Pennsylvania’s Nutty Senate Race

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S1: Jonathan Tamari covers politics over the Philadelphia Inquirer. And here’s how he knew 2022 was going to be busy for him. A couple of years back, he was driving all the way from the northwest corner of Pennsylvania to D.C. when he got some news. Republican Senator Pat Toomey was going to be retiring.

S2: Well, this was in the middle of the presidential race and it was stunning that he announced that early. And fortunately I was able to break that story. And I’m like sitting at a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I’m tweeting and reporting and, you know, a Times reporter, quote, tweeted it and said, this is going to be a crazy Senate race. And I was like, man, I’m just trying to survive 2020. Can we not look ahead to 2022? Right now, this is like October 2020. We had a month to go.

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S1: The reason the Senate race is so crazy has more to do with the state of Pennsylvania than anything else. The Keystone State is considered a bellwether for a lot of communities. It’s got an East Coast urban core. That’s Philly. There’s Pittsburgh with its Midwestern Rust Belt vibe, and some regions feel like Appalachia.

S2: There’s a part of Pennsylvania, kind of south of Harrisburg, that almost has a southern feel. It’s like right over the Maryland panhandle.

S1: It’s a little America.

S2: It is. It is. And the same divides that you see all over America between urban and rural suburban kind of swinging back and forth.

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S1: And there’s one more thing. If you admit that Florida seems to be solidly GOP country.

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S2: Then Pennsylvania is the swing state with the most electoral votes right now. If you win Pennsylvania, there’s a good chance you’re going to be winning a lot of other swing states as well.

S1: So with no incumbent in this Senate race, Democrats and Republicans are writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book, which only the voters are going to be able to complete.

S2: It’s created a test case for both parties, I would say. If he was running for re-election, the election would really focus on Pat Toomey, I think, and he would be arguing that he’s a good senator and the Democrats would argue why he’s a bad senator. But instead, it’s just wide open for both parties to choose what path they want to go down.

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S1: Today on the show, the Senate race that’s going to help decide is Pennsylvania still a political magic eight ball for the rest of the country? Signs point to yes. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around. Okay. So if the candidates for Senate in Pennsylvania represent different timelines, the political parties could go down. Hmm. I’m sort of wondering if you can help me sort them a bit to explain what those different ways forward would look like. So where we can start with the Democrats. Mm hmm. How would you sort the candidates out there right now?

S2: So let’s start with John Fetterman, who’s the lieutenant governor, and by all accounts is the significant front runner at this point. His platform is being the mayor of Braddock, which is this really small city outside of Pittsburgh.

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S3: Today, 90% of the population of Braddock has left. Less than 3000 people remain. The poverty rate here is three times the national average. There is no restaurant or ATM, no gas station or supermarket. But for those people who do remain in this small town, there is hope. And it comes in the form of a very large man.

S2: He’s got tattoos. He’s got a goatee. He wears gym shorts all the time, including when the president comes to visit.

S3: Talk to me about the tattoos. There’s been a lot written about them, but walk us through the motivation and the symbolism here.

S4: The first one is a15104, which is Braddock’s zip code. And this one is much more serious. These represent the dates of people that have been killed through violence in my community since I’ve been mayor.

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S2: And so he’s this image of this kind of like blue collar guy, you know, even though he grew up, you know, in a fairly well-off family. He’s got this, you know, persona of kind 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.

S4: And that’s why I am proud to endorse Bernie Sanders today. Whether it’s immigration, whether it’s marijuana legalization, whether it’s universal pre-K or affordability for college education, we stand together as the most progressive candidates in our respective races.

S2: And he’s kind of like this combination of a progressive path for Democrats with the idea that you rally, you know, your liberal base by being, like, really firm on issues like the $15 minimum wage and and things like that. And also, though, 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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S1: I know he’s close to Bernie Sanders, who helped Fetterman basically become the lieutenant governor in Pennsylvania. Does Fetterman call himself a socialist, though?

