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John Fetterman makes his U.S. Senate campaign official as a competitive, expensive race begins

Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor is the first officially declared major candidate in what’s shaping up as a crowded 2022 field for both parties.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman talks to The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board in February 2020.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman talks to The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board in February 2020.Read moreMonica Herndon / File Photograph

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman formally announced Monday what has been evident since his unsuccessful first campaign for U.S. Senate: He’s taking another shot at it.

Fetterman, who launched his campaign with a video for supporters, is the first officially declared major candidate in what is shaping up as a crowded 2022 field for both parties. He enters the Democratic primary touting endorsements from labor unions, a campaign account that has swelled to almost $1.5 million since he told The Inquirer last month that he was considering becoming a candidate, and a progressive track record.

“I didn’t just show up at this dance,” said Fetterman, who started his political career in 2005 as mayor of Braddock, outside Pittsburgh. “The Democratic Party has moved distinctly in my direction, as opposed to away from my direction. And it’s because I have always run on what I believe and know to be true, even when it’s not popular.”

Despite his unabashedly liberal profile, Fetterman’s announcement video makes clear his hope that he can also win the support of onetime Trump voters.

“These places across Pennsylvania feel left behind. They don’t feel part of the conversation,” he says at one point. “That’s why Donald Trump went to these small counties and held these big rallies. We cannot afford to take any vote for granted. We cannot afford to take any place for granted.”

Fetterman, a vocal advocate for full marijuana legalization, noted that he was the only candidate in the 2016 primary to push that position. Katie McGinty won the nomination that year before losing the general election to Sen. Pat Toomey, a Lehigh Valley Republican who is not seeking a third term.

During an interview this weekend, Fetterman repeatedly rejected labeling policies such as raising the federal minimum wage as “progressive.” He instead cast such stances, including his longtime advocacy for LGBTQ rights, as moral and sensible.

Toomey’s retirement has stirred big interest for potential candidates in both parties. The race is already in the national spotlight and will likely see tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars spent. The winner will help determine whether Democrats keep control of an evenly divided Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris holds the key tie-breaking vote.

Midterm elections historically favor the party that doesn’t hold the White House, and the race will double as a referendum for President Joe Biden’s first two years in office.

Both parties face internal tussles over their own futures, with Democrats split between progressives and moderates, and Republicans divided over former President Donald Trump with most embracing his brand of politics but some rejecting it in favor of more traditional conservativism.

» READ MORE: Pat Toomey's retirement makes the 2022 elections in Pennsylvania a total free-for-all

Fetterman said he respects many of the potential Democratic candidates. Those considering running for the seat include U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of Allegheny County, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia.

“But I’m the only one that has run and won statewide,” Fetterman said, noting that he and Gov. Tom Wolf won reelection in 2018 by 17 percentage points.

Fetterman has grown his national profile in the years since, and over the last few months he emerged as a prominent defender of Pennsylvania’s election results, with frequent appearances on national TV.

He shrugged off the traditional midterm election headwinds, calling himself a “67-county candidate” who can pick up votes in more rural parts of the state, not just the big cities and surrounding suburbs. He served as an emissary for Wolf to many of those areas in 2018.

“I’ve been warning Democrats ... that while Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are critical, the small counties are also important,” he said. “It’s never urban versus rural. It’s got to be urban and rural.”

Republicans scoff at Fetterman’s supposed working-class appeal.

“John Fetterman’s look is nothing more than a gimmick,” said Mark Harris, a GOP strategist and top Toomey adviser. “He is not a biker, or working class, or blue collar – as he would like to have you believe. He is a spoiled trust fund baby who worships at the altar of hardcore leftists, like Bernie Sanders. ... In the end, this gimmick will fall flat and Pennsylvanians will reject Fetterman.”

» READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How one state embodies America’s political discord

Fetterman and his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, have incorporated her life story into his position on immigration. She came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant from Brazil with her family as a child.

“I always defer to her position on it because she’s so close to it,” he said. “That was the truth she lived.”

The social-media-savvy couple has fostered a self-deprecating public partnership — his hulking, 6-foot-8 tattooed frame and penchant for blue-collar work clothes rather than suits, hers more stylish and diminutive by comparison. His nascent campaign sent a fund-raising letter from her Saturday with the headline “Pothead Second Lady,” explaining how medical marijuana has helped her chronic back pain.

Fetterman supports Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package but is dismayed that advancing it through the so-called budget reconciliation process to pass it without Republican support may mean that a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 gets stripped out. And he rejected Republican complaints about reconciliation — a Senate procedure that allows some bills to pass with a bare majority — noting Republicans used it to enact big tax cuts in 2017.

“It’s just part of the fundamental disingenuousness of the party now,” he said. “There isn’t anything rooted in reality at this point that’s coming out of their messaging.”

(In a separate interview with Yahoo over the weekend, he declined to take a position on whether he would vote to allow undocumented immigrants to receive direct payments as part of the relief package.)

Fetterman accused some of the Republican senators expected to acquit Trump at his second Senate impeachment trial starting this week as “coconspirators” in the then-president’s incitement of the deadly Capitol attack.

“It was straight-up the definition of incitement to say that Pennsylvania, specifically, cheated or was fraudulent or did anything during that other than deliver a true and fair secure result,” he said.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking false claims about Pennsylvania’s presidential election

Fetterman’s 2018 opponent, real estate developer Jeff Bartos, is one of several Republicans eyeing a Senate run. Others include former U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello of Chester County, Kenneth Braithwaite, who served as secretary of the Navy for Trump, and former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain.

Costello sometimes criticizes Fetterman on Twitter. “He’d be terrible — errand boy for a bad governor,” Costello said in one tweet last month. “If I ran I would smoke Fetterman in the suburbs,” he said in another.

While Fetterman often takes a social-media torch to many Republicans, he has forged a friendship with Bartos, and said he encouraged his 2018 rival to run.

“There’s not one negative thing about him that ever comes out of my mouth,” Fetterman said of a candidate he may face in 21 months. “It would be mind-blowingly cordial if it ever worked out that way.”