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Can Fetterman win enough suburban votes to carry Pennsylvania in November?

Pennsylvania Democrats, shocked by Donald Trump’s 2016 victory in a state that hadn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, figured Joe Biden, more appealing to working-class voters than Hillary Clinton, would cut into Trump’s margins in heavily white counties and get out a big vote in Philadelphia.

Biden carried the state in 2020, but he didn’t achieve either of those objectives. His victory was propelled instead by rolling up huge margins in the populous Philadelphia suburbs.

That seems relevant in the contest this year for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.). It is one of a half-dozen battleground races that will determine which party controls the Senate.

The heavy favorite in the May 17 Democratic primary is John Fetterman, whose strategy is the initial Biden theory on steroids: to cut deeply into the working-class white counties in southwestern and northeastern Pennsylvania that have recently turned red. 

Whether the 52-year-old lieutenant governor can do that while at the same time dominating those Philadelphia suburbs is a tall order.

He is unique and authentic, standing 6 feet, 8 inches tall, with a goatee and tattoos and usually wearing cargo shorts, including at an event with President Biden earlier this year.

“John doesn’t look like a typical politician, and more importantly, he doesn’t act like one,” his website proclaims.

A onetime Bernie Sanders supporter, Fetterman runs on favoring a $15 minimum wage, “Medicare for All,” making the rich pay more taxes, ending the Senate filibuster and criminal justice reform — as well as legalizing marijuana and protecting the right to abortion.

He is a pariah to Wall Street fat cats who are pouring tons of money into the race to help both Fetterman’s primary rival and possible general election opponents. 

Fetterman’s only previous political experience before serving as lieutenant governor was as mayor of Braddock, a hardscrabble town of fewer than 2,000 people just east of Pittsburgh. He was a college football player, was an Americorps volunteer, and got an MBA and then a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Establishment Democrats thought their best bet in this critical race was 38-year-old Rep. Conor Lamb (Pa.), an Ivy League-educated former Marine from western Pennsylvania. With only a little more than a week to go, Lamb just hasn’t clicked.

So the question will likely be, how will Fetterman perform in November?

Fetterman has campaigned relentlessly all over the state with a message aimed at those disaffected voters who feel they’ve been left behind. But in 2020, Biden actually did a little worse than four years earlier in those southwestern counties such as Westmoreland and Washington, where the predominantly white, middle- and lower-income former Democrats went almost 2-to-1 for Trump.

It won’t be easy for Fetterman to crack through what has become a voting habit. 

Biden did better in the northeast, also overwhelmingly white — especially in Lackawanna County, home of Scranton, where he was born.

Of the two big cities, Biden eclipsed the 2016 Democratic win in Pittsburgh (Allegheny County) but actually won by a little less in Philadelphia.

So, those four big Philadelphia suburbs — the “collar counties” of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery — made the difference. They have more votes than Philadelphia and Pittsburgh combined. Biden carried them by a margin of 290,000, or 110,000 more than 2016. If he had simply matched Clinton’s victory in those suburbs, he would have lost Pennsylvania.  

These once-Republican outposts of Main Line patricians, executives of the old Pennsylvania Railroad and horse country scions — while still affluent and highly educated — have become more diverse, with growing Asian, Hispanic and Black populations and younger voters. They are socially liberal and economically moderate.

They are not automatic Democratic voters — Bucks County has a Republican congressman — and there are questions as to how well Fetterman’s style and policies will play.

“He’ll carry those suburbs,” says one Democratic politician who has represented the area, “but he won’t do nearly as well as Biden.”

Fetterman may have gotten a lifeline last week with the leak of a Supreme Court draft majority opinion that revealed the court’s most conservative justices are apparently preparing to overturn the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade decision that protects the right to abortion. Fetterman blasted the argument in that draft opinion.

The Republican nominee will be either celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz or hedge fund executive David McCormick. Both are campaigning as Trump sycophants and support overturning Roe.

A revulsion for Trump and for banning abortion might be enough for those suburban voters to swallow reservations about Fetterman and turn out in big numbers.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Conor Lamb control of the senate David McCormick Donald Trump Joe Biden John Fetterman Mehmet Oz Pennsylvania Democratic Party Pennsylvania Democratic primary Pennsylvania elections Pennsylvania politics Pennsylvania Senate race Philadelphia Pittsburgh suburban voters trumpism white working class working class voters

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