S2: He does not. No. He calls himself a populist.

S1: What’s the difference to him?

S2: I think in his heart, he probably knows that the socialist label is is politically toxic and there’s not much upside in it in a state like Pennsylvania, at least when you’re running statewide in such a swing state.

S1: Which brings us to Conor LAMB, who’s Fetterman main opponent, I guess I would say right now. Would you put it that way?

S2: I would. And LAMB is much more in the Joe Biden mold. LAMB first got notoriety in 2018. He won a special election in a district that had gone something like 20 points for Trump. And 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, kind of like Joe Biden. He went to a Pittsburgh union hall. It was down on Hot Metal Street in Pittsburgh. 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. And yeah, he’s gone and worked the rooms and worked the party leaders and worked activists like black clergy members in Philadelphia and is kind of counting on that to help overcome, you know, Fetterman big financial advantage and his name I.D. advantage.

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S1: Big names Republicans seem to like lamb to like there was a New York Times op ed back in October where Christine Todd Whitman namechecked him. She was like, you know, in Pennsylvania, Conor LAMB might make some sense.

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S2: Yeah. I mean, he’s he’s moderate. We’re Fetterman is very standoffish with the political class. LAMB is racking up, like, big union endorsements, party officials, and hoping that they will influence voters to help him.

S1: There’s one more Democratic candidate I want to talk about, Malcolm Kenyatta, because he seems to be this interesting mix of a couple of different kinds of Democrat, like he’s from Philadelphia, he’s black, he’s gay, he’s quite progressive. So in some ways he and Fetterman share some things, but they’re also different. So where do you place him in the contest?

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S2: He has not been able to raise a lot of money for his campaign, which is the big challenge for him. But people have been impressed by how hard he’s worked. And he’s got this message of saying. You know, if we’re the party of working class, you know, I grew up in a working class family.

S5: I know what it’s like to see an eviction notice to work a minimum wage job. My first one was at the age of 12, working to support my family. My dad was a social worker. My mom was.

S2: If we’re the party that cares about student debt, I actually have student debt. If we’re the party that’s worried about, you know, gun violence, I live in a community where gun violence is a real present risk, and he would represent that kind of AOC strain. The challenge is that when you talk about an AOC and other people kind of in her in her style of Democrat, a lot of their wins have come in smaller races where, you.

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S1: Know, House races.

S2: House races, city council races, mayoral race is not in like these statewide races where you’ve got to appeal to a broader constituency.

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S1: So is this contest close currently? I know it’s early days like the primaries, not til May.

S2: Fetterman, by all accounts, has a pretty significant lead. You know, some polling will show it of 20 percentage points or more.

S1: Is that unusual to have someone so far out?

S2: Not in a primary. The caveat is that a lot of the polling also shows there’s a fair number of undecided voters. So there’s a lot of voters out there that can still move. And veterans opponents would say, look, he hasn’t been tested. He’s got this populist image. And they’re hoping they can kind of pull him down to earth. But the challenge is that he’s got more money to communicate. So right now, he’s definitely in the driver’s seat.

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S1: So how do these Democratic candidates stack up against the Republican candidates? Because the person that these candidates are trying to replace, Republican Senator Pat Toomey, is definitely conservative, but he’s also a certain brand of old school Republican. He was one of the seven Republicans to vote to impeach Donald Trump after January 6th. So that tells you a little bit about where his head’s at. Does the Republican field look like Pat Toomey?

S2: In some ways, yes. And in some ways no. I mean, you say Pat Toomey is an old school Republican. You’re 100% right with that. He’s a guy who came up, you know, worked at the Club for Growth, which is a major fiscally conservative group.

S1: Anti-tax.

