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John Fetterman Keeps Going Viral. How Is His Senate Campaign Doing?

UPDATE (Oct. 10, 2022, 10:00 a.m.): As the Senate race in Pennsylvania tightens and the two major-party nominees’ campaigns go viral, we look at how Democrat John Fetterman is faring now, several months after we profiled him in May.


Transcript

This is John Fetterman. He’s the Democratic lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. And he’s running for the U.S. Senate against Republican Mehmet Oz. Fetterman is currently favored to win, though the race is tightening.

Fetterman’s campaign has kept him in headlines with a consistent stream of viral content, often positioning him as the down-to-earth counterpoint to TV star Dr. Oz.

Mehmet Oz: Guys, that’s $20 for crudité, and this doesn’t include the tequila.

John Fetterman: In PA we call this a veggie tray. And if this looks anything other than a veggie tray to you, then I am not your candidate.

Fetterman’s also gotten a lot of attention because of his health — he was hospitalized after having a stroke in May, and he took three months off from campaigning in person. As recently as late August, he implied that he’s still not fully recovered. Nevertheless, his health issues haven’t seemed to shake his lead in the polls to the extent you might think.

This past spring, I wanted to learn more about Fetterman, so I reached out to Shannon Perrine, a longtime reporter at the ABC affiliate station in Pittsburgh, where she’s been following John Fetterman since 2005.

Shannon Perrine: John Fetterman really made a big splash when he ran for mayor and won by one vote. … Literally, heads were turning. They were like, wait, he’s, he’s the mayor? That guy over there?

Fetterman got his political start in a small town called Braddock, where he was mayor for 13 years.

Michael Tabb: What is the town of Braddock like?

Perrine: It is depressed. There are a lot of boarded-up businesses along the main drag. There are lots of vacant properties. And at the very end, there is this enormous steel mill. But here’s the other thing. Since John Fetterman has … moved to town—I’m not saying he’s responsible for all of these things, but … there is kind of a cool, hipster brewery called Brew Gentlemen that I like to go to that, you know, nobody would ever think of putting that in Braddock or locating there, you know. … There’s the urban farm. … There are other businesses that are starting to open, art centers and things like that. … There are obvious changes, and there are signs of life.

In 2019, Fetterman became Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s lieutenant governor, where he made headlines by publicly breaking with tradition. He opened his official residence’s pool to local kids and broke a prohibition against unauthorized flags in the Capitol to celebrate Pride Month.

Perrine: Watching him and reporting on him over the past few years, he has really championed one issue and made it his brand — and that’s legalized recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania. If you think about John Fetterman, you think about legalizing recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania.

Fetterman: Happy 4/20, everybody!

As a candidate for Senate, Fetterman is also running on a platform that’s pro-$15 federal minimum wage, pro-gun reform and pro-clean energy — though he hasn’t responded to calls from the left to ban fracking. Lots of these positions should stand well with his constituents — one recent poll found that 63 percent of likely voters in Pennsylvania support universal background checks for firearm purchases, and another poll from earlier this year found just over half of Pennsylvanians consider global warming a “very serious problem.”

But when Fetterman suffered a stroke in May, his political future started to look more uncertain.

After his stroke, Fetterman didn’t make another public appearance until mid-August. He wouldn’t agree to debate Oz until late October because he was still dealing with “auditory processing and speech” problems. But this doesn’t seem to have damaged his polling numbers to the extent that many expected.

When one of Oz’s senior advisers claimed that Fetterman wouldn’t have had a stroke in the first place “if [he] had ever eaten a vegetable in his life,” Oz faced backlash for mocking Fetterman’s health. Oz subsequently distanced himself from his aide’s comments.

There’s also the fact that Fetterman’s team is effective at messaging, and Oz just isn’t a very popular candidate: A Fox News poll in September — four months after Fetterman’s stroke — found that 34 percent of Oz’s supporters still had reservations about supporting him. Only 20 percent of Fetterman’s supporters said they still had reservations about supporting him.

Perrine: He’s very visible, not just because of his appearance, but he’s present in his town. Some people have described him as having this big personality, and I disagree with that. He, you know … dresses a certain way — the facial hair, all of that look, the tattoos — those are conscious choices, but the words that he uses, the language that he uses … he is efficient with his language, and he is direct. He’s not bombastic, but he uses his actions to speak louder than his words or even his appearance.

Tabb: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Perrine: Bye, Michael.


Info on charts: The chart asking Pennsylvanians about global warming is based on a survey conducted April 15-May 6 by Muhlenberg College among 423 adults in Pennsylvania. The chart showing support for gun proposals is based on a Suffolk University/USA Today survey conducted Sept. 27-Sept. 30 among 500 likely Pennsylvania voters. Charts showing support for Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman are based on a Fox News survey conducted Sept. 22-Sept. 26 among 1,008 Pennsylvania voters.

Michael Tabb is a video and motion graphics producer at FiveThirtyEight.

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