Can a Bernie Sanders-supporting advocate for legal marijuana and lower prison sentences flip a Republican Senate seat in Pennsylvania and help keep the Senate in Democratic hands?
Conventional wisdom would say no. But John Fetterman, the tattooed, 6-foot 8-inch, cargo-short-wearing lieutenant governor of the Keystone State is anything but conventional.
"We have to flip this seat," he told a cheering crowd of over a hundred people packed into the Holy Hound Taproom ("Hallowed be thy beer," the sign says) here in downtown York, where he grew up and where his father's insurance agency still operates just a few blocks away.
Fetterman is the heavy favorite to win Tuesday's Democratic primary ahead of US Rep. Conor Lamb. Lamb's been arguing for months that Fetterman's record is too liberal for a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 before going for Joe Biden in 2020.
"Republicans think they'd crush Socialist Fetterman," blared an ad from a super PAC supporting Lamb.
Still, the lieutenant governor will face his toughest scrutiny yet if he wins on Tuesday. He'll have to work harder to energize Black voters, a key part of the Democratic base, after his primary rivals have attacked him for a 2013 incident where he pulled a gun on a person who turned out to be an unarmed black man out jogging.
Republicans are already attacking him on issues like immigration, rising crime and abortion. When asked this week whether he supports any restrictions on abortion, Fetterman said, "I don't," even in the third trimester.
"I believe that choice is between a woman, her doctor and a God if she prays to one. As a man and a politician, I don't have a right to intervene," he said.
And he defends his record of working to get those wrongfully convicted out of prison and to implement criminal justice reforms.
"Bring it on," he said. "That would reflect poorly on my character if I would let the fear of some trumped up political ad to stop me from pursuing criminal justice reform and helping free the innocent or the deserving from needlessly dying in Pennsylvania prisons at taxpayer expense."
One factor working in Fetterman's favor ahead of the general election: A brutal three-way Republican primary that has dragged down his top two potential opponents, the former hedge fund manager David McCormick and the celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz, and opened a path for Kathy Barnette, who is running as the most MAGA of them all.
"In our hyper divided political world, where it's ultra MAGA or reasonable political beliefs where you can have some mild disagreements," Fetterman told CNN. "We believe we're going to be coming down on the right side of history and policy and that's the kind of campaign that we're running."
A towering presence
Fetterman's persona makes it harder to pigeonhole him. He insists people call him "John" and wears gym shorts and hoodies -- often with the sleeves pushed up to reveal tattoos -- on the campaign trail. His towering physical presence is inescapable.
It means that he doesn't carry himself like a typical politician and the York crowd didn't treat him like one, either. When his supporters crowded in to get a quick word -- many with beer in hand -- it wasn't to ask about his policy positions. Almost everyone wanted a selfie.
"I think that he cares about people, all people, not just the wealthy or the entitled," said Jean Frigm, a retired teacher who attended the event.
Fetterman, who was elected to his current role in 2018, first made a name for himself as mayor of Braddock, a western Pennsylvania town hollowed out by the collapse of the steel industry. He moved there after personal tragedy made him reevaluate a career in the family insurance business, eventually leading him to AmeriCorps and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The Braddock zip code is tattooed on one arm; the other forearm is tattooed with the dates of homicides in the town he governed, and he says he's proud of a more than five-year stretch without any gun deaths during his stewardship.
He's now focused on winning over the blue-collar voters who abandoned the Democratic Party for Trump. He shouts out union workers, wants to expand fracking and doesn't want to defund the police.
"I think we should fund the police," he told CNN in an interview just days before Tuesday's primary. "We can't ever turn our back or make them out to be the enemy. I've never been for defunding the police, just the opposite."
He insisted: "We don't change our message or we don't pander, but we talk about those core universal principles and values, and we show up in every community, some of the reddest counties."
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