Progressives Should Look to… Pennsylvania?

John Fetterman campaigning in Philadelphia in 2018 for lieutenant governor, where Bernie Sanders endorsed him (PHOTO: WHYY)


Being a progressive is not an easy task in this country, especially in the current political climate.  While the Republican Party is shifting further to the right, the Democratic Party is placed in a peculiar position: having to represent as much of America ideologically as it possibly can.  This could be plainly seen during the 2020 elections.  While Republicans were calling for harsh border security and prioritizing “Christian