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John Fetterman says he’s not a typical politician. Is that enough in a brutal climate for Democrats?

As Democrats face a tough midterm election environment, they’re hoping Fetterman’s brand can help him stand apart in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman campaigns during the Democratic Senate primary.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman campaigns during the Democratic Senate primary.Read moreMichael M. Santiago / MCT

As John Fetterman campaigned in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, he openly acknowledged — and warned — that the odds are stacked against his party. To win in November, he argued, Democrats needed to nominate someone different.

His argument is about to get put to the test.

President Joe Biden’s approval rating last week sunk to a new low of 39%. COVID-19 lingers as inflation rises — another spike was reported Friday — and voters say they’re frustrated with prices and gridlock in Washington.

“People feel like they’re paying more for less, they don’t feel safe in their communities, and Democrats have full control of Washington,” said Jack Pandol, spokesperson for the Senate Leadership Fund, the main super PAC supporting Republican Senate candidates. “In a midterm environment, historically voters look to hold the party in power accountable.”

As Democrats face those headwinds, they’re hoping Fetterman’s political brand can help him stand apart.

“People have been trying to label me my entire life,” he says in his first general election campaign ad. “I do not look like a typical politician. I don’t even look like a typical person.”

» READ MORE: Mehmet Oz vs. John Fetterman is a clash of two personalities running as outsiders

As campaigns become increasingly nationalized, Fetterman’s candidacy represents a test of whether individuals can defy the wider trends. And in his case, it’s whether he can beat GOP nominee Mehmet Oz, a celebrity surgeon with a distinctive brand of his own.

Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, has spent the last year reminding voters, in ads and by campaigning in his signature shorts and hoodie, that he’s not the type of suited, slick politician they’ve grown to distrust.

“Everyone is frustrated, and I think when you’re frustrated, you’re going to blame ‘typical politicians,’ ” said Matt Munsey, who chairs the Democratic Party in Northampton County. “But here you’ve got Fetterman, who’s an outsider, who comes at it like … ‘Look, I am who I am. I’m gonna go there and continue to be the same person.’ ”

Fetterman’s style might motivate Democrats who otherwise would stay home this fall, said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic consultant from Philadelphia who has helped run Senate races in the state.

“Why is there enthusiasm? Because he feels different,” Balaban said.

» READ MORE: John Fetterman doesn’t just have supporters — he has fans. His celebrity could make him a senator.

Fetterman’s critics scoff at the idea that the No. 2-ranking elected official in Pennsylvania is an “outsider.” And Republicans argue that by repeatedly saying he’d be another vote for Biden’s agenda, Fetterman has tethered himself to the unpopular president.

“If you’re going to embrace all of Joe Biden, that includes all of his negatives,” Pandol said.

And Oz argues that Fetterman, who endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) for president in 2016, would pull Biden “further to the left.”

Fetterman’s campaign is hoping disaffected Democrats, independents, and some Republicans will respond to his populist profile — even if they might be turned off by some specific policy stances or the Democratic Party overall. His first TV ad ran in the Pittsburgh, Johnstown, and Scranton markets — and on Fox News.

But the extent to which Fetterman can appeal to voters who have fled the Democratic Party in droves is unclear. And rivals question whether it will come at the cost of the moderate suburbanites who have become increasingly critical to winning Democratic coalitions in Pennsylvania as rural voters have left the fold.

“Voters are so angry about inflation and the state of the economy, I’m just not sure this is the environment where voters are going to care about your difference in style,” said Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist and pollster Brock McCleary.

Before a May 13 stroke took him off the campaign trail just before a dominant primary win, Fetterman, 52, spent most of the primary going to red or purple counties. Democrats have a slight and shrinking voter registration edge statewide.

Dauphin County Democratic chair Rogette Harris said Democrats can’t afford to dismiss any votes in an election likely to be close. But motivating voters will be difficult.

People are “overworked, they’re burnt out, and their lives aren’t changing,” she said. “Frustrations are high, and one of our biggest challenges is to make them realize they still need to come out and vote.”

Joe Foster, chair of the Montgomery County Democrats, said he was skeptical of Fetterman’s persona — the tattoos, the low-key, sometimes gruff speaking style — until he saw how decisively Fetterman won the state and realized he may have been out of step with what voters wanted.

Fetterman coasted to victory in the Democratic primary with almost 60% of the vote, while Oz only narrowly won the GOP primary with about 30% of the vote — and absorbed heavy damage from his rivals in the form of millions of dollars worth of negative attack ads.

» READ MORE: Fetterman’s new campaign manager is Philly-based Biden alum Brendan McPhillips

Fetterman received national notice during his time as mayor of Braddock, a small Rust Belt town outside Pittsburgh, where he still lives.

Despite his working-class persona, Fetterman’s father is a successful insurance executive whose financial support allowed him to work full-time as mayor, typically a part-time position in Braddock. Republicans have signaled they’ll highlight that to try to erode his blue-collar image.

Some of that may stick, but it could be a harder sell considering that the GOP nominee is a multimillionaire who owns a pair of adjoining mansions in North Jersey and another in Florida, has minimal ties to Pennsylvania, and who has shifted positions on key conservative issues.

“Whatever you want to say about John Fetterman, he is who he is,” Democratic strategist Mike Mikus said. “He’s never been one to conform. Whereas you have Oz, who has flip-flopped on any number of issues, and quite frankly, the Republican base does not trust him.”

Republicans also hope to turn Fetterman’s reputation as a reliable progressive to their advantage. They’ve already falsely labeled him a socialist.

“The images that will be painted of him will try to ‘other’ him, to make him threatening to older, more moderate voters,” said Chris Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “That’s gonna be something that he’s gotta overcome in addition to the really toxic environment for Democrats.”

Republicans this week went after another part of Fetterman’s bio, describing his time chairing the Board of Pardons as “soft on crime.”

Under Fetterman, the five-person board greatly increased pardons and the number of life prisoners released, something he has campaigned on. There has been next to no recidivism among that population. But Republicans see an opportunity as voters in both parties worry about crime.

As Fetterman touts his buck-the-establishment style, he’s facing a candidate who has also campaigned as an outsider ready to shake up the status quo.

“I promise to heal by giving us a dose of reality,” Oz said in his opening general election speech last week.

“I’ve been an outsider my whole life,” he added.

Democrats argue that while Fetterman has worked for years to help Pennsylvanians, Oz is a “Hollywood grifter.”

“Can he prove to anybody that he cares about anyone other than himself? And that he’ll make a difference for working people?” asked J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, Democrats’ main Senate super PAC.

Oz’s image, Poersch said, has been cemented in part by the barrage of attacks he absorbed during the GOP primary.

» READ MORE: Fetterman says he ‘almost died,’ but cardiologist says his prognosis is now good

But voters have also gotten to know Oz on daytime TV over the years, and he’ll have a key ally to vouch for his conservative bona fides in former President Donald Trump.

And in Biden, he’ll have a potent foil.

“Republicans are ready to crawl over broken glass to punish Joe Biden and Democrats in Washington,” Pandol said.

It’s unlikely the national environment will change dramatically in the next five months, political observers said.

For all the emphasis on personality, Nicolas O’Rourke, organizing director of Pennsylvania’s chapter of the progressive Working Families Party, said voters will be primarily concerned with who can keep food on the table, navigate the pandemic, protect abortion rights, and stand up against gun violence and racism.

“Pennsylvania voters are smart,” he said. They “are looking for someone who is going to be able to help them meet their ends.”