I don’t have a lot of time to do analysis of the Pennsylvania primary results today so I’m going to be brief and just focus on John Fetterman’s race. On May 13, I told you that Fetterman is, in my opinion, a much more electable U.S. Senate candidate than Conor Lamb. I believe the preliminary results of Tuesday’s election vindicate my position.
Now, to be clear, the fact that in a closed Democratic primary Fetterman beat Lamb in every county and currently holds a 59-26 lead over Lamb, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the stronger candidate against a Republican in November.
But a look at where Fetterman ran strongest is instructive. It’s also important to see how poorly Lamb did in every part of the western half of the state, excepting the part that includes his former congressional seat (where he was still thumped).
For non-Pennsylvanians, some of this might not be intuitive. It’s key that both Fetterman and Lamb are from the Pittsburgh area. This eliminated any natural east/west divide in the results. That helps because we can see how they fared in the West without worrying that it’s more about regional loyalty than political appeal. And Fetterman absolutely rolled. In the Northwest corner, Fetterman got about 80 percent of the vote in a three-way contest in Erie County, which is actually an important source of Democratic votes. But move a little east and he got over 80 percent in lightly populated and deep red Warren and McKean counties, too. In fact, he topped 70 percent all over the West in many of counties where Trump rolled up enormous margins that wiped out (in 2016) or nearly wiped out (in 2020) the Democrats’ big advantages in the cities and suburbs.
Some of the redder counties in the East also were enormously strong for Fetterman. He got 80 percent in Lebanon County and 76 percent in Lancaster. Now, my theory is that Fetterman doesn’t just attract Democrats in red counties because they like him personally or prefer his Bernie Sanders-endorsed policies. They are looking at electability, and they’re guessing who might be more attractive to their more conservative neighbors. Fetterman, who looks like he belongs in a biker gang seems like an easier sell to them than prosecutor/veteran Lamb, who Chuck Todd keeps telling me on MSNBC comes out of central casting for a crossover-appeal Democrat. I never believed that red Pennsylvania would identify more with Lamb than with Fetterman, and I think that’s proven now. I also think it will bear out in the general election against either former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick or New Jersey resident and television celebrity Mehmet Oz (their GOP primary election is headed to a state-mandated recount).
It’s true that Fetterman somewhat underperformed his statewide average in the Philly suburbs, and in Philadelphia itself, although the latter was largely a feature of Philly state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta running a strong second in the city. I think any casual observer of Pennsylvania policies could have predicted that Lamb would do better in the highly-educated and affluent suburbs than he would in the rest of the state. That doesn’t mean Fetterman will struggle in the suburbs, necessarily, but he has to work to solidify his support and maximize turnout in both the burbs and in Philly.
He’ll benefit from the Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. Mastriano won almost everywhere outside of the Northeast coal-country home base of Lou Barletta, but he came in second in suburban Philadelphia counties, Chester and Delaware. I don’t think Fetterman will have too much trouble convincing a lot of suburban Republicans that the GOP ticket is too extreme. In that effort, he’ll be assisted by Josh Shapiro (based out of suburban Philly’s Montgomery County), the Democrats’ candidate for governor whose race was uncontested.
Fetterman spent Election Day in the hospital getting fitted for a pacemaker after suffering a small stroke. So, we can expect his health to be an issue. It’s a concern that came up after my analytical piece from last week was published, and it would definitely have impacted my confidence level in Fetterman’s electability advantage.
Setting that aside, as the voters on Tuesday seem to have done, the Fetterman/Lamb election was a test case for a lot of my theories. One is that identity is much more important in politics today than policy. If you think a Blue Dog like Lamb is more likely to attract rural votes than a more socialist-minded candidate like Fetterman, you’re way off the scent. It matters much more how Fetterman looks, how he acts, the aura he projects. People simply aren’t saying that Lamb is preferable because he’ll be less partisan or more of a conciliator. He may be from Western Pennsylvania and he may have a military background, but he would not fit in in a bar or veterans’ hall or firehouse the way Fetterman does.
There are still parts of the country where socialism is a non-starter, for example, among the Cuban-American community in places like New Jersey and South Florida. But in most of rural America, the important thing is the messenger. And for the same reasons, Fetterman is an easier sell in a lot of rural Pennsylvania than a Muslim-American television personality or a hedge fund manager.
Now, Fetterman is authentic. But he’s still a model that can be emulated. The Democrats need candidates that look and sound like rural America to run in rural America. The golden boy, Blue Dog military veteran/prosecutor model has worked in the past, but it won’t work anymore because we’ve entered into a regional culture war. It’s based much less on policy than on feelings. People don’t want to vote for their betters any more. They’re anti-elites. They won’t trust outsiders or defer to their expertise.
But, as Fetterman demonstrates, these candidates don’t have to run in opposition to the values and policies that are valued in Democratic strongholds. If they get the image right, they’re the best salespeople for those policies.