Fetterman's plan to win Pennsylvania: Taking his populist message to Trump country

John Fetterman, the 6-foot-8 lieutenant governor who won a blowout victory for the Democratic Senate nomination on Tuesday while he was in a hospital recovering from a stroke and surgery, has a plan to capture the seat this fall.

His strategy is to take his populist economic message all over Pennsylvania, including the reddest parts of this ultra-competitive commonwealth, to speak to everyone (including supporters of former President Donald Trump), and put a premium on areas that have felt ignored or marginalized

Fetterman doesn’t yet know which Republican candidate he’ll face in the Nov. 8 election, when the Democratic Party faces a grim landscape and strong political headwinds. But his wife, Gisele Fetterman, told NBC News at his election night party it won’t matter.

Fetterman is as idiosyncratic in substance as he is in style. In his campaign, he has stressed bread-and-butter issues. He supports a $15 minimum wage and is firmly pro-union; he sells T-shirts in favor of legalizing marijuana. He endorsed Bernie Sanders in his 2016 presidential campaign.

He also opposes Covid-19 mask mandates (he criticized Philadelphia for briefly reimposing one last month) and broke with President Joe Biden on immigration, saying the Trump-era Title 42 policy should remain.

“John Fetterman doesn’t fit in a box. He’s someone who has a different kind of connection to voters,” Fetterman strategist Rebecca Katz said in an interview. “2022 is going to be a tough year for Democrats. We are very eyes-wide-open about that. But the map for John is different.”

Fetterman told CNN's Manu Raju, "I consider myself a Democrat that's running on the same platform of ideas that every other Democrat in this race is running on. And I can't think of a Democrat running nationally that's running on anything functionally different in that regard."

Sam DeMarco, the Allegheny County GOP chairman, said: “Fetterman denies it, but he’s a socialist.” DeMarco is backing Dave McCormick, the former hedge fund executive who is neck and neck with Trump-endorsed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in a race that NBC rated “too close to call” on Wednesday morning.

Still, other Republicans warn that Fetterman will be hard to beat. “John Fetterman is far more formidable than people give him credit for,” said Sean Parnell, the formerly Trump-backed GOP candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate seat who dropped out in November and has endorsed McCormick.

Some national Democrats wonder if Fetterman can win over Republican-leaning voters. They also worry about his ability, being from western Pennsylvania, to turn out the crucial Black vote, particularly in the Philadelphia area, which can make or break Democratic candidates in statewide races.

Whether Fetterman's appeal can help Democrats win back blue-collar voters who have left the party in recent years remains an open question. And Lamb, his top primary opponent, made questioning Fetterman's ability to reach these voters central to his campaign.