Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How John Fetterman won Pennsylvania’s Senate race

John Fetterman succeeded in trimming his losses in Republican strongholds across the map but also turned out big numbers in Democratic bastions like the Philadelphia suburbs.

(From left to right) Close friends of the Fetterman’s, Patrick Jordan, Kristen Michaels, Leslie Wertheimer, and Lydia Morin, celebrate as John Fetterman is announced the winner  against Mehmet Oz for Pennsylvania State Senator at his Election Night Event at Stage AE in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.
(From left to right) Close friends of the Fetterman’s, Patrick Jordan, Kristen Michaels, Leslie Wertheimer, and Lydia Morin, celebrate as John Fetterman is announced the winner against Mehmet Oz for Pennsylvania State Senator at his Election Night Event at Stage AE in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

It was the strategy from the very beginning: Get John Fetterman, the former mayor of a tiny struggling steel town, into rooms with people from similar places and from rural red pockets of Pennsylvania.

Fetterman’s first campaign event after declaring his run for Senate in 2021 was in bright-red Mercer County in Western Pennsylvania. And in the nearly two years since, he has stopped at union halls and VFWs from Clinton to Venango to Westmoreland, emphasizing an “every county, every vote” strategy.

It paid off. With more than 90% of the results in Wednesday, Fetterman led Republican Mehmet Oz by 3 points, a surprisingly large margin made possible in part by cutting the Democratic margin of defeat in areas where the party typically loses big.

“I never expected that we were going to turn these red counties blue, but we did what we needed to do,” Fetterman told a crowd in Pittsburgh shortly after 1 a.m. “And we had those conversations across every one of these counties.”

Fetterman’s improvements in those areas contrasted with a long slide that has dragged on his party in Pennsylvania and similar swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, and helped him win one of the most critical Senate races in the country.

He had a higher percentage of the vote for his U.S. Senate race than Joe Biden did in the 2020 presidential election in 61 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, many of them GOP strongholds.

But Fetterman also maintained the strong Democratic performance in populous suburbs like those in the Philadelphia collar counties, a result that members of both parties said was a powerful omen for other Democrats — and a warning sign for Republicans.

‘That was the whole race’

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) went into Election Day expecting a squeaker. But he was surprised to instead see Fetterman win by what looks likely to be a 3-point margin.

“It was harder in this circumstance with high inflation, the president’s approval rating being in the mid-40s, and John having to get through a stroke. I mean, he had a lot going against him,” Casey said Wednesday.

But he said Fetterman had built “a strong connection” with voters — and that proved decisive in both rural red areas and deep-blue ones where Democrats had to run up the score.

“They could never break that connection that voters have with John, and I think that was the whole race,” Casey said.

Fetterman did particularly well in red counties that border his home county of Allegheny, and in York, where he grew up.

Casey pointed to Westmoreland, an Allegheny neighbor, as one major example.

After Biden won 35% of the vote there, Fetterman took 39%. That reduced the Democratic loss there by 26,000 votes. It was a similar story in Washington and Butler Counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and also places like Lackawanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania.

“He was shaving 5 points here, 8 points there, 3 points there, and that begins to accumulate,” Casey said.

The campaign’s rural strategy was bolstered by an unconventional candidate — whose appeal in those places was attractive to voters across the state. Fetterman had been building his political brand for nearly two decades and his campaign leaned into that, combined with his pledge to be a 51st vote for Democrats on key issues.

Fetterman’s policy plans were pretty typical for most Democrats: protecting abortion rights, supporting labor unions, raising the minimum wage. But he put those ideas in a hulking package with tattooed forearms and Carhartt jackets in a way that appears to have reached voters who typically recoil from coastal Democrats.

“It’s a combination of John being John and running as himself,” said campaign manager Brendan McPhillips, who also managed Fetterman’s 2016 Senate bid and Biden’s 2020 race in Pennsylvania. “Not allowing our campaign to be nationalized as a generic Democrat-vs.-Republican kind of thing.”

But sharing the ticket with a fellow Democrat, gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, who trounced Trump-aligned State Sen. Doug Mastriano, likely also helped Fetterman.

“I think the big factor in the race that can’t be dismissed is just how much headwind came from the top of the ticket,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, (R., Pa.), who did not seek reelection and will be replaced by Fetterman. “Mastriano’s loss was on an epic scale, and it is very hard for down-ballot candidates to overcome that.”

