Politics

The Senate Race That Could Decide Democrats’ Future

Conor Lamb standing in front of a window and crossing his arms
Rep. Conor Lamb talks with constituents at Riardo’s Bar and Grill in New Castle, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 6. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The zany nature of the crowded Senate race in Pennsylvania, which has no incumbent, has a lot to do with the Keystone State’s importance. It’s considered a bellwether for a lot of communities: an East Coast urban core in Philadelphia, a Midwestern Rust Belt vibe in Pittsburgh, and other regions that feel like Appalachia. If you admit that Florida seems to be solidly GOP country now, “then Pennsylvania is the swing state with the most electoral votes right now,” explains Jonathan Tamari, who covers politics for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “If you win Pennsylvania, there’s a good chance you’re going to be winning a lot of other swing states as well.” On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Tamari about the Senate race that will help decide whether Pennsylvania is a new predictor for where national politics currently stands. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Let’s start with the Democrats. How would you sort the candidates out there right now?

Jonathan Tamari: Let’s start with John Fetterman, who the lieutenant governor and, by all accounts, the significant front-runner at this point. He elevated his platform by serving as the mayor of Braddock, a really small city outside of Pittsburgh. He’s got tattoos, one of which is Braddock’s ZIP code, another of which represents the death dates of people who were killed in Braddock when he was mayor. He’s got a goatee. He wears gym shorts all the time, including when the president comes to visit.

So he’s this image of a blue-collar guy, even though he grew up in a fairly well-off family. He’s got this persona of being a no-nonsense guy who doesn’t look like a regular politician, who’s not scripted like a normal politician. He endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, and he’s going on this progressive path for Democrats—the idea that you rally your liberal base by being firm on issues like the $15 minimum wage—while arguing that he can go out and win back some of these white working-class voters who left the Democratic Party and went to Trump.

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Does Fetterman call himself a socialist, though?

He does not. He calls himself a populist.

What’s the difference to him?

He probably knows there’s not much upside to socialist label in Pennsylvania, at least when you’re running statewide in such a swing state.

Which brings us to Conor Lamb, Fetterman’s main opponent.

Lamb is much more in the historic Biden mold. In 2018, he won a special election in a district that had gone almost 20 points for Trump. He ran as this moderate Democrat, and the only national figure he brought in to help him win that race was Joe Biden. When he launched his campaign, he went to a Pittsburgh union hall. He had a bunch of union workers with him, and he won three congressional races in districts that are either very Republican or slightly Republican. He’s gone and worked the rooms of party leaders, and he’s worked activists like Black clergy members in Philadelphia, and is counting on that to help him overcome Fetterman’s big financial and name-ID advantages. Lamb is racking up endorsements from big union and party officials and hoping they will influence voters to help him.

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There’s one more Democratic candidate I want to talk about: Malcolm Kenyatta. He seems to be this interesting mix of a couple of different kinds of Democrat: He’s from Philadelphia, he’s black, he’s gay, and he’s quite progressive. In some ways, he and Fetterman share some things, but they’re also different. Where do you place him in the contest?

Kenyatta would represent the AOC strain. He has not been able to raise a lot of money for his campaign, which is the big challenge. But people have been impressed by how hard he’s worked. He’s also got this message of saying: If we’re the party of working class, I grew up in a working class family. If we’re the party that cares about student debt, I actually have student debt. If we’re the party that’s worried about gun violence, I live in a community where gun violence is a real present risk.

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Is this contest close? I know the primaries are not until May.

Fetterman, by all accounts, has a pretty significant lead of 20 percentage points or more, per some polls.

Is that usual, to have someone so far out?

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Not in a primary. And now the caveat is that a lot of the polling also shows there’s a fair number of undecided voters. But Fetterman’s got more money to communicate, so right now, he’s definitely in the driver’s seat.

It was notable to me that Lamb released an attack ad that Fetterman was a self-proclaimed “socialist,” since Lamb himself has been so vocal about how Republicans have harmed Democrats by attacking them as socialists and the people behind defund the police.

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The Fetterman response is he’s the guy who’s going to excite Democrats. That’s what’s going to overcome the headwinds that they face: that he’s a hardcore Democrat liberals will be excited to come out for even in a down year.

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Lamb is really gunning to paint Fetterman as somehow risky. But I don’t know that Pennsylvania voters see Fetterman as risky. He’s been an elected official for a little while, so it’s not like he’s a random doctor who’s carpetbagging in from New Jersey, right?

The question is, is Fetterman popular just because he has a particular image? And will he become less popular once someone puts millions of dollars of attack ads going through his record on TV, because he’s never faced that yet?

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It’s notable to me that Fetterman has so much more money than Conor Lamb, and he’s raising money from within Pennsylvania, versus another candidate who has some PACs going for him.

That’s when his campaign talks like, Hey, we’ve got ordinary voters who don’t just like Fetterman but are opening up their checkbooks to give him money. In fact my colleague has written a story about how Fetterman’s getting a lot of money from people physically mailing him checks.

Does that ever happen these days?

I mean, very rarely. It takes a lot of enthusiasm for somebody to take all those steps to send them your money when you can just click a link on something. So that is clearly a sign that he is resonating with a certain group of voters.

Fetterman also does seem to have a broad range of support. His opponents keep saying, he can’t win, he’s too risky, but he’s in the lead. That is kind of his rebuttal to the argument that he can’t win.

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