The Democrat laughed when John Fetterman’s staff told him he would be Pennsylvania’s next senator. It was late on Election Night. He smiled. Fetterman was then overcome by the emotion of an ending to a campaign that had included a near-fatal stroke five months earlier, and he wept.
He was soon standing in front of the microphones, as his supporters sang his name. He nodded his head in disbelief, and soon he was standing up. He reached out to touch his heart and noticed his slogan written on the signs: “Every county, every voter.”
Fetterman stated, “And that’s exactly how it happened.” Fetterman was referring to his campaign’s plan for narrowing losing margins in rural counties and winning the suburbs while gaining the score in urban Democratic strongholds. “We jammed. Them. Up.”
Fetterman’s win over Republican Mehmet Oz, the former presidential candidate, and cardiothoracic surgeon, flipped an incumbent seat that the GOP held for more than a decade. It also narrowed the path of Republicans to reclaim the Senate majority. It also marked the end of Fetterman’s political journey from a big, brazen mayor of a small Pennsylvania town to becoming a member of one of the most traditional and genteel political organizations in the country.
Brendan McPhillips, campaign manager, said that Fetterman’s top aides had worked with him since 2016. The legacy of poor Democratic election night’s past was reflected in a sense of caution that pervades the campaign boiler room.
The dam burst after returns from Erie in the northwest corner of the state showed Fetterman with nearly a double-digit lead.
McPhillips told McPhillips that he was not sure when the race would be called. He first worked with McPhillips in 2015.
The race for the Fetterman was then called by the first media outlets, the culmination of a campaign that saw his stroke and a painful public recovery. It also brought out the hopes of Democrats all across the country.
How the race was won and lost
McPhillips and Rebecca Katz were the top campaign advisers. This was their second time working with Fetterman in a Senate election. Katz first met him in 2015, before the 2016 primary. He was a distant third behind Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty with less than 20%.
Katz stated, “We cannot tell the story of John Fetterman’s nomination for the US Senate without discussing the origin story in terms of 2015 and how we tapped into real grassroots enthusiasm.” “But we didn’t have enough money to win this race.”
This memory propelled the now-Lt. Governor. Fetterman will officially kick off his campaign in February 2021, giving him an advantage over a diverse and crowded primary field.
Fetterman won all 67 counties without any validators or patrons. This was a win that was a huge victory in a race with only four candidates. With nearly 37% of votes, he won Philadelphia. Fetterman won the collar counties in Philadelphia, which would be a major focus for him and his opponent. He prevailed in each county by an average of 25 percentage points.
However, his victory was marred by a new harsh reality. Fetterman was unwell on Friday but determined to attend the primary. His wife Gisele Barreto Fetterman insisted that he go to the hospital. After days of silence, Fetterman released a statement revealing that he had suffered from a stroke.
He said that a stroke was caused by a clot in my heart from being in an Afib rhythm for too much. “I feel much better and my doctors have confirmed that I did not suffer any cognitive damage. I am well on my road to full recovery.”
The most crucial period for the Democrat’s campaign was the next two months, during which Fetterman spent a lot of time at home recovering. The campaign was unable to hold in-person events so it turned to social media. It used a mixture of memes, tweets, and sometimes the assistance of celebrities to define Oz as an out-of-state elitist.
The labels they chose were colored by buzzy stunts featuring Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi from “Jersey Shore”, and a series of self-owns made by Oz. Most notable was his bizarre attempt to illustrate inflation by filming him shopping at a supermarket for ingredients for a “crudite”. He bungled the name.
Katz stated that it wasn’t “sh*t-posting”. “It wasn’t just sh*t-posting,” Katz said.
The success of the messaging surprised even Fetterman’s top aides. The strategy was well-received, attracted media attention, and put Oz on the defensive. This forced him to reaffirm his Pennsylvania roots in some awkward ways.
“John wasn’t on the trail. He was recovering and resting. The campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello said that we could not just give up the summer. “It wouldn’t break through if it was discussed about insert issue that plays well in this area. We had to define Oz.”
Republicans were also affected by the stubbornness of the attacks.
“Oz emerged from one of the most violent Republican primaries in the country. A top Republican strategist, who was involved in Senate races, said that he had negatives and no money. He had a Democratic opponent who was unable to attend due to health issues. He allowed months to pass – precious months that could have been used to repair his image and not do anything.
Republicans saw Fetterman as Oz’s cartoon – particularly the accusations that he was not from Pennsylvania and couldn’t represent it effectively – quickly resonating among voters, the operative stated. These attacks created an image of Fetterman as someone who would do whatever it took to be elected, even move.
On Election Day, the strategy and tactics that worked were validated once more. An exit poll found that 56% of voters believed Oz hadn’t lived in Pennsylvania for long enough to be able to represent the state. This group was won by Fetterman by nearly 70 percent.
One of the greatest ironies about Pennsylvania’s Senate race, which attracted the most attention and money in the crucial period between Labor Day Day and Election Day was that Republicans believe Oz lost the election during those months Fetterman spent on the campaign trail.
Katz stated that “we defined Oz” while John was away in Ireland, Palm Beach, or anywhere else he went” following the primary. “We did it while John was recuperating from a stroke.”
Oz narrowly won the nomination for his party in May, aided by a Trump endorsement. It was a close race, which divided the party. Oz emerged victorious but damaged. He was left with little money, a low approval rating, and scores of Republican voters who had won over.
Trump would have prevented Oz from winning the primary. Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman in Pennsylvania, said that there was no question about it.
Trump was no longer a weapon after he won the nomination. He would not again campaign with Oz until the last weekend before Election Day.
