How John Fetterman Beat Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania

4 minute read

Here’s how John Fetterman won the all-important Pennsylvania Senate seat for Democrats: he knew Pennsylvania.

This is the Fetterman formula: a down-to-earth vibe, plus outreach to rural areas, plus pro-labor Democratic politics with some progressive accents (like supporting elimination of the filibuster.)

He knew that Pennsylvania voters would respond to a candidate who seemed like a Pennsylvania guy, who shopped at their grocery stores and rooted for their sports teams and shared their inside jokes and raised his family like they raised theirs. He knew that they would react badly to his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a slick TV doctor from New Jersey. And he knew how to reach these voters; by going to meet them where they lived, even when it was outside the traditional Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, an all-county strategy that allowed him to run up the numbers in traditionally red areas and cut into Oz’s margins in Trump Country.

Fetterman won on vibes; when a stroke kept him from the campaign trail over the summer, he flooded the internet with memes mocking Dr. Oz as an out-of-touch millionaire from out of state, using every opportunity to remind Pennsylvania voters that Oz was not one of them. Once he got back on the trail, he ran on volume, recommitting to his all-county approach, visiting every corner of the state, where Democrats rarely go. His goal was simply to do better than other Democrats who didn’t even bother to visit. Fetterman ended up outperforming Biden by 8 to 10 points in some of the rural counties, even if he didn’t win them outright.

Supporters of John Fetterman react at a watch party during the midterm elections in Pittsburgh, on Nov. 8, 2022.Angela Weiss—AFP/Getty Images

The race was so close that nobody expected Pennsylvania election results this early; Fetterman’s own campaign even released a memo warning that counting the votes in Philadelphia could take days. So when he emerged to speak to supporters at his Pittsburgh election night event a little after the election was called around 1 a.m., he seemed a little surprised. “I’m not really sure what to say right now,” he said. “What is it, its like 1:30 in the morning and you’re still here hanging in?

“We launched this campaign almost two years ago, and we had our slogan, it’s on every one of those signs: every county, every vote,” he said. “And that’s exactly what happened. We jammed them up. We held the line. I never expected that we were going to turn these red counties blue, but we did what we needed to do.”

Fetterman’s been pushing a version of this strategy for years, a style of economic populism that’s much more concerned with personality than policy. It’s about being a person that ordinary voters can relate to, and then showing up where they live so they can see for themselves. Fetterman has long believed that the left vs. moderate divide that often trips up Democrats is a Washington invention, and that most voters don’t vote on policy papers or ideological positioning. Instead, he won as a fairly straightforward pro-labor Democrat; he supports raising the minimum wage, creating more union jobs by “making stuff” in America, and protecting abortion rights and democracy.

“People assume that everyone reads Ezra Klein,” Fetterman told me in an interview earlier this year. But for most voters, “it’s not like they have their position papers laid out.” Instead, he thinks, voters decide on a “visceral” feeling about whether “it’s someone they believe is a good person or gonna be honest at the end of the day.”

In the end, despite a stroke that sidelined him at a critical moment and a rocky debate performance that led many observers to write off his campaign, voters retained that feeling for Fetterman.

“This campaign is about fighting for anyone who ever got knocked down, who got back up,” he said in his acceptance speech. “This race is for the future of every community all across Pennsylvania. For every small town or person that ever felt left behind, for every job that has ever been lost, for every factory that has ever been closed, for every person who works hard but never got ahead.”

Some Democrats already see the Fetterman formula as a model for how Democrats can win in conservative areas. Now it’s up to them to see if anyone else can follow in his footsteps.

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