Skip to content

Can a Tattooed Politician Upend Pennsylvania’s Senate Race?

John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pa., addresses a crowd while announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, in Braddock. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Fetterman, shown here announcing his candidacy last week in Braddock, could pull support from both Sestak and McGinty. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

A 6-foot-8-inch, tattooed former offensive tackle walks into a bar … to host a fundraiser for his Senate campaign.

It’s not a joke, it’s the headlines Braddock, Pa., Mayor John Fetterman received when the unconventional looking politician sought to raise dollars for his newly launched Senate bid in the crucial Pennsylvania Senate race.

The third Democrat to enter the primary for the chance to take on GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey in 2016, Fetterman’s tough-guy look and outsider appeal could resonate in a cycle when voters seem frustrated with the typical political class, Democratic consultants across the Keystone State say.

But whether Fetterman’s campaign will be successful depends on one big question: Will he have the resources to compete?

“Is there money out there? That’s the thing that everyone is trying to figure out, because that’s really what it’s going to take to make the race very serious,” Pennsylvania Democratic consultant Michael Bronstein said.

Democratic strategists say Fetterman’s look, coupled with his story — the mayor of a small Rust Belt town just north of Pittsburgh who has found innovative ways to help keep the community from crumbling — will earn the aspiring senator both local and national media coverage.

Yet in a state the size of Pennsylvania, earned media will not be sufficient to convince enough voters to side with Fetterman. He’ll need millions of dollars to reach voters in the pricey Philadelphia and Pittsburgh media markets, and even then, Fetterman will face an uphill climb to earn enough support to win the nomination.

“That’s not the way you win a Senate race in a state the size of Pennsylvania, that’s just not how it happens,” one Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist said of a campaign based solely on media coverage. “So basically he’s going to get some western Pennsylvania votes, OK; he’ll be a colorful presence in debates. OK, that’s fine; but the odds of him winning are 2 percent.”

Fetterman says he’ll have the money he needs to hold his own against the two Democrats currently in the race: former Rep. Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty, a former top aide to Gov. Tom Wolf and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

“I don’t know how much money that the race is going to require, that’s a shame that’s even a question,” Fetterman said. “Elections should be first and foremost about ideas and résumés and what you want to do if you win, but again our fundraising is going very well so far — we’re eight or nine days into it and have a dozen fundraisers scheduled between now and the end of the month.”

Fetterman said he has experience raising money to help his city and took shots at his Democratic opponents, who he said have raised money to further their political careers.

“Ultimately, I’ve raised as much money as my Democratic opponents have, the only difference is the money I’ve raised over the past six or seven years has been to improve my community,” Fetterman said.

Whoever wins the primary would face Toomey in a state Democrats must win as they seek to net the five seats necessary to gain Senate control. Democrats have carried the state at the presidential level every year since 1992, and the Senate contest is currently rated Tilts Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.

If Fetterman can put together the resources needed for a competitive campaign, it then becomes unclear which of his two Democratic rivals he siphons votes from.

A handful of Pennsylvania Democrats say Fetterman’s outsider appeal would cut into Sestak’s support.

A retired Navy admiral, Sestak touts his progressive bonafides, as well as his own unconventional approach to politics. But bad blood has lingered between Sestak and national Democrats since he challenged the party’s consensus candidate, Sen. Arlen Specter, in the 2010 primary after Specter had switched parties in 2009 and delivered Democrats a key vote for President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.

Sestak went on to defeat Specter in the primary, but lost to Toomey in the general election. Specter died in 2012.

“There’s a gender factor obviously, so now we have two men against one woman. But even more importantly, from an ideological prospective, [Fetterman] comes at Sestak from sort of the same place — maybe even a little to the left of Sestak,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based communications professional who is active in Democratic politics. “And I think that McGinty’s challenge in a Democratic primary was that she was not going to be able to be with Sestak on a number of issues, and not be able to get to the left of Sestak on a number of issues, and I think that this fellow does that for her.”

Other Democrats say Fetterman could pose a threat to McGinty because of geography. McGinty’s campaign has earned high-profile endorsements from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Pittsburgh-based Rep. Mike Doyle.

But with Fetterman from the Pittsburgh area, consultants said voters there may be inclined to vote for one of their own.

“In Pennsylvania, geography matters,” said another Pennsylvania Democratic consultant. “In Pennsylvania, when you’re from western Pennsylvania, people in western Pennsylvania will vote for you. … I’m not sure that’s the case in any other part of the state.”

The resources question will become more clear by Oct. 15, when third-quarter fundraising hauls are due to the Federal Election Commission. The report will be the first for both McGinty and Fetterman, and will show what kind of resources they’ll have to compete.

Sestak, who had more than a year’s head start in the fundraising game, reported $2.2 million in cash on hand as of June 30.

Toomey reported nearly four times that, with $8.3 million in the bank at the end of June.

“There are a lot of people who it seems are enthusiastic about the race and the candidate,” Bronstein said of Fetterman. “And the question is, is there money there, and if there is money how much. Because you can get good press but … this is not the kind of race where good press is enough.”


McGinty Brings On Ed Rendell as Campaign Chairman

Pennsylvania Democrats Get a Senate Candidate — and a Primary

Rematches Invite ‘Retread’ Label, Familiar Themes

Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Recent Stories

Capitol Ink | B Movie

States move to label deepfake political ads

Decades of dallying led to current delay on menthol ban

Can a courtroom bring Trump’s larger-than-life personality down to size?

Lee, Fitzpatrick win primaries as fall matchups set in PA

Aid finally set to flow as Senate clears $95.3B emergency bill