John Fetterman, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and a U.S. Senate candidate, greets an attendee during a campaign event in Lebanon, Pa., on April 30, 2022.
Michelle Gustafson—Bloomberg/Getty Images
May 21, 2022 1:00 PM EDT

Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.

A proxy fight over the future of the Republican Party is in overtime, an orgy-alleging firebrand falls and Democrats are at odds over where their House campaign chief should run for another term if it means a primary against a fellow incumbent.

This week, The D.C. Brief chatted with two political pros who have literally shoveled millions of dollars into competitive races and others that captured the imagination of the donor class. From the right, Corry Bliss has long been one of the Republican Party’s favorite fixers, a technocrat who has a record of saving dumpster-fire campaigns from themselves at the eleventh hour. He ran House Leadership’s favored super PAC before moving into consulting.

On the left, Julia Rosen has enjoyed the head-of-the-table assignment as Democrats blended technology, money, and activism. A veteran of grassroots force MoveOn, fundraising platform ActBlue, and LGBT-advocacy coordinator the Equality Federation, Rosen has seen the evolution of the Democratic Party up close over the last two decades. She, too, is now a consultant.

The conversation has been edited.

Elliott: Welcome to The Back Booth, where we’ll spend some time solving all that ails our politics. I had hoped we’d have results in the Pennsylvania Senate race by now. Julia, what is your home state doing? You know the Fetterman DNA pretty well in the Pittsburgh area. Can that style win statewide?

Rosen: Greetings from Mars, Penn. I just happen to be back home this week.

Fetterman’s everyman schtick is resonating widely. It worked for him when he ran for Lieutenant Governor and clearly worked this primary. He won every single county in the state, despite being highly identified with Western PA, which is of course not where all the voters are, especially during a Democratic primary.

Fetterman passes that incredibly rare authenticity test. He looks and sounds like that dude you see filling his truck at Sheetz, shaking his head at the gas prices. What he has done tremendously well is reflecting back to people the deep frustration they are all feeling. He just “gets it.”

That mattered way more than endorsements or arguments about electability. And it’s dramatically different from what you are on the other side right now. He’s coming out of this primary remarkably unscathed.

Bliss: Julia is right that John Fetterman doesn’t look or sound like a normal politician. Clearly, his everyman persona had a strong appeal to Democratic primary voters on Tuesday. Personally, I thought Conor Lamb was one of the most impressive candidates to come out of the 2018 cycle. The fact that Fetterman blew him out illustrates how strong of a candidate he is. In a tough year you need non-traditional candidates who are good enough to defy gravity. It will be interesting to see if he can over perform with blue-collar/rural voters who have been trending our way.

Now after saying all that nice stuff about Fetterman, let’s come back to reality. November is going to be about one thing and one thing only: a referendum on Biden’s performance. Right now, Biden’s approval rating in Pennsylvania is around 40% and gas prices are approaching $5 per gallon. If that doesn’t change and change a lot between now and Election Day, Republicans can take a homeless guy off the street and he will easily win the race. Period, end of discussion.

Elliott: Corry, what the heck is going on with your side of the aisle there? I’m sincerely surprised how close it is.

Bliss: If I’m being honest, I have no idea what’s going to happen in Pennsylvania. All joking aside, Trump’s endorsement is still the most important factor in a Republican primary election. I see primary polling data in states and districts across the country and across the board, Trump’s favorability with Republicans is somewhere in the low 80s. Candidates, campaigns, and resources matter, but all those other factors being equal, if you have the Trump endorsement—and the money to let people know that—you should win.

Elliott: We just watched Biden head off to Asia for his first trip, a visit with incredibly high stakes but very little sizzle with the stateside electorate. Is there any way for this to help the President reset his undeniably bad polling position?

Bliss: Having him out of the country will probably improve his numbers! Tell me the price of gas in November and I will tell you everything you need to know. Nothing else matters.

Elliott: You both know intra-party politics—especially at committees. What is going to happen with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney? I saw AOC wants him to step down as chair of the House Democrats’ campaign committee if he runs for another term in a district already with an incumbent. (Which is interesting given AOC doesn’t pay D-Trip dues in the first place…)

Rosen: New York is a hot, hot mess. After watching two redistricting cycles by an independent commission in California, I am a huge advocate. We got the competitive House seats without the high stakes drama of New York, even while losing a district.

Maloney rushed to decide and now is in so much hot water with his caucus. AOC is saying what I think a lot of members are thinking. I’d give anything to be in those rooms listening to the tea. It won’t be pretty.

The Sherman/Berman race was a high-stakes drama in 2012, but you’ve now got multiple incumbent Democrat-on-incumbent Democrat races in New York, an area saturated with reporters. And it’s going to be a massive distraction from the real problems of the fundamentals compounded by thin resumes to run on from this Congress.

Elliott: Thanks much for your time on this. I’m glad we were able to do this.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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