John Fetterman was sitting, alone, in the corridor outside the hotel ballroom where Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party committee members were gathered, looking every bit like someone who didn’t belong there.
Moments later, Fetterman — Pennsylvania’s sitting lieutenant governor — got trounced by more than 2 to 1 by U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb in the endorsement vote in the party’s primary race for U.S. Senate.
In barely two months, Democrats will find out if the party’s electorate feels differently about nominating Fetterman, a mold-breaking candidate much better known to Democrats than his rivals, to be its standard-bearer in a premier Senate contest.
Not only did Fetterman come from the party’s progressive wing, but he is irreverent, blunt and, well, something to see. At 6 feet 8, he is tattooed and goateed, his head is clean shaven, and he is most often seen wearing shorts — even in winter — and casual work shirts.
Fetterman leads in campaign fundraising and is also the only one in the race to have won a statewide campaign, or even run statewide. He has campaigned around Pennsylvania numerous times now, as far back as 2008, when he stumped in the presidential primary for Barack Obama.
But the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol stiffened the resolve among Democratic state committee members to vote for the candidate who is most electable in the November general election in this presidential battleground state, some Democrats say.
For many, that means voting for Lamb, viewed as a more moderate, more conventional candidate with a resume that has more crossover appeal.
“Those of us in politics who are in the know, we want to win the Senate race, so we want to pick the most electable person statewide, and I think a lot of people agree that that person is Conor Lamb,” said Christina Proctor, the Democratic Party chair in Washington County.
The seat being vacated by retiring two-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is viewed nationally as up for grabs and among the few chances Democrats will have to pick up a seat in a daunting year when President Joe Biden and Democrats face a critical and pessimistic public, according to the February poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Republicans have a wide-open field, featuring three wealthy and well-connected transplants from out of state — including Mehmet Oz, host of daytime TV’s “The Dr. Oz Show” — who are spending millions of dollars on TV ads.
On the Democratic side, Lamb, 37, a clean-cut former federal prosecutor and ex-Marine, worked hard for months to win the party’s endorsement.
Fetterman’s campaign dismissed the process as an “inside game” and maintained that his focus is on campaigning and expanding the map of friendly voters by finding new supporters in far-flung places where Democrats get trounced.
“John comes off as an outsider; that’s been the case from Day One as far as the state party goes,” said Aaron Stearns, the Democratic Party chair in sparsely populated Warren County.
Fetterman doesn’t fit into the box the party has built for its candidates, Stearns said, either on issues, such as Fetterman’s outspoken advocacy for legalizing marijuana, or on looks, such as Fetterman being anything but clean-cut and suit-wearing.
“We’re still trapped in that whole cycle of ‘That’s the only way you can get elected,’” Stearns said.
When Fetterman visits Stearns’ rural area, he is genuine and approachable, and he looks and dresses “like us,” Stearns said. “I’m not 6-8, but I think for everyday Democrats, it’s a bonus.”
It’s not clear that Fetterman necessarily intended to run as an outsider or even views himself that way.
Still, there was a strong undercurrent that Jan. 29’s state party committee vote was more about which Democrat can win in November than it was about Lamb’s outreach.
There are some misgivings about Fetterman’s electability, compared with Lamb’s record of winning three nationally watched races for Congress on difficult turf for a Democrat, sticking to moderate messaging and showing no fear of taking on not only the right wing, but the left wing, too.
There are questions about whether Fetterman is battle-tested, too liberal or too nonconformist.
Of course, primary voters on May 17 may disagree.
“It’s difficult to know what the electorate is going to do,” said Greg Stewart, the Democratic Party chair in Centre County.
There have been plenty of successful candidates in high-profile primaries that were not the No. 1 choice of state Democratic Party committee members: Tom Wolf for governor in 2014, Kathleen Kane for attorney general in 2012, Joe Sestak for Senate in 2010 and Ed Rendell for governor in 2002.
All but Sestak went on to win the general election.
This is Fetterman’s third statewide campaign after arriving in the tiny, crumbling and poverty-battered steel town of Braddock in 2001 as an AmeriCorps volunteer and winning his first mayoral election in 2005.
By the time he first ran for higher office, Fetterman, 52, was a media darling for his unconventional efforts to reinvigorate Braddock and a progressive hero in the Pittsburgh area for his bare-knuckled advocacy.
In 2016’s three-way primary race for U.S. Senate, he accused the party-endorsed Katie McGinty of taking campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and endorsed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the insurgent Vermont independent who was challenging establishment Democrat Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.
Fetterman finished third.
In 2018, as the Sanders-endorsed candidate, Fetterman won a five-way primary race for lieutenant governor to become Wolf’s running mate against four candidates who split the southeastern Pennsylvania vote.
Then in the 2020 presidential campaign, Fetterman further boosted his profile as a savvy go-to Biden surrogate on national cable TV news shows in the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania.
Democrats don’t doubt that Fetterman, if elected, will be a strong backer of Biden’s agenda after he forged a symbiotic relationship with Wolf on progressive issues. Many also struggle to decide whether Fetterman and Lamb would even vote differently in the Senate.
Still, Fetterman has not won over a critical mass of party leaders or allies.
Lamb has backing from the state party’s Latino Caucus, the National Organization for Women and the vast majority of building trades unions, plus Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Rich Fitzgerald, the chief executive of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh.
Malcolm Kenyatta, a second-term state representative from Philadelphia who campaigned around the country for Biden in 2020, also has netted endorsements from top-tier party allies, including big public employee labor unions and progressive groups.
Most party pillars — Wolf, Sen. Bob Casey and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro — have not taken sides.
Neither has the Senate Democrats’ national political arm, as it did against Sestak in 2010 and again for McGinty in 2016.
Democrats attribute that to a strong field, and some say they are satisfied with it, if torn over the choice.
Fetterman, himself, after making his pitch on stage to state party committee members that he has the strongest campaign, struck a magnanimous tone, saying that any of the candidates sharing the stage could win in November.
“I fundamentally, absolutely believe it to be true,” Fetterman told the crowd.