KITTANNING, Pa. — Did John Fetterman just show Democrats how to solve their white-working-class problem?
Fetterman’s decisive victory in Pennsylvania’s Senate race — arguably Democrats’ biggest win of the midterms, flipping a Republican-held seat — was achieved in no small part because he did significantly better in counties dominated by white working-class voters compared with Joe Biden in 2020.
These voters for years have been thought to be all but lost to Democrats, ever since Donald Trump turned out explosively high numbers of white voters in rural and exurban counties, especially in Pennsylvania and the northern Midwest. Biden recaptured Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin two years ago largely by drumming up support in the suburbs, while working-class white voters stuck with Trump.
But Fetterman, with his tattoos and Carhartt wardrobe, and priorities like marijuana legalization, appears to have regained ground with the white working class — though whether he persuaded many Trump voters to back him, or whether he improved on Biden with the demographic in other ways, awaits more detailed data.
“It was enormously beneficial,” Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, said of Fetterman’s red-county incursion. “It’s really what Democrats have to try to do. I know we’ve had a debate in our party — you work to get your urban and suburban base out and hope for the best.” But Fetterman showed that a Democratic win in a battleground state could also run through rural Republican regions, Casey said.
Fetterman’s 4.4-percentage-point victory over Dr. Mehmet Oz, his Republican opponent, outpaced Biden’s 1.2-point win in Pennsylvania in 2020. Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, who posed for his official portrait in an open-collar gray work shirt, won a larger share of votes than Biden did in almost every county.
In suburban counties, where the Oz campaign tried to undermine Fetterman with college-educated voters by painting him as an extremist and soft on crime, Fetterman largely held onto Democratic gains of recent years, winning about 1 percentage point more of the votes than Biden did in 2020.
Fetterman’s biggest gains were in deep-red counties dominated by white working-class voters. He didn’t win these places outright, but he drove up the margins for a Democrat by 3, 4 or 5 points compared with Biden.
“Pennsylvania elections are about margins, and he cut into the margins Republicans had across the counties that they usually control,” said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “He got a lot of looks from voters who aren’t very open to looking at Democrats right now.”
In almost no county did Fetterman improve on Biden’s margin more than in Armstrong County, in the northern exurbs of Pittsburgh, where more than 97% of residents are white and fewer than 1 in 5 adults has a four-year college degree. “I expected him to win, but I didn’t think he’d do that well,” said Robert Beuth, 72, a retired factory worker in the county who voted for Fetterman, speaking of the statewide result. “I think the biggest drawback for a lot of people about Oz is that he moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to run for election. To me that’s not right.” He added that he hoped Fetterman and other Democrats in Congress would “come up with some ideas” to help “poor people working two or three jobs just to get by.”
To be sure, Oz carried deep-red Armstrong County, whose biggest employers include Walmart and a coal mining company, with 71% of the vote. But Fetterman’s 29% share was 5.4 points higher than Biden’s support two years ago.
In interviews with more than two dozen voters in Armstrong County on Friday, most said they voted for Oz, though many expressed a lack of enthusiasm that may partly explain Fetterman’s gains. Oz supporters groused that he was not a true Pennsylvanian, saying he moved to the state to run. They also indicated that his background — he gained wealth and fame as a TV host — was not something they could relate to.
“I don’t think he represents or relates to the majority of us,” said Aaron Milliken, 41, an operating engineer at a power plant, who nonetheless voted for Oz over Fetterman. A registered Republican, Milliken said, “Quite frankly, I don’t think either was a very good candidate.”
Oz’s share of support in Armstrong County was similar to the 68% that Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, received there. Romney, a traditional Republican with a plutocratic veneer, lost Pennsylvania to President Barack Obama. Indeed, Oz seemed to face the same challenges as Romney in persuading working-class voters to warm up to him.
“Should you compare Oz to Trump in 2020 or to some version of Romney?” Casey said.
Rob Gleason, a former chair of the state Republican Party who lives in central Pennsylvania, rejected the idea that Democrats, thanks to Fetterman, had made lasting inroads with white working-class voters. Oz, Gleason said, lost mostly because Fetterman succeeded in painting him as a rich out-of-stater with multiple houses — a class-war campaign. “I’m still mystified how he could do so well because he didn’t release any of his medical records; he didn’t do good in the debate; he embraced Biden,” Gleason said of Fetterman, who is continuing to recover from a severe stroke in May. “He’s an odd-looking guy, in shorts and a hoodie. I thought this was going to be easy.
“The class struggle and fact Oz wasn’t from Pennsylvania,” Gleason continued, “that was the death knell.”
It was rare to find Trump voters in Armstrong County who had crossed party lines to vote for Fetterman. One of them, Michael Yeomans, 66, a retired heavy equipment operator who supported Trump in 2016, said he never considered voting for Oz “based on the things I have seen Dr. Oz do before he was interested in running, like on TV.’’
“I think in the older days,” he added, “they’d call it a snake-oil salesman.”
Emmy McQuaid, a retired teacher who identified herself as a political independent, had a more sympathetic view of Oz, though she voted for Fetterman. “I think he’s a good man,” she said. “I’m not sure how his health is going to hold up, but I think his intentions might be good. I think Dr. Oz’s would have too, but I’d like to see John have a go.”
An alternative explanation for why Fetterman did so much better than Biden in red counties, besides winning some former Trump supporters, is that a different spectrum of voters turned out in 2022 than during the presidential race two years ago.
Fetterman, who campaigned aggressively for more than a year in the rural counties before his stroke under the banner “every county, every vote,” may have inspired inconsistent voters who still leaned Democratic to turn out for him.
And Trump supporters may have skipped voting in the midterms because Oz failed to excite them.
One of those voters was Jeffrey Astle, a Harley-Davidson-riding union steelworker in Bridgeville, a southern suburb of Pittsburgh. He voted for Trump but sat out the election this month.
Astle said he was “not enthusiastic at all” about Oz. “I looked at him as a television personality, not as a political candidate, especially for the state of Pennsylvania,” he said.
He added: “I think the only reason he’s where he is today is because of Oprah Winfrey.” Astle, 53, voted twice for Trump and said that his presidency would have been more successful “had they left him alone and didn’t try to trash him for four years while he was in the White House.”
Like some other blue-collar Trump supporters, Astle said Fetterman seemed inauthentic to him in his shorts-and-hoodie get-ups, given that Fetterman’s affluent family supported him through his 40s, when he drew a token salary as the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania.
“Carhartt was originally designed for blue-collar people,” Astle said about Fetterman’s famous workwear wardrobe. “But now Carhartt is one of those brands all the yuppies wear.”