John Fetterman won the Democratic Senate primary, with a promise to unite progressives and rural Pa.
Fetterman’s unconventional style helped propel his victory and represents something of a departure from years of Democratic voters in Pennsylvania nominating more centrist candidates.
PITTSBURGH — John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor whose shorts- and scowl-wearing persona made him something of a political celebrity, has won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.
Fetterman, who entered the race as the Democratic front-runner early last year and only grew his advantage over time, had more than 54% of the total expected votes as of Wednesday morning, more than double his closest competitor, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, who had less than 25%.
He will face the winner of a Republican primary that was still too early to call Wednesday, in one of the most critical Senate races in the country. In that GOP primary, celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz held a narrow lead over former hedge fund CEO David McCormick. Conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, after a late surge in the race that shocked Republican insiders, was trailing McCormick and Oz.
As returns rolled in, Fetterman, 52, was in a Lancaster hospital, where he was recovering from a stroke he suffered just four days before the primary. His campaign said Tuesday that he underwent a procedure to get a pacemaker to regulate his heart rate.
The campaign, which didn’t respond to several requests to interview Fetterman’s doctors, has said doctors reversed the stroke in time to prevent any cognitive damage, and that he’s expected to make a full recovery. Fetterman voted via emergency absentee ballot Tuesday and is expected to remain in the hospital for several days.
Without him, a crowd of supporters and his wife Gisele celebrated at an election-night rally at an airport hotel here.
“This race we’re running, it’s a race for the future of every community across Pennsylvania,” she said. “For every small town, for every person who calls those small towns home and for every person who’s considered leaving because they didn’t see enough opportunities. … It’s a race for a better Pennsylvania and for a better country.”
The crowd erupted in cheers as MSNBC called the race for Fetterman shortly before 9 p.m. They waved yellow Fetterman towels in the air and jumped up and down.
“I have goose bumps right now,” said Phil Heasley, 31, of Butler, a Fetterman campaign volunteer. “This is someone who always showed up for us, and now it’s our time to show up for him. It’d be great if he were here, but we’re gonna raise the roof as if he was.”
The below graphic shows the most recent results reported. It is updated in real time.
Fetterman appeared on the big screen briefly from the hospital, saying simply: “Thank you so much for everything. From my heart, thank you for everything.”
“How cute is he?” Gisele Fetterman asked after the cameo.
She spoke about her husband’s unconventional style, which attracted so many to his campaign.
“It’s not just that John looks nothing like a politician,” she said. “It’s because John doesn’t act like one. At heart, he’s still that hardworking, scrappy, small-town mayor.”
Gisele Fetterman later told reporters her husband’s health shouldn’t be an issue in the general election.
”Anyone who would imply that he would be unfit to serve because of this procedure is also... offending millions of Americans who have pacemakers,” she said.
”And it’s almost ableist, you know? I think he’s going to have a full, thriving life. He’s going to be able to do the same work as anyone else,” she said. “But the reality is, families come with health scares. That is a very American thing. What he’s gonna want to fight for is to make sure that everyone would have access to the same care that he was able to receive.”
Fetterman’s unconventional style helped propel his victory and represents something of a departure from years of Democratic voters in Pennsylvania nominating more centrist candidates. Lamb, who campaigned as a moderate Democrat in the mold of President Joe Biden, was in second-place Wednesday. State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta had less than 10% of the total expected vote.
The victory makes Fetterman the Democratic standard-bearer in one of the most hotly contested races in the country, which could determine control of the chamber. The incumbent Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey, isn’t seeking reelection.
Fetterman began drawing national notice as mayor of Braddock, a small Rust Belt town outside Pittsburgh. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for Senate in 2016, and then beat a Democratic incumbent in the 2018 race for lieutenant governor.
His path to the nomination zigzagged through Trump Country, where he’s tried to attract disaffected rural Democrats with a hybrid populist-progressive appeal. He spent far less time campaigning in the populous Philadelphia region, home to a huge proportion of the state’s Democratic voters — though he used a formidable fund-raising advantage to blanket the airwaves there.
Fetterman had strikingly little support among elected Democrats in the state for his primary campaign — including in the state Senate chamber he presides over — though he is sure to enjoy a largely united Democratic Party in a race that’s critical to U.S. Senate control.
Lamb, who didn’t appear at his election-night party to deliver remarks, conceded in a statement late Tuesday night.
“I entered this campaign knowing it would be tough, but I believed Democratic voters in Pennsylvania deserved a primary campaign with a real debate focused on the issues so that we win in November,” Lamb said. “Today, voters made it clear that John Fetterman is their choice to carry that effort forward.”
Lamb said he respects that decision, congratulated Fetterman, and wished him a speedy recovery from his stroke.
Lamb said he’d do “everything I can to help Democrats win” in the general election.
“Our entire democracy is on the line in November,” he said. “Democrats need to be unequivocally united in our defense of this democracy, and we will be. John’s vote in the Senate is essential to protect this democracy, and he will have my vote in November.”
Lamb had the backing of many elected Democrats in the state and argued he had the left-of-center profile that would appeal to the widest range of voters in a general election. But Lamb’s campaign struggled to raise money or excite a critical mass of voters, and national Democrats, who had anointed chosen candidates in previous Senate races, largely stayed on the sidelines this time. A super PAC organized to support Lamb had little impact after raising much less than its $8 million goal.
And Lamb’s own campaign largely faded in its final weeks, not announcing many campaign events.
Kenyatta, who ran on his working-class background and the historic nature of his campaign — he would have been the first openly gay Black man in the Senate — garnered some passionate support despite meager resources. But with far less money than even Lamb, he never established himself as a top-tier candidate.
Kenyatta addressed his supporters Tuesday night in North Philadelphia with a triumphant tone, touting the milestones achieved, including the first time an openly gay person of color ran for Senate.
“Each time one of us stands up, it inspires another person to stand up as well,” Kenyatta said, encouraging people to run for office. “Each one of us adds pressure to a status quo.”
Kenyatta said he called Fetterman committing his support and asked those in the room to do the same.
Campaign staffers and members of the Working Families Party, including City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, filled the room.
Melvin Calhoun, 60, said he was happy with Kenyatta’s campaign.
“I’m not mad,” he said. “I’m going to keep following his career.”
Alex Khalil, a Jenkintown Borough Council member and the only woman in the race, ran on a shoestring budget and never broke through.
Fetterman had a cash advantage from the start, with high name-ID from two statewide campaigns and an impressive small-dollar fund-raising operation like the one that powered Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns. Fetterman had 200,000 individual donors by the end of the primary and a loyal fan base as he traveled the state.
He’ll run in the general election partly on his record as lieutenant governor, a largely ceremonial job but one that includes leading the Board of Pardons, where pardons and commutations of life sentences greatly increased during his tenure. He’ll also likely tout his time as mayor of Braddock, where violence in the small town of 2,000 decreased on his watch.
But his main pitch will likely be the one he made to primary voters — that he has a populist, outsider appeal, is no friend to the political establishment, and will unapologetically fight for Democratic values.
Republicans have already signaled that they’ll look to paint him as being too liberal on issues like abortion, health care, and criminal justice.
And a 2013 incident that has loomed over his campaign, in which he held at gunpoint a Black jogger whom he wrongly suspected of a shooting, is almost certain to resurface in the general election. His primary opponents frequently brought up the incident and questioned whether it would impact his ability to turn out Black and progressive voters in the fall.
It proved to be a nonissue for Democratic primary voters.
So did his eleventh-hour stroke.