S2: Yes. But because of that vote to impeach Trump or to convict Trump, he’s not really that popular now in the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. The people running to replace him, they’re all kind of jockeying for either Trump’s support directly or the support of his voters. The front runner right now, David McCormick. He’s got that like national defense slash, big business, high finance background. Toomey also came from finance. He was a Wall Street banker. But McCormick at the same time is kind of having that background, is trying really, really hard to show that he’s like an America first guy. He might have been the kind of old school figure at one point, but he really wants that Trump endorsement. And so he’s acting in a way to try to to secure that.

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S1: Try as he might. Dave McCormick did not get that endorsement. Mehmet Oz did over the weekend. The TV doctor is McCormick’s main rival. Even though he hasn’t been a resident of Pennsylvania until just recently, Oz has actually been living at his in-laws house.

S2: Nemat Oz has lived in New Jersey for decades, is originally from Delaware. He did go to the University of Pennsylvania for medical school and business school. He is a long time Republican, you know, socially moderate. He praised some things like he praised parts of the Affordable Care Act in the past. You know, he suggested that he was against abortion restrictions in the past, but he’s running also trying to appeal to the Trump brand, but in a slightly different way where he’s saying, I’m the conservative outsider, I’m not a politician. You know, I’ll come in there and I’ll shake up Washington.

S1: Any of these people talk about the 2020 election or do they try to avoid it?

S2: There’s a lot of dancing. It’s almost impossible to get a straight answer. On whether Joe Biden legitimately won. There are a couple candidates who have said they think he did or that they would have certified Pennsylvania’s vote on January 6th. But they don’t want to talk about it. They really want to avoid it as much as possible.

S1: It’s interesting because listening to you describe the Democratic and Republican fields in the Senate race, it seems to me like the Republicans have fully committed to wilding out on Washington. Like there’s not a one in that bunch necessarily. And you can correct me if I’m wrong who’s like, yes, I’m going to be the nice person who shows up to work each day and works with my colleagues and shakes hands across the aisle. But the Democrats are still kind of working that out.

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S2: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s surprising. I mean, Democrats control Washington. It makes a lot of sense for Republicans, I think, to say we’re going to go down there and stop Biden and stop this Democratic majority and reverse the policies that they’re blaming for inflation and other problems that they see in the country right now.

S1: When we come back, the debate where things got ugly for the Democrats. Because there seems to maybe be a little bit more at stake for the Democrats in terms of the future of of what their party looks like than the Republicans in this race. I’m wondering if we can focus on them, and I’m wondering if we can start by looking at the debate that happened a couple of weeks back. I know you weren’t like in the room for it, but you’ve certainly reported on what happened there. How did it all go down?

S2: So it was kind of foreshadowed in the days leading up Fetterman, who as we’ve discussed, was is very much in the lead. Skipped this debate and he says he’s going to attend other debates later on in the race. Three other debates.

S1: He said he just didn’t want to do it because there were no primetime viewers, essentially. Right.

S2: It was a Sunday afternoon. And he said, yeah, I’m going to go to the debates that have much more TV viewing. And instead, he made a stop in like three deep red counties in Pennsylvania to kind of show that he was kind of working those areas that Democrats usually lose badly in.

S1: So he had real counterprogramming.

S2: He did. In fact, I went to one of the events he had that was scheduled for the exact time window as the debate 3 to 430 Sunday afternoon.

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S1: Do you feel like it was a better use of his time?

S2: It’s a tough question. I mean, as a reporter, I would like to see all the candidates debate because I think we get some information out of that. But he’s winning. And so he probably doesn’t want to get up on stage with his opponents and give them a chance to kind of change the narrative or change the trajectory somehow.

S1: Yeah.

S2: They did try to do that anyway. They put three podiums on stage, even though Fetterman wasn’t there.

S1: So an empty podium for him?

S2: Yes.

S1: Did the other people in the room address it?

S3: Oh, absolutely. Thank you all. Thank you to Muhlenberg for hosting this. And our moderators, you deserve a real debate.

S2: Conor LAMB And how come Kenyatta were taking him on or criticizing him for not being there, saying, you know, this is going to be such a tough race, you can’t duck scrutiny because you’re going to get it from the Republicans, whether you like it or not.

