"Three Months Ago, I May Not Have Made It": Democrats’ Senate Hopes in Pennsylvania Rest on John Fetterman’s Comeback

AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blared in the auditorium, as Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the 52-year-old Democratic Senate nominee in Pennsylvania––wearing a baggy black sweatshirt––walked on stage with his wife Gisele. It was a crowd of roughly 1,355 supporters, per his campaign’s count, at the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, cheering loudly and enthusiastically, perhaps not only excited about the prospect of electing another Democrat to the Senate, but because the man on stage was alive.

“Tonight for me, it’s about being grateful — just grateful,” Fetterman said. “Three months ago my life could have ended. It’s the truth.”

The Friday night rally was Fetterman’s first since he suffered a near-fatal stroke on the campaign trail in mid-May. He only survived because of sheer luck, he said, as the incident occurred “20 minutes away from the best stroke facility in the state,” instead of in a more rural part of the state. Over the last few weeks, Fetterman has only appeared at small gatherings, including his first fundraisers since his campaign announced on May 15, two days before the Democratic primary, that he had suffered a stroke. He won his primary while still in a hospital bed recovering, after doctors had “completely” removed a clot and installed a pacemaker. More than two months after his stroke, he gave his first interview to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in late July; he said he had “no physical limits” and hadn’t lost any cognitive abilities, but was still working through some hearing loss.

Appearing in Erie was a turning point in the Fetterman campaign, and one that appeared to carry a bigger political message. The city is in one of Pennsylvania’s most important swing counties; once a Democratic stronghold that Barack Obama won easily in 2012, Donald Trump won the county in 2016. Joe Biden narrowly flipped it in 2020. It’s a working class community in the heart of the Rust Belt where companies like General Electric loom large. When Trump campaigned here two years ago, he acknowledged it was the kind of place politicians now go when they have to win votes: “Before the plague came in, I had it made. I wasn’t coming to Erie,” Trump told his supporters at a 2020 rally. “Then we got hit with the plague, and I had to go back to work. ‘Hello, Erie, may I please have your vote?’ Right?” Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor turned Republican Senate nominee––whom Fetterman will face in November––has made at least five trips to the town, per the local ABC station. As for Fetterman––who has long been favored to be one of Democrats’ best shots at flipping a Republican-held Senate seat, in this case occupied by the retiring Pat Toomey––his comeback “was always going to be Erie,” Julian Routh, who runs the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s political coverage for Western Pennsylvania, wrote ahead of the Democrat’s rally.

This is the kind of place Fetterman’s campaign has argued the lieutenant governor can win. Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania––a struggling steel town of less than 2,000 people just east of Pittsburgh––and the state’s lieutenant governor since 2019, has risen in politics with a working-class appeal. Those aren’t necessarily his roots; he had a “privileged” upbringing, by his own account, and has two master’s degrees, one from Harvard. He’s run on a largely progressive agenda centered around labor unions, income inequality, marijuana legalization and abortion rights (though he’s also split with the left wing of the Democratic Party when it comes to issues like fracking, which he’s shown an openness toward. He recently said he wouldn’t really call himself a progressive, but “just a Democrat.”); he paints Oz as an out-of-touch, out-of-state celebrity.

“The Republican Party hasn’t increased the minimum wage here in I don’t know how long,” Chuck Kuneman, 72, a retired union steelworker at the rally who has lived in Erie his whole life, said when asked why he supports Fetterman. “Nobody can live on the current minimum wage––Republicans want to outlaw abortion, but people can’t afford to have another kid as it is.” Craig Leiser, a local educator, and Tobin Shepardson, a veteran who now teaches at an Erie high school, both in their 30s, praised Fetterman’s opposition to student voucher programs, which they believe would boost for-profit charter programs at the expense of “already underfunded” public schools.

Meanwhile, Oz has made Fetterman’s health a central part of his attack strategy. The Oz campaign updates its “John Fetterman basement tracker” on a daily basis, and even launched a website mocking his opponent as a bedridden “basement bum” minutes before Fetterman’s comeback rally was announced last Friday. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official campaign arm for Senate Republicans, also adopted this line, sharing a graphic featuring Fetterman entitled “Have You Seen This Person?” Though, if the Erie rally is a preview of Fetterman’s future efforts on the stump, Oz and the NRSC may need to come up with some new material to fill the next three months.

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