What many Pennsylvanians saw in Fetterman
By Trip Gabriel
The morning after Lt. Gov. John Fetterman won Pennsylvania’s Senate race, Alberta Wilkes was in a radiant mood as she waited for a bus to the post office to buy money orders for bills.
“I love it,” Wilkes, 71, a retired hospital cook, said Wednesday. “John overcame a lot of obstacles.”
A resident of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Wilkes said that her sister used to work at the Edgar Thomson steel mill near Braddock, Pennsylvania, where Fetterman was mayor for 13 years. “He would come down there and talk to the steelworkers,” Wilkes said. “John is for the people, and it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, white, Black.”
By reinventing his campaign after a near-fatal stroke, appealing to anyone who “got knocked down and had to get back up,” as he put it, Fetterman appeared to connect with many Pennsylvanians who responded to his saga of loss and comeback.
Rather than seeing his difficult recovery and uneven debate performance as evidence of lack of fitness for office — as Fetterman’s Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, tried to frame it — voters said they found Fetterman relatable, even an inspiration. His personal revitalization, however incomplete, echoed a promise he campaigned on — the resurgence of Pennsylvania communities that feel left behind, a left-wing response to the appeal that Donald Trump made in winning Pennsylvania and other industrial states in 2016.
“For every job that’s ever been lost, for every factory that was ever closed, for every person that works hard but never gets ahead,” Fetterman said at his election party early Wednesday morning. “I’m proud of what we ran on.”
In Pittsburgh, a liberal city with roots in steel that has been reborn as a technology and medical center, Fetterman supporters expressed a rush of hopes Wednesday that his progressive politics would lift struggling people and become a national template for the Democratic Party. They also spoke personally, even intimately, of how they saw in his health struggles a reflection of their lives.
Kim Kifer, 59, a banker who has family members who were stroke victims, said Fetterman’s performance in the debate last month, when he struggled for words and left sentences unfinished, was “not good.” Still, she added, the performance showed courage.
“I found it inspiring,” Kifer said. “I admired that he actually showed up for the debate. I think it takes tremendous courage to get back on the horse.”
Jena Bence, 33, a nanny pushing a stroller, agreed. “I didn’t think that Fetterman did great” in the debate, she said, “but I think it was great that he still went out there and did it.”
Republican voters were hardly elated. Many were crestfallen about the defeat of Oz, a TV celebrity doctor endorsed by Trump.
Fetterman won by only about 182,000 votes out of more than 5 million cast, as of late Wednesday. Shana Smith, 59, who voted for Oz, said she was surprised more people didn’t vote their pocketbooks and elect the Republican.
“With the price of gasoline and the price of food, people can’t live,” said Smith, 59, who was crossing Market Square downtown on her way to work for the county criminal courts. “So many homeless people. There’s so many people that can’t afford their prescriptions.”
A number of voters hoped that Fetterman’s victory provided an answer in the perennial debate among Democrats about whether progressive or moderate candidates held the best hopes for winning battleground states like Pennsylvania. They said it showed there was indeed support for progressives.
For Paula DeCarlo, 56, a former teacher and flight attendant who said she had to quit work because of cancer, the takeaway from Fetterman’s win was, “We need help.”
“The message would be helping people with health care, universal health care, single-payer system,” she said. “We need that in this country.”
A couple in their 20s, Max Snyder and Anastasia Hons-Astle, who identified themselves as working class and “hard left,” said they had voted enthusiastically for Fetterman, after casting reluctant votes for Joe Biden in 2020.
“I think a lot of people weren’t excited to vote for Joe Biden,” said Hons-Astle, 27, who was recently laid off from a tech startup. “I can identify with Fetterman. I can’t identify with Joe Biden.”
Hons-Astle’s father is a steelworker who supported Trump, she said. Democratic candidates like Fetterman, who have at least some appeal to white working-class voters, ought to be seen as the future of the party, she said.
“The Democrats tend to elect more centrist Democrats, and in theory, that would appeal to a larger audience, but it does exclude the working class,” Hons-Astle said. “The working class feels alienated by Democrats or Republicans.”
Snyder, 28, a tattoo artist, said Democrats had failed at speaking to working-class voters and “the very real material problems that people have.”
Fetterman’s path to victory statewide was blazed largely through rural counties that lean heavily red. He was able to win higher margins in those counties than Biden did in 2020 in his contest with Trump. Michelle McFall, the Democratic chair in one of those deep-red places, Westmoreland County, east of Pittsburgh, attended Fetterman’s election night party in the city.
“I was tired but needed to be there,” she said.
When results were announced, she described realizing that his victory came not only because he racked up votes in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but, she said, “because of Westmoreland and Erie and Washington and Fayette and Butler and Beaver and Indiana” — all rural counties in western Pennsylvania. Many were Democratic strongholds in the past but have swung hard for Republicans in recent years.
McFall cited the Fetterman campaign slogan — “Every county, every vote.”
“Those words were the anthem of this cycle,” she said, “but they must become the model we use in every statewide election. This is how we win elections in Pennsylvania.”