Pennsylvania turns the Senate seat blue with John Fetterman’s win
Election Update: Fetterman defeats Oz in a contentious midterm Senate campaign and flips the Pennsylvania seat.
Megan Smith, USA TODAY
John Fetterman strolled down a sleepy street past a brick-fronted law firm and a small car dealership in Emporium, a town of about 2,000 and home to Pennsylvania’s smallest county.
In this scene from the video used to launch the Democrats’ US Senate campaign, he voices over how former President Donald Trump targeted struggling communities like this one and won over people long felt forgotten by political elites .
Fetterman wouldn’t make the mistake of ignoring her, either, he suggests.
“We cannot afford to take a vote for granted,” Fetterman said. “We cannot afford to take any place for granted.”
Fetterman’s promises and campaign slogan “every country, every vote” are nothing new for a politician. But the candidate – who served as mayor of a fading steel town near Pittsburgh for 13 years – backed up those overused statements with his own biography and by spending time and resources in communities he knew he would never win.
And the strategy worked. The Democrat topped President Joe Biden’s 2020 numbers in 62 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties and clinched a comfortable 240,000-vote victory over Republican rival Mehmet Oz in the crucial Senate contest.
Fetterman averaged 37% of the vote compared to Biden’s 35% average, but the former Braddock mayor doubled that two-point lead in many counties with more registered Republicans than Democrats.
In a roughly 10-county strip running 160 miles between West Virginia and New York, where Republicans typically make up about 53% of registered voters, Fetterman doubled his two-point lead over Biden.
Biden bested Fetterman’s 2022 results only in Chester, Monroe, Montour, Delaware and Pike counties.
The statewide plan gave Fetterman an opportunity to demonstrate deep Pennsylvania roots, which he accused Oz of lacking. The Republican surgeon star has parents-in-law in Pennsylvania and grew up nearby, but lived in New Jersey for about 30 years and only moved to the state about a year before announcing his Senate bid.
Julie Roginsky, a Democratic national strategist, noted that for the senator-elect’s campaign, the plural of “you” was always either the Philadelphia “youse” or the Pittsburgh “yinz.” He also enjoyed playing the East-West rivalry between Wawa and Sheetz.
“This is an incredibly personal message” said Roginskey, adding, insofar “it underscores voters that only someone who is from Pennsylvania and lives in Pennsylvania and has always lived in Pennsylvania would know these nuances.”
“You don’t pay a social media company to do that in California.”
The election result answers critics of the nationwide approach, who said a Democrat cannot perform strongly in both rural and metropolitan parts of the Commonwealth, said Fetterman’s senior adviser, Rebecca Katz.
“John Fetterman was counted out at every step by a lot of people who said this strategy wouldn’t work,” she said. “That was obviously not the case.”
Turnout in the midterm election was almost overwhelming given the national attention given to the Senate race between Fetterman and Oz.
About 5.3 million ballots were cast in the race, about 60% of the 8.8 million voters who registered in Pennsylvania before Nov. 3. This roughly corresponds to the turnout for the half-term in 2018.
More:John Fetterman wins the Pennsylvania Senate race, turning over the key seat for the Democrats
What was the 67 County strategy?
In the very early days of his candidacy, Fetterman argued in an op-ed for the Erie Times-News that running an all-county campaign was a moral imperative — and a winning strategy.
“The focus on rural areas doesn’t mean we start ignoring our big cities and suburbs,” he wrote. “It’s not about playing city against country because the reality is that in both countries there are far too many communities that have been overlooked and left behind.”
Opinion:Lt. gov. John Fetterman: We are a Pennsylvania with shared values and needs
Katz noted that Fetterman’s first major campaign event took place in Mercer County, a western Pennsylvania county that landed squarely in the Republican column at election time and did again this year. He continued to draw crowds throughout the race in other strictly conservative counties, areas where he knew he would not prevail but where he was less likely to lose.
Typically, she explained, campaigns expect a “flake rate” of around 50%, meaning half of the people who say they’re attending a rally or campaign freeze end up not showing up. But Katz said that even in rural areas, more people came to see Fetterman than promised.
His team launched hyper-local ads that featured region-specific points of interest and references, like Presque Isle, the state park on Lake Erie.
The Erie-specific ad mentions that Fetterman enjoys taking family trips there, and says Oz “probably thinks Presque Isle is off the coast of Scotland.” Another ad, focused on central Pennsylvania, showed Fetterman’s parents, Karl and Susan, discussing his upbringing in York.