S3: What you deserve is a debate about how each of us would do exactly that. And you’re going to get that debate today, not just between me and Malcolm, but I’m going to talk about the differences between me and John Fetterman. He didn’t respect you enough to show up today. But we need to have an honest family discussion among Democrats about what we’re doing here.

S2: And they’re bringing up an incident from his past in 2013 when he was the mayor of Braddock, and he grabbed his shotgun and chased a black man when he said he thought he heard gunshots.

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S3: We all make choices in life. And John made a choice. He made a choice to point a shotgun at the chest of an unarmed black man. John placed that man’s life in danger. It was wrong what he did.

S2: And this has become a big controversy and it’s unclear if there were shots fired. Some other people have told police they did hear some. The man that Fetterman stopped said that there was just fireworks. I was able to talk to him at his event down in Franklin County and ask him about it. And he said, listen, I made a split second decision. I was acting as the mayor and the chief law enforcement officer. You know, he says he did not know the race of the man because he was masked. He was wearing a ski mask, he says, and that he did not apologize for it, but he said he wouldn’t want to have to do it again.

S1: I can’t quite tell if having these Democratic candidates. Rip each other to shreds during a primary is going to somehow. Inoculate the eventual winner from criticism or just make it so much easier for the Republicans to pin some kind of problematic label on them?

S2: As tough as the Democratic race has gotten in the last week or so, the Republican race has actually been the rougher race to this point. But it is a question for Democrats and the Fetterman opponents are saying, kind of, like I said earlier, that, look, Republicans are going to come at you with this, whether you like it or not. So let’s make sure we have it out now. And if you’re going to be the nominee, you need to be able to show you can take this heat and survive it. But there are certainly Democrats that are cringing that this is coming up that don’t want to see their own nominee get their potential nominees get beat up. In this way, Fetterman is trying to take the high road. He’s saying, I’m not going to spend any of my money attacking other Democrats.

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S1: It was notable to me that Conor LAMB. Released an attack ad that said that Fetterman was a self-proclaimed socialist.

S5: Who can Democrats trust in the race for Senate? Conor LAMB So former prosecutor and Marine John Fetterman is a self-described Democratic socialist. LAMB.

S1: Conor LAMB himself has been so vocal about how Republicans have harmed Democrats by attacking them as socialists and the people behind defund the police. It seemed like he was using the very weapons that he had openly resented.

S2: I think your analysis is right on that he’s using an attack that that he has has criticized at times. But I think he I know his argument since he has said so is that Republicans are going to call us all socialists. With Fetterman, it’s going to stick because of his endorsement of Bernie Sanders or some of the other positions he has taken. Again, the Fetterman response is he’s the guy who’s going to excite Democrats and that that’s what’s going to overcome the headwinds that they face, because he’s going to be, you know, a hard core Democrat that liberals are excited to come out for even in a down year.

S1: LAMB is really gunning to paint Fetterman as somehow risky. But it’s interesting to me because I don’t know that Pennsylvania voters see Fetterman as risky while he’s been an elected official for a little while. So it’s not like he’s, I don’t know, like a random doctor who’s carpetbagging in from New Jersey.

S2: Right. The question is, as we were talking about earlier, is that has is he popular just because he has this image and will he be 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. It reminds me a lot of, you know, the 2020 primary when Democrats said, hey, we’ve got to do everything we can to stop Bernie Sanders. Fetterman is somewhat like Sanders in that, you know, some Democrats think he’s too risky to get behind.

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S1: I want to parse one more bit of data with you if you’ll do that. Sure. It was notable to me. That Fetterman has so much more money than Conor LAMB. Like he’s he’s raising from within Pennsylvania. That seems meaningful to me that. He’s the guy raising money from within the state versus another candidate who has some PACs going on for him.

