes to their character.”

Conor Lamb’s insider campaign

At 37, Lamb is hardly an elder party statesman. But he does come from a political family: His grandfather led the Pennsylvania Senate in the 1970s and his uncle is Pittsburgh’s city controller.

Lamb often uses the term “Pennsylvania Democrat” to describe himself, recalling a tradition of more moderate Democrats embraced by the party. When Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney endorsed Lamb in January, he said Lamb reminded him of a “young Bob Casey.”

“It’s a nod to the core and historical base of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party,” Borick said. “Traditional, working class, tied to unions, that he wants to claim.”

At the same time that some in the party establishment have soured on Fetterman, Lamb has drawn their interest. Fund-raising solicitations started going out last week for a new super PAC backing him. The group’s ambitious spending goals could bridge a significant financial gap between Lamb and Fetterman.

It’s unclear how expansive that effort will be. National Democrats, after weighing in heavily during the 2016 primary, are closely watching this race — but staying out of it so far.

» READ MORE: Conor Lamb’s Senate campaign is getting a super PAC boost — featuring James Carville

Lamb’s campaign says he’s not just rubbing elbows with party elites, but rank-and-file Democrats. Several Philadelphia area community leaders have said they’ve been impressed with his campaign hustle: He makes frequent trips to town and calls them on the phone.

“There is no ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ in this race,” campaign manager Abby Nassif-Murphy said. “Conor Lamb is just working harder than the other candidates to reach out to Democratic activists — the people who knock on doors, make phone calls, organize voters and volunteers, and help win elections on the ground. That’s not being an ‘insider,’ it’s having a record and a message and doing the hard work to build a coalition that can win tough elections.”

Nassif-Murphy said Fetterman isn’t putting in the same effort.

“John Fetterman is refusing to show up and take questions on issues that he doesn’t want to talk about,” Nassif-Murphy added. “That’s not being an ‘outsider,’ it’s another reminder that he’s never been in a tough race and doesn’t do the real work that wins elections.”

Rebecca Katz, a Fetterman campaign consultant, called those “desperate attacks.”

“Our campaign’s 180,000 grassroots donors, from 88% of Pennsylvania’s zip codes, and massive fund-raising and polling advantage 12 months into this race are proof that John is the candidate with widespread and enthusiastic grassroots support,” Katz said. “That’s something that even $8 million of dark money can’t buy.”

And Lamb has modeled himself after Biden. He launched his Senate campaign at a Pittsburgh union hall, like Biden. And he’s hoping the state’s Black establishment will help him.

Like Biden, Lamb argues that he’s the most likely to win a general election, citing multiple victories in conservative-leaning, Trump-friendly congressional districts. It’s a message targeted at Democrats desperate to cling to control of Congress.

The question is whether that electability argument resonates with the wider primary electorate.

“It doesn’t necessarily sell when you’re talking to primary voters and telling them, ‘My strength is that I could beat a Republican,’ ” Borick said. “It’s not that people don’t care, but they’re also looking to fall in love and find somebody they feel passionately about.”

On the other hand, with such high stakes, some Democrats may agree with Kenney, who gave this reason for backing Lamb last month: “I wanna win.”