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Pennsylvania Senate nominee’s lesson for Dems: A clear brand and coherent message wins every time

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman [Pennsylvania Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller]

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Pennsylvania Democrat who didn’t think that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman wasn’t going to come out at the right end of Tuesday’s nationally watched primary for U.S. Senate.

And even if he did lead in the polls heading into election night, the comprehensiveness of Fetterman’s win — he carried all 67 counties, and beat second-place U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb by a little more than 32 percentage points — was no less eyebrow-raising.

There’s been no shortage of speculation in the days since Fetterman’s win on whether the Allegheny pol represents the future of the Democratic Party.

Unsurprisingly, a decent part of the analysis has focused on Fetterman’s personal style, which, as I’ve previously written, has devolved into a kind of intellectual shorthand: He’s tall, wears shorts no matter the weather, just like your stubborn 8-year-old, has a bunch of tattoos, is gruff, and isn’t your garden-variety politician.

All of that is true.

His look is certainly unconventional. And, as The Atlantic’s David A. Graham noted on Wednesday morning, he has a distinct vibe and a connection with voters that has served him admirably during a campaign where control of the U.S. Senate, and with it, whatever’s left of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, is absolutely on the line.

But, as unorthodox as Fetterman appears on surface, if you roll up the sleeves on one of his Carhartt work-shirts, and look beneath the tattoos, you also get a deeply conventional Democratic politician, with an old-fashioned work ethic, whose rise has as much to do with the stewardship of his brand as it does the message he’s selling.

Writing in the New York Times on Wednesday, Michael Sokolove notes that Fetterman’s style had “won him passionate followers among progressive Democrats.”

And while that’s certainly true for some voters. It’s also true that Fetterman was far from the most progressive candidate in the race. His reluctance, for instance, to support an outright ban on natural gas exploration annoyed progressives who’d very much like to see the commonwealth put a cap on the Marcellus shale gas wells scarring the landscape. He’s also had to face accusations of flip-flopping on the issue.

Elsewhere, as Politico and others have noted, Fetterman supports commonsense gun violence reduction measures; backs Medicare for all; raising the minimum wage, and legalizing recreational marijuana.

All those positions hardly are earth-shattering, and place Fetterman well within the current mainstream of the Democratic Party.

It also puts him more or less in line with his current boss, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, and Biden, neither of whom would be confused with fire-breathing radicals. Because if voters were looking to support a true, capital-P progressive, they could have picked state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, the Black, openly gay lawmaker from Philadelphia. But they didn’t. He finished a distant third with a little more than 10 percent of the vote.

And if voters were looking for a dyed-in-the-wool moderate, they could have picked Lamb, who looked like he came from Democratic central casting, but who nonetheless struggled to raise money, was saddled with Biden’s baggage, and did not gain a lot of traction in the polls.

Which means, in the end, it was Fetterman’s brand, and his retail strategy of taking a traditionally Democratic campaign, cannily coating it with a veneer of populism, and venturing into the parts of Pennsylvania that former President Donald Trump carried in 2016, that powered his success.

Those are not the calling cards of an outsider, but of someone well-practiced in politics, who has spent his entire political life moving toward this moment.

Much has been made of Fetterman’s long tenure of as mayor of Braddock, a struggling former steel town in suburban Pittsburgh. The first sentence of most profiles have portrayed him as the hardworking mayor of a hardscrabble town.

But those accounts betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a mayor in a borough such as Braddock. It’s not the same as being mayor of Philadelphia or even Scranton. But little, if any, effort has been made to clarify the record there.

So, by way of explanation, under state law, the real legislative power in borough government rests with borough councils, leaving mayors to mostly perform “ceremonial” duties, as a state handbook for borough officials makes abundantly clear. The day-to-day executive functions are most often left to a borough manager.

Indeed, the job is pretty much what the individual officeholder, who also is the titular head of the local police force, chooses to make of it. And as the record has shown, and as was later to be the case with his tenure as lieutenant governor, Fetterman took a role with very few official responsibilities, and ran with it, becoming an unrelenting cheerleader for his hometown, even as he rankled some of the locals.

With Braddock as his proving ground, Fetterman unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2016, still finishing a respectable third with about 19.5 percent of the vote.

His election as Wolf’s No. 2 followed in 2018. And while Fetterman sometimes has been portrayed as a reluctant politician, his methodical rise and awkward demeanor echoes Wolf, who is still insisting, eight years, two wildly successful campaigns, and tens of millions of dollars raised later, that he is not a politician.

None of this is to take away from the significance of Fetterman’s win, nor his numerous achievements in public life, but rather to contextualize them, and to point out that there’s a bit more to the narrative than has appeared in the national press.

So does all that add up to a winning formula for Democrats? Certainly, no one can duplicate Fetterman’s vibe, as The Atlantic’s Graham observed on Wednesday. And Fetterman’s approach has an undeniable appeal.

Couple that with a titanic work ethic and a willingness to talk to the entire electorate, not just the suburban voters who are a key part of the Democratic coalition, and it might just be the way forward for a state and national party that has seemed disturbingly rudderless even as the reality of a midterm drubbing becomes ever more likely.

It’s a lesson Democrats should heed: A coherent message and identifiable brand wins every time.

John L. Micek is the editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvanai Capital-Star, which first published this commentary.

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