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Pennsylvania Democrats are angling to distinguish themselves in a key Senate contest

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who's considered the early front-runner in the Democratic primary for the state's open U.S. Senate seat, talks with a voter during a campaign stop at the Mechanistic Brewery, in Clarion, Pa., on Feb. 12.
Keith Srakocic
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who's considered the early front-runner in the Democratic primary for the state's open U.S. Senate seat, talks with a voter during a campaign stop at the Mechanistic Brewery, in Clarion, Pa., on Feb. 12.

John Fetterman was at a brewpub in Pennsylvania's Trump Country that was serving coffee to about 60 local Democrats who showed up on a Saturday morning.

The Democrats were thrilled the lieutenant governor and U.S. Senate candidate was in the rural area. Speaking to him, one local jokingly called it "enemy territory."

"No, not enemy territory," Fetterman replied, "just friends we haven't met yet."

Fetterman, a former small-town mayor from western Pennsylvania, is the early front-runner in a competitive Democratic primary that includes Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. The Senate seat, left open by the retiring Republican Pat Toomey, is a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats and could determine control of the chamber next year.

The brewpub stop was in Clarion, Pa., about an hour and a half northeast of Pittsburgh. Former President Donald Trump lost Pennsylvania in the 2020 election but carried the rural parts of the state by wide margins.

Later in the day, more than 100 people showed up for a Fetterman event at a fire hall in Smethport in the northern part of the state. The drive there rolled past countless signs and banners reading "Trump-Pence," "Trump 2024" and "Impeach Biden."

"And some folks would say, 'Why would you waste your time?' And I'm like, 'because you have rooms like this, and you have people that have the same core values and same issues as you do,' " Fetterman told NPR in an interview. "And if you don't show up and you don't engage, then who else are they going to listen to?"

Fetterman's image is that of the anti-politician. He's 6-foot-8, with tattoos, a shaved head and a chin beard, and he listens to heavy metal in his truck. Despite the cold, his campaign wardrobe on the Saturday was shorts and an oversized Carhartt sweatshirt.

His stump speech is also informal and short and hits topics important to working-class voters: broadband, a living wage, access to health care. "We need to continually make more and more stuff in our country," he said. "I just fundamentally believe that." He has also made legalizing marijuana a key part of his platform.

Fetterman, who was elected to his statewide post in 2018, describes himself as a progressive but says things he supported years ago, like a $15 minimum wage, are now the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Another thing Fetterman promises is that he'll be tough on Republicans and that he can play hardball as well as they can.

"When it comes to achieving a goal that they want, [Republicans] are united and ruthless," he said. "When it came to blocking Merrick Garland's appointment to the Supreme Court, they were united and ruthless. When it comes to driving out the impurity in the party in terms of, like, the Liz Cheneys and the Adam Kinzingers, they are ruthless and united because they do not tolerate dissent. And why can't Democrats embrace that philosophy but for working families?"

Lamb stresses electability

Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., talks with constituents at Riardos Bar and Grill in New Castle, Pa., on Aug. 6, 2021.
Jeff Swensen / Getty Images
Getty Images
Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., talks with constituents at Riardo's Bar and Grill in New Castle, Pa., last summer.

Fetterman has raised the most money so far. But Congressman Lamb is another contender, a moderate Democrat who represents a western Pennsylvania district where he has shown he can win in a place that's closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.

In appearance and style, Lamb and Fetterman are opposites. Lamb's Facebook profile describes him as "Marine, prosecutor, patriot, Catholic, Democrat."

But call Lamb the centrist candidate in the race and he replies like this: "I'm not really big on the term centrist because when I hear centrist, what I think of is someone who just looks at where the two extremes are and jumps in the halfway point regardless of what they actually believe," Lamb said. "You know, I have things I really believe in, and I've been campaigning on them and voting for them for four years."

In an NPR interview, Lamb stressed how he differs from centrist Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia; for example, the congressman supports getting rid of the legislative filibuster. He describes himself as a strong supporter of President Biden's agenda, especially the infrastructure plan that passed with bipartisan support and the Build Back Better proposal, which has not passed and includes funding for home health care and for the transition to jobs in clean energy industries.

And ultimately, Lamb says, his résumé and his record make him the one who can beat a Republican in the fall in Pennsylvania.

"I think the overriding issue in the primary is simply who can stand a chance to win the general election," he said. "And my experience is that I've beaten Republicans three times in a row in tough districts and under a big spotlight, and so, you know, I've been making the case that that qualifies me to be the one to carry our banner this year. And I also think my work in Congress and especially my votes in Congress on many of the most important issues give people a little bit of certainty about how I would perform as a senator."

Kenyatta points to his roots

Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta meets with Chester County officials and supporters at a U.S. Senate campaign event in West Chester, Pa., on Feb. 18.
Matt Rourke / AP
Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta meets with Chester County officials and supporters at a U.S. Senate campaign event in West Chester, Pa., on Feb. 18.

The third leading Democrat is Kenyatta, who represents North Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania House. He, too, has his eye on working-class voters. He says that's the community he grew up in.

"Being a working person is not about dressing a certain way," he told NPR. "It's about your life experiences and what it means to have to look your kids in the eyes, as my parents had to look me in the eyes, and say, 'Baby, I don't know what we're going to do this week.' For us, we understand that our story is grounded in a reality that so many other people share."

Kenyatta says that he'll campaign all across the state and that he'll rally Democrats wherever they are, but he also stresses that he's the one who can drive turnout in the state's urban areas, especially with the Black vote.

"It is going to be critical that we have massive, massive turnout in southeastern Pennsylvania," he said.

He's also running in hopes of seeing two barriers crumble. He wants to be Pennsylvania's first Black U.S. senator. Kenyatta would also be the first statewide officeholder who's a member of the LGBTQ community.

"Because I inhabit so many different communities," he said, "we're going to be well-positioned to bring people together. And ... when you know what it's like to be treated differently because of who you are, you think about that in policy."

Uncertainty and anxiety

The Republican side of the Senate race is just as unsettled as the Democrats', especially after Trump's pick dropped out and celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz jumped in.

The Pennsylvania primaries are in May.

The Fetterman events mostly drew supporters of him or people leaning that way. But many said they don't yet know which Democrat they'll vote for.

There was at least one Republican present, too. Francis Auriemmo voted for Trump but says he's open to supporting Fetterman in the general election.

"Just his thoughts on revitalization, that shows promise," Auriemmo said. "Now it's my understanding, when he was mayor, he did do a lot. And if he had that much energy for his own town, he just might have that much energy for the state."

But Republicans can't vote in a Democratic primary, and Pennsylvania Democrats aren't banking on many votes from the other side in the general election.

There was also a sense of anxiety among Democrats at the start of a midterm election year when historic trends show that the party that holds the White House takes a beating.

Take Marty Wilder, chair of the McKean County Democrats.

"I'm terrified, in all honesty," she said. "I can just see what's going on. I don't know what's going to happen. And being in the middle of Trump Country up here, it's a little bit scary. I'm honest. I don't know where the country's going."

This story was produced by Samantha Balaban and Gabriel Dunatov and edited by Ed McNulty for radio.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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