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Fetterman’s Blue-Collar Allure Is Tested in Pennsylvania Senate Race


MURRYSVILLE, Pa. — “I don’t should inform you that it is tough to be a Democrat in Westmoreland County.”

So began the chairwoman of the Westmoreland Democratic Party, Michelle McFall, as she introduced Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania to supporters this week within the deep-red exurbs of Pittsburgh.

About 100 people were gathered in a parking zone behind the Fetterman campaign bus, emblazoned with the slogan “Every County, Every Vote.” That’s the strategy on which Mr. Fetterman has built his Senate candidacy — announced last yr with a video paying homage to a Springsteen song, showing small towns where people “feel left behind” and promising that “Fetterman can get a number of those voters.”

Now, in the ultimate weeks before Election Day, with polls showing a narrowing race in a pivotal contest for control of the Senate, the premise that Mr. Fetterman can win over rural voters, including some who supported former President Donald J. Trump, is under strain.

Mr. Fetterman has limited his campaign schedule as he recovers from a stroke, unable to go to “every county.” He’s facing fierce Republican attacks that seem like hitting home with voters, particularly over his record on crime. The share of voters who view Mr. Fetterman unfavorably has risen, while many Republicans have grudgingly rallied behind their nominee, Mehmet Oz. Because Mr. Fetterman had a double-digit lead in polling over the summer, the race’s tightening, while typical in a battleground state, has caused Democrats’ anxiety to rise.

In a speech lasting just five minutes, Mr. Fetterman told supporters in Westmoreland County, which Mr. Trump won by 28 percentage points in 2020, that “we must jam up red counties” by running up votes. Still recovering from his stroke in May, Mr. Fetterman spoke fluently but haltingly, with gaps between words. It typified how his campaign has been forced to pivot from counting on Mr. Fetterman’s charisma before crowds, in stump appearances in the course of the spring, to a method focused heavily on social media and tv ads. A single debate with Dr. Oz is scheduled for Oct. 25.

In Pennsylvania’s vast rural areas, the Fetterman campaign goals to enhance upon the 2020 performance of President Biden, one other candidate who banked on his Everyman appeal, and who narrowly carried the state.

Exceeding Mr. Biden in red counties could also be crucial if Mr. Fetterman doesn’t match the blowout Biden victories within the Philadelphia suburbs, where the foil of Mr. Trump in 2020 repelled college-educated voters.

Much of Mr. Fetterman’s appeal to rural and working-class places goes beyond his policy ideas to expand broadband or “make more stuff in America.” His power is his brand — encapsulated within the casual attire, the shaved head and tattoos, conveying that he is just not a traditional politician.

Larry Maggi, a Democratic commissioner of Washington County, a blue-collar region of southwest Pennsylvania, said Mr. Fetterman was making inroads with working-class voters who had abandoned Democrats.

With the primaries over, each parties are shifting their focus to the final election on Nov. 8.

  • Standing by Herschel Walker: After a report that the G.O.P. Senate candidate in Georgia paid for a girlfriend’s abortion in 2009, Republicans rallied behind him, fearing that a break with the previous football star could hurt the party’s probabilities to take the Senate.
  • Wisconsin Senate Race: Mandela Barnes, the Democratic candidate, is wobbling in his contest against Senator Ron Johnson, the Republican incumbent, as an onslaught of G.O.P. attack ads takes a toll.
  • G.O.P. Senate Gains: After signs emerged that Republicans were making gains within the race for the Senate, the polling shift is now clear, writes Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst.
  • Democrats’ Closing Argument: Buoyed by polls that show the top of Roe v. Wade has moved independent voters their way, vulnerable House Democrats have reoriented their campaigns around abortion rights in the ultimate weeks before the election.

“What I see is people just like the Democratic union guy or gal who voted for Donald Trump who’s coming back because they like Fetterman, what he stands for, he looks like them — the tattoos and slightly little bit of pot smoking,” Mr. Maggi said. “He excites them.” (Though Mr. Fetterman favors legalizing recreational marijuana, he has said that he doesn’t use it himself.)

Polling broadly supports the concept Mr. Fetterman has a common-touch image with voters. In a Monmouth University survey this week, 57 percent of Pennsylvania voters said that Mr. Fetterman understood the day-to-day concerns of individuals like them. Only 39 percent said the identical of Dr. Oz, a former heart surgeon and celebrity TV host.

But Ms. McFall, the Democratic chairwoman in Westmoreland County, said a recent attack ad against Mr. Fetterman on local radio sought to puncture his common-man image.

“What I’ve been hearing on the radio now’s that John Fetterman lived off his parents and is a spoiled wealthy kid who pretends to be a person of the people,” Ms. McFall said, adding that the aim of the attacks is to elicit working-class resentment: “‘I don’t have what this person has, and it’s not fair.’”

Mr. Fetterman grew up affluent near York, Pa. For 13 years, he was the mayor of Braddock, a town outside Pittsburgh devastated by industrial collapse. The job paid $150 a yr, and his family supported him until he became lieutenant governor at age 49.