S2: Yeah, and I think that’s totally right. And that’s when when his campaign talks about they’re like, hey, we’ve got ordinary voters who don’t just like Fetterman, but are opening up their checkbooks to give him money. And in fact, my colleague Julia Caruso has written a story about how he’s getting a lot of money from people like physically mailing him checks, like not just like clicking on a link in an email, but like writing a check, getting a stamp.

S1: Does that ever happen these days?

S2: I mean, very rarely. Like when we were crunching the numbers, there was this like disconnect in the numbers. They weren’t adding up and they figured out that, oh, god, it’s because he’s getting actual mail checks and we and like that never happens. We don’t even think to look at it. It takes a lot of enthusiasm for somebody to take all those steps to send them your money when you can’t just like click a link on something. So that is clearly a sign that he is resonating with a certain group of voters.

S1: It also shows a diversity of who’s supporting him, just that it’s older people who use checks. It’s, you know, and instead of clicking on links. And so if you’re getting checks sent to you like you wouldn’t necessarily think of older people as veterans base, but maybe that is a big part of who’s supporting him.

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S2: He does seem to have a range of support and the challenge his opponents keep saying, well, he can’t win, he’s too risky, but he keeps winning or he is winning anyway. He’s in the lead. So that is kind of his rebuttal to the argument that he can’t win. And he says, well, then, you know, I look at the polls, I am winning.

S1: I wonder if all this makes you wonder if the Democratic strategists and party officials are a little out of touch with their voters?

S2: Well, I would say in this instance, the national party, anyway, is staying out of this race. And that’s a big, big change from 2016, the last time we had an open Senate primary like this on the Democratic side.

S1: That’s interesting. Why are they staying out?

S2: Well, I think 2016 is maybe part of it. They came in that year and they endorsed a candidate who is very much the establishment figure, was totally in line with Chuck Schumer and 2016 turned out right. That’s the year Donald Trump won. That’s the year Bernie Sanders had a lot of success in the primary. That was the year of the outsider. And Democrats got behind. And they’re not trying to play favorites this time around. I also think they see Fetterman strength and they say, well, look, he’s he might not be the conventional person. He might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but he’s showing the strength on the traditional political metrics, polling and fundraising. So I think Fetterman has given them enough reason to think he can win, and LAMB has not kind of knocked their socks off, that they’re just going to stay out and they leave the door open just enough if they want to come in at the end, maybe to play favorites, but for now, they’re not getting involved.

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S1: You’re right. The Democrats have done this thing where they’ve chosen a very specific group to run in contests that they’re interested in. Veterans, not that. So if he wins, I just wonder if it shakes up their entire plan.

S2: Well, I think it depends on how things go in November. Right. If he wins, then yes. And especially if he wins in during a Republican wave, then yes, they could say, look, we’ve got to go outside the box. We can’t have these typical buttoned up politicians. But if he loses, I think there will be a lot of people who say, see, it’s Pennsylvania, it’s a swing state. You can’t have these folks who turn off moderate voters. You’ve got to have a Bob Casey. You’ve got to have a Conor LAMB who can reach the moderate suburbanites. And I think Pennsylvania will provide a really fascinating test case, because there’s also the governor’s race, and there’s only one Democrat running for governor. His name’s Josh SHAPIRO. He’s the attorney general. He’s very much the polished politician who looks like the typical Democrat who can win in Pennsylvania.

S1: So if Fetterman wins the primary, you’ll have kind of a beta test.

S2: Exactly. Same electorate, same election environment. One really typical Democrat, one outside the box. And you can see what works and what doesn’t potentially.

S1: Jonathan Tamari, I’m so grateful for your analysis and for joining me. Thanks.

S2: Thank you for having me.

S1: Jonathan Tamari is a national political writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Alan Schwarz, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We’re getting an assist from Anna Rubanova and Laura Spencer. We’re led by Alisha Montgomery and our executive producer, Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. I’m going to be back in this feed tomorrow. Catch you then.