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John Fetterman’s nomination was a rejection of Conor Lamb’s electability claims

Fetterman’s humble, gruff vibe and the argument that he could appeal to progressives and disaffected Democrats was the electability pitch that ultimately won over voters.

Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman, watches election returns with supporters.
Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman, watches election returns with supporters.Read moreGene J. Puskar / AP

PITTSBURGH — As Conor Lamb greeted voters outside of an elementary school polling place, Johanna Stankorb put on her “I voted sticker” and shuffled out of his way.

“I voted for Fetterman,” she whispered to a reporter. “Not that I don’t think this kid has fight,” the 54-year-old nurse continued, “I just think right now we need someone who is gonna call it as he sees it ... and if somebody can beat the Republicans, it’s gonna be [Fetterman].”

Lamb, a 37-year-old Western Pennsylvania congressman, promised voters he was the most electable candidate for a general election. But Democratic voters overwhelmingly rejected that argument, choosing Lt. Gov. John Fetterman more than 2-1 over Lamb, citing myriad reasons — including electability.

Lamb, who largely ran in the style of President Joe Biden, claiming his nomination would be the safest way to ensure a Democratic win, didn’t fit the mood of the moment two years later, voters and experts said. Fetterman’s humble, gruff vibe and potential appeal to progressives and disaffected Democrats was the electability pitch that ultimately prevailed.

Lamb “looks like he was manufactured in a lab to run for the Senate in 1996,” said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University. “People hate politicians. There’s so much shade thrown against politicians these days,” she said, which left Lamb, who might have been the conventional image of electability in the past, struggling to gain traction.

Lamb, who got into the race six months after Fetterman, never made up ground in fund-raising or momentum, and he staked his candidacy on the argument that he was the most electable.

“Electability is an issue that just does not work in a primary election,” said public affairs consultant Larry Ceisler, who backed Lamb. “It has only worked once. And that was for Joe Biden.”

» READ MORE: How John Fetterman dominated the Pa. Democratic Senate primary

The stakes in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race are extremely high and could determine which party controls the chamber. But being “most electable” is an argument that can feel vague — particularly in a primary where you can’t campaign against the other party, as Biden did with former President Donald Trump, Ceisler said.

Voters ‘are angry’

Even voters considering electability, though, overwhelmingly rejected Lamb’s brand. In a moment when Democrats and Republicans alike are frustrated with government, Fetterman ran ads promising to fight Mitch McConnell and the establishment. Lamb, meanwhile, touted his experience in Congress and endorsements from elected officials. And he had to consistently bat back insinuations he’d be another Sen. Joe Manchin, despite having a radically more Democratic voting record than the West Virginia senator, who has broken with his party on several issues, including getting rid of the filibuster.

“Voters, I think, are angry,” Ceisler said. “And voters want to stick their finger in the eye of the people who they feel are responsible. ... To a certain degree, they’re also mad and disappointed with Joe Biden. So they look at Fetterman, who is the manifestation of antiestablishment.”

While he might not be a typical one, Fetterman is a politician — he’s a former mayor, the current lieutenant governor, and he won the Senate nomination in his second bid for it. He also comes from a well-off family and has a degree from Harvard. But he’s done all that tatted-up, and while wearing shorts and hoodies and a dismissive attitude toward politics as usual.

“I think it really resonates that he wants to be in touch with common people,” said Jonathan Holman, outside of the Free Store in Braddock, which Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, started. “I don’t think he is a destroyer like Trump — and I loathed Trump — but I do think, similarly, he is a different kind of politician and he is going to try to bring a new set of goals, try to bring it more towards responsiveness to working people.”

State Sen. Sharif Street, vice chair of the state Democratic Party, who backed Lamb, said the election likely came down to personality. It was difficult for Lamb to break through, he said, without resources to run TV ads, as Fetterman did for months, and with no policy differences between the two.

“The rallying calls are ‘protect voting rights, protect a woman’s right to choose, protect basic civil rights, fund education,’” Street said. “And all the Democrats say they’re for doing that, so what’d you do?”

What voters say

At Fetterman’s election night party at the airport Hyatt in Pittsburgh, a sparse but enthusiastic crowd flung yellow towels in the air as the race was called less than an hour after polls closed.

Fetterman wasn’t there. He watched the returns from a hospital in Lancaster, where he is still recovering from his May 13 stroke.

The celebratory atmosphere was somewhat muted by his absence, but his fans, munching on sliders and pierogis, championed him as the right candidate for the moment.

“I think he’s just able to speak to so many different walks of life,” said Shane Berry, 37, who co-owns an embroidery business in Pittsburgh. “And, like, he resonates with everybody. He’s a good guy. He’s down to earth. ... He calls it like it is, and I think both sides can get down with that.”

Sean Forsyth, a Pittsburgh-based accountant, said he felt a unique connection with Fetterman and was somewhat wary of Lamb.

“You want to be represented by someone that feels like you and not someone that feels like they’re bought and sold by special interests,” he said.

Lamb rejected corporate money during his campaign, something that certainly impacted his fund-raising, but he still never really shook some voters’ perception that he was part of the party establishment they were angry with.

Hope that Fetterman can peel off Republican and independent voters in the general election was a popular refrain at the polls in Philadelphia on election day.

“I think he can win with Kentucky-Pennsylvania voters,” said Rosa Mykyta-Chomsky, 25, voting at West Philadelphia High School. “I think he’ll have the best chance in November of swaying the other side.”

“Somebody from Philadelphia is going to have a hard time getting votes in the middle of the state,” said Charles Miller, 67, a teacher, also voting in West Philadelphia.

The general election test

Now comes the test of how well Fetterman’s appeal holds up. Republicans will surely depict him as an ultra-progressive.

Which Republican candidate he will face remains unclear, with celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund CEO David McCormick separated by about 1,100 votes as of Thursday night. A recount, which is expected, would buy Fetterman more time to recover from his stroke.

The campaign has not said when Fetterman will be released from the hospital, nor has it provided any additional medical information since saying he was fitted with a pacemaker and defibrillator on primary day. The campaign has ignored repeated requests to talk to Fetterman’s doctors.

It announced Thursday that in the 24 hours since his victory, Fetterman had raised $1.6 million.

McCormick, the wealthy former Bridgewater Associates CEO, previewed the attacks Fetterman will likely face, ideologically and against his everyman brand, on The Rich Zeoli Show on Thursday.

“He’s an avowed socialist, and the ideas that he’s promoting are ideas that will destroy our country,” McCormick said.

Fetterman has never identified as a socialist.

”His story is not consistent with the life he’s led,” McCormick said, referencing Fetterman’s upbringing. “This is not a guy who grew up in a working family. This is a guy who grew up with a trust fund and went to Harvard. Which, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with that, either one of those things, but you can’t position yourself as something you’re not.”

Staff writers Rodrigo Torrejón and Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.