The suburbs also delivered

Several Republicans, though, said they were less worried about Fetterman’s showing in rural areas and more concerned by Democrats’ consistent strength in suburban areas that have shifted hard to the left, including in Allegheny County, Fetterman’s home base.

“He was definitely doing less bad than Biden in some of the smaller counties,” said GOP strategist Chris Nicholas. “But to me what was more beneficial to Fetterman was that he romped in his home county, and it’s something we as Republicans need to figure out how to do better in one of the largest counties in the state.”

Fetterman exceeded Biden’s showing in Allegheny and scored similar results, as a percentage of the vote, in the Philadelphia collar counties. Those suburbs stayed bright blue as Democrats emphasized the threat to abortion rights, something they believe would help them keep their support from suburban women who have helped tip those areas leftward. Oz tried to win them back with an emphasis on crime, and by casting himself as a centrist, but it didn’t work.

Fetterman won 63% of the vote in Montgomery County, Shapiro’s home and the third-biggest county in the state, almost the same as Biden’s margin in 2020. That helped give Fetterman a margin of more than 100,000 votes in that county alone.

Mark Harris, a GOP strategist based in Western Pennsylvania, said he didn’t believe Fetterman’s rural showing is sustainable for other Democrats. But the suburban numbers alarmed him.

“If you want to be a majority party in Pennsylvania, you have to win the suburbs and Oz got drubbed,” said Harris, who helped Toomey win reelection in 2016 by holding his own in those areas. “It’s not just Oz. Republicans generally got drubbed, and that is a significant problem that has to be solved for.”

In boosting the Democratic performance in Allegheny, Fetterman didn’t just run up the score in deep-blue Pittsburgh. He also outperformed fellow Democrats in the more exurban towns on the county’s edge, right where they meet typically red territory in Washington County, for example.

”His local celebrity status contributed, but also his spending time in rural counties and then talking about it in his speeches,” texted Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist from the area. That “sends a message to small towns that he cares about people like” them.

The Pennsylvania ties

Even though Fetterman couldn’t campaign as much around the state after his May stroke, Democrats said he had built up his brand and strong standing with voters through years of traveling the state before this election — something Oz couldn’t match.

”He’s here on his own time and his own dime,” said Jim Wertz, the Democratic chair in Erie County, who said Fetterman and his family frequently vacationed on Lake Erie. Locals who spot them often share it on social media, he said.

On Wednesday morning, with nearly all the county’s votes tallied, Fetterman was winning the perennial swing county by about 9 percentage points. Biden and Trump had each won it by less than 2.

Fetterman’s connection with Pennsylvania voters may have been especially effective given his opponent: Oz lived in New Jersey for more than 30 years before moving to Pennsylvania to run for Senate. His public image was badly damaged by a brutal GOP primary, and it never recovered.

And in the four-month period when Fetterman was sidelined from in-person campaigning, recovering from a stroke, the campaign deployed a social media campaign and aired previously recorded TV ads to stay connected with voters, many who were already following him and on his email lists, a result of Fetterman building his brand for years with sometimes serious, often sarcastic or personal social media posts.

“The only people who go to lots and lots of political rallies are reporters, but actual voters saw him everywhere,” campaign consultant Rebecca Katz said. “We were able to have ads ready so he could speak directly to Pennsylvanians.”

The campaign had its challenges. They were consistently slow to release information regarding Fetterman’s health and never provided doctors to reporters or released a full docket of medical records. The campaign also faced scrutiny from Democrats after Fetterman struggled in the race’s only debate. And Oz and his allies launched a series of attacks on Fetterman’s record on crime, tightening the polls and worrying Democrats.

“The crime ads were really nasty,” McPhillips said. “But again, people know John here, and we put a lot into efforts to show how he addressed crime. ... It made it very difficult to typecast John.”

And ultimately, the debate and concerns about Fetterman’s health didn’t seem to affect voters. In some cases, it made him more relatable.

“The comeback story is so accurate for so many people,” said Lauren Smith-Lemesh, a Fetterman supporter in Pittsburgh at his final rally Monday night. “To have someone in our corner with his background of literally, like, he was a wrestler, it’s exciting. You know, he’s just, he’s a tough dude. And he’s for us.”

Staff writer Aseem Shukla contributed to this article.