“He’s our son, but he’s actually a Pennsylvania son,” says his father.
Though Fetterman reached out to communities with local credentials, he kept his political messages consistent and didn’t tone down his progressive ideas even when visiting conservative areas, Katz said.
In his commentary, Fetterman cited cannabis legalization and broadband rollout as two priorities that appeal to both rural and urban voters. However, according to Katz, he also spoke unabashedly about protecting abortion rights, ending corporate price gouging, and rooting out the filibuster in solid Republican places.
Fetterman’s margins improved in rural counties
Christopher Nicholas, a veteran GOP advisor in Pennsylvania, said he didn’t think Fetterman’s performance in deep red counties got him the win. Many of those counties have tiny populations, and gaining a few more percentage points in them doesn’t add up to a lot of votes, he said.
“In little Cameron County, if you do four or five points better than the Democratic average, you only get 400 or 500 more votes,” Nicholas said. “So that strategy wasn’t the key to his win.”
In his view, Fetterman’s gains in left-leaning Lackawanna County and purple Luzerne County, more populous areas of northeastern Pennsylvania, were more important in helping the Democratic firm extend its lead over Oz. Fetterman’s strong performance in Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh metropolitan area where he resides, has also boosted his total, Nicholas said.
Fetterman’s campaign manager Brendan McPhillips counters that improved performance in small districts across the Commonwealth can have a significant impact on total votes. Hillary Clinton was beaten so badly in rural areas in 2016 that even Democratic strongholds Philadelphia and Pittsburgh couldn’t pull her out of the hole, he noted.
More:John Fetterman has reforged every political office he has held. What now?
But Biden chose a more statewide strategy in 2020 and ended up scoring a win that helped propel him to the top of the electoral college, said McPhillips, who was Biden’s Pennsylvania state director in the presidential race.
By improving Biden’s percentages in rural counties, Fetterman gained more than 30,000 additional votes, according to an analysis of the USA TODAY Network results.
The Every County approach is also burned into Fetterman’s identity, McPhillips said. Fetterman thus prevailed in his running for lieutenant governor and later visited all 67 counties on his cannabis legalization listening tour.
The life-threatening stroke Fetterman suffered in May made it impossible to run in every county they planned to visit during the general election, McPhillips said. But he argues the Democrat has already left his mark in those places.
“He’s been popping up in very red, small counties for years,” McPhillips said. “People remembered that and the campaign allowed us to build on that earlier work.”
These red counties also didn’t seem all that interested in voting for Oz in general.
Only in two counties, Chester and Montour, did Oz receive a higher share of the vote compared to Trump.
On average, statewide, Trump secured 3.7 percentage points more than Oz.
Fetterman also made gains in larger counties
Fetterman also managed to undermine Republican vote share in larger districts that sway to the right or are usually tossups.
He proclaimed during the race that no candidate who lost Erie County would win overall; Clinton lost Erie County and Pennsylvania in 2016 while Biden captured both in 2020. And sure enough, he beat Oz in Erie County by about 10,000 votes, beating Biden in the process.
McPhillips said he paid particular attention to returning to swing counties of Northampton, Lucerne and Erie on election night. And when Fetterman’s lead in Erie increased from two percentage points to nine on a new batch of returns, “we all kind of lost our minds,” he recalls.
“That’s when we started feeling so good that we thought we had the deal closed,” McPhillips said.
More:During the campaign, Fetterman says, “If you can’t win Erie, you can’t win Pennsylvania.”
While Fetterman lost conservative York County by double digits to Oz, he still outperformed Biden there by almost six percentage points.
York County Democratic Party leader Chad Baker said it helps that Fetterman grew up in the county and still has family there. But Fetterman’s ground play was the bigger reason he was able to narrow the county’s Democratic deficit, Baker said.
Statewide Democratic campaigns often send coordinators to the York County area, Baker said, but these workers often oversee a regional effort. In contrast, he continued, Fetterman hired a York County organizer to develop a community-specific “get-out-the-vote” campaign.
The deeper message that every voter and every district matters may also have won back people who have defected from the Democratic Party to support Trump, Baker said.
“If they voted Democratic in the past and voted for Donald Trump in 2016, it was because they felt they weren’t being reached,” he said. “They were either looked at or spoken to, but not listened to.”