Fetterman’s summer success gave him some breathing space, but his race to Oz was more competitive after Labor Day. More voters tuned in to the race, and tens of millions of dollars from outside groups such as the GOP’s Senate Leadership Fund led to ads flooding the airwaves.
Republicans started to question Fetterman’s honesty about his health. They noted that Fetterman never provided full medical records to voters and, in more blunt terms, pointed out the obvious: Fetterman struggled to speak publicly due to the lingering effects of his stroke.
Fetterman’s campaign claims that he and his staff were honest and straightforward about their knowledge of his condition and recovery. It took Fetterman some time to accept the reality of the near-death experience that he would discuss on the campaign trail. Katz was at home in New York when she heard about the stroke and drove straight to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where Fetterman was admitted.
“I reached there, and it was chaos. The first thing I heard was that John would make a complete recovery from the stroke.
Fetterman stated in the campaign statement that the “campaign doesn’t slow down one bit.” While it was true that top staff and aides went into hyperdrive, the candidate would not return to the stump for almost three months. He rallied supporters in Erie on Aug 13. Even so, Fetterman’s recovery was progressing and his ability to communicate with others in crowds of people was severely compromised. It was difficult to have direct conversations in any dynamic environment.
For those who knew Fetterman well and were able to make it to Erie, the August event was a success.
Calvello stated, “As someone who spent five consecutive days in Lancaster hospital, I felt elated and I was crying.” “We saw this as public recovery.”
However, Fetterman’s cautious return coincided with what many aides described to be one of the most difficult periods in what had been a smooth campaign up until that point. Mid-August saw Fetterman make rare appearances on the trails. However, they were met by new, well-funded frontside criticisms from Oz, Republican groups, and Fox News – who simultaneously attacked Fetterman as a radical “far-left” with a “criminal” agenda.
Fetterman’s aides were aware that help was coming in the form of big Democratic groups’ October ad purchases. Katz stated that during the six weeks between mid-August and the end of September many Democrats started to consider Fetterman’s election a sure thing, but the campaign noticed their internal polls tightening.
The campaign coverage was dominated by questions about Fetterman’s health, which covered everything from whether he is fit to serve in the Senate to, immediately, whether he would debate Oz before Election Day.
At a press conference in September with Oz, Pat Toomey, the former GOP senator said that Fetterman was being dishonest. He’s either not as healthy as he claims or he is afraid of being called out for his radical policies. It’s either one or the other.
The campaign made a decision: debate Oz and put Fetterman. Fetterman struggled to speak fluently even under duress.
As many expected, Fetterman struggled during his one-on-one encounter with Oz. He struggled for words, delivered lines that he had already given hundreds of times, and appeared to be failing to achieve the most important goal, convincing swing voters that his abilities are sufficient.
We had seen him do better at prep. It was hard to watch a friend or someone you care about struggle in public. McPhillips admitted that it was difficult and that it was a bit worrying about how others would view it.
However, even as the reviews about his performance began to roll in, there was a mixture of dismay from the left and gleefulness from the right. The Fetterman campaign was quickly moving to shift the narrative.
They took particular notice of one line from Oz. He is a strong opponent of abortion rights but had tried to compromise his position by saying he would not support a federal ban. Oz explained to voters that this was after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court.
“As a physician, I have been present in the room when there are difficult conversations taking place. Oz stated that he did not want the federal government to be involved in the matter. He didn’t stop there. Oz said, “I want women, doctors, and local political leaders to let the democracy that has always allowed our nation thrive, put forward the best ideas so states can make their own decisions,”
Fetterman’s campaign announced a new ad attacking Oz before the night ended. It was based on his suggestion that local political leaders, as well as women, should be involved in the process.
Fetterman’s allies pounced, too. Ryan Boyer, the first Black leader in the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council called the Democrat’s performance “a profile of courage.”
Oz commented Oz’s comments on abortion. He said, “So now, I want my local leader to decide something that’s happening with my daughter?”
Obama and Oprah
The last weeks of the campaign, which began just a few days following the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol, were an expensive, nerve-racking whirlwind.
Fetterman joined former President Barack Obama at rallies in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia. President Joe Biden was also present at the Philadelphia event. Calvello stated that it was a welcome round of “solid” news cycles in a campaign seeking them.
While Obama’s adrenaline rush was a great boost for the trial, his aides also pointed out
a late endorsement from Oprah Winfrey, which came with no warning and just a few days before the arrival of the presidential cavalry.
Katz stated, “We were getting ready to Obama and then Oprah endorsed.” “And this was an indictment against Oz’s career. He said that she would have voted for John Fetterman “for many reasons”. So they made it into an advertisement.
The Democratic cavalry arrives in force. Obama and Biden joined Fetterman and Josh Shapiro (a fellow Democrat) in the cavalry. They were led by the state attorney general, who won big over far-right Republican nominee Doug Mastriano.
Calvello sat silently for a few days as Fetterman took to the stage on Election Night. He immediately praised his campaign’s work within red enclaves.
Calvello recalled the turnout and reaction at a February event at a Smethport fire station with wood panels (population 1,436).
“Wherever people feel that they are marginalized or forgotten, that is where someone like myself needs to be. Smethport, or any other place like it, should be as important as anywhere,” Fetterman stated in an attempt to find common ground between the Northern Tier towns.
Calvello was convinced that Fetterman’s bold promise to reduce Republican control in rural Pennsylvania had been fulfilled by the event.
Calvello stated, “Those were his words that he always said to me: ‘We’re going to jam them all up.’
He would use the exact phrase in his victory speech, but with the same words.