Mr. Fetterman said in an interview that his family had backed his life alternative to work “in a community that was abandoned.” He has not hidden his family’s help, even though it is just not widely known.

It’s unclear if attacks on his privileged background, which Dr. Oz has said makes him “a pretend populist,” are turning off working-class voters.

How Times reporters cover politics. We depend on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are usually not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

In interviews this week with a dozen self-identified independent voters in Westmoreland and other red counties, none brought up Mr. Fetterman’s background, or Dr. Oz’s dubious medical advice on his TV show, or other fleeting issues that each campaigns have tried to seize on.

The difficulty mostly raised by voters, including some Oz supporters, was that Dr. Oz was not a “real” Pennsylvanian because he moved to the state only in 2020. Probably the most common objection to Mr. Fetterman was that he had pushed for clemency for some long-incarcerated men serving life sentences for murder, who prison authorities said posed no threat to public safety.

“What upsets me about Oz is I don’t feel he’s really a Pennsylvanian,” said Michael Lyter, who lives in Mifflin County, within the central a part of the state. Nonetheless, he plans to vote for Dr. Oz.

A retired drug and alcohol counselor, Mr. Lyter, 66, said: “I definitely don’t want Fetterman in there. He’s an excessive amount of pro-crime.”

He was unpersuaded by Mr. Fetterman’s dress code. “Do you already know what he looks wish to me?” Mr. Lyter said. “He looks like a heroin addict. They’re the one ones who wear hoodies within the summertime.”

It was rare to search out anyone within the interviews who had voted for Republicans recently and now favored Mr. Fetterman. And it was equally rare to search out recent Democratic voters swinging to Dr. Oz.

The interviews were anecdotal, though polling indicates that Mr. Fetterman has an edge amongst one large cohort of voters in red counties — white working-class women. A Fox News survey last month showed him winning white women and not using a college degree by eight percentage points. There was also a yawning gender gap: White men and not using a college degree preferred Dr. Oz by 15 points.

Considered one of the rare party switchers was Paul Amalong, a security guard who was leaving a farmer’s market in Latrobe with a bag of zucchinis.

“Inform you the reality, I used to be a Republican all my life until Jan. 6, and I switched to the Democratic Party after that,” Mr. Amalong said.

A former truck driver, Mr. Amalong, 74, said Mr. Fetterman had his vote, though mainly because he believes Republicans have turn into the party of riot. “After I was a Republican, I didn’t vote straight Republican,” he said. “But since Jan. 6 got here, I don’t look. I just punch in straight Democrat.”

Latrobe, in central Westmoreland County, is a brewing and manufacturing city where the first banana split was created in 1904. Its population has fallen steadily since 1970. It may need served as considered one of the communities within the Fetterman announcement video whose “best days were a generation ago.”

“Downtown Latrobe, it was wall-to-wall people,” recalled Carol Dziak, 69, who was also shopping on the farmer’s market. Ms. Dziak’s husband worked for 45 years on the brewery that formerly made Rolling Rock beer. For some time, the couple owned a Hallmark card shop, but customers abandoned it for mall stores.

“I’m a Democrat, but I don’t vote Democrat,” Ms. Dziak said. She didn’t like what she had seen about Mr. Fetterman in TV ads calling him soft on crime. “The convicts, letting them get out of jail and stuff — that, I believe, is my top thing,” she said.

In 2016, a house outside Latrobe painted like an American flag with a towering cutout of Mr. Trump drew lots of of individuals to pose for selfies. Now the owner of what became referred to as the “Trump House,” Leslie Rossi, is Latrobe’s Republican state representative. She said Mr. Fetterman had no likelihood of picking up lapsed Democratic supporters within the county.

“Voters who at the moment are voting red do not need any plans of switching back to the party they feel has allow them to down,” Ms. Rossi said.

Brendan McPhillips, Mr. Fetterman’s campaign manager, said he expected that Mr. Fetterman would win the next percentage of votes in red counties than Mr. Biden did two years ago.

“There’s real enthusiasm for John out in these red counties in a way I’ve never seen before,” said Mr. McPhillips, who also ran Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign in Pennsylvania. “People see John at Costco, at Aldi. He’s real and considered one of them. Even when they may not agree with him on every little thing.”

Jayanna Shirey, a 28-year-old college student who lives together with her parents in Frenchville, Pa., and is studying criminal justice, defended Mr. Fetterman’s approach. The prison system locks up too many individuals “who won’t be reoffending,” she said. “Something got out of hand back within the ’80s. The American taxpayers needed to fork out hard-earned money to pay for men or women to sit down their whole life in prison.”

A coal-miner’s daughter, Ms. Shirey said she was happy with her rural roots in central Pennsylvania and her political independence. “Hell yes, I believe I’m a redneck, but hell no, I’m not a Democrat or a Republican,” she said.

She was not overly passionate about either Senate candidate, but said she planned to vote for Mr. Fetterman.

She desires to turn into a state game warden.

“Unless Fetterman says, ‘I’m going to return into your own home and take your .30-06 so you’ll be able to’t hunt your whitetail deer,’” she said, “I’m going to vote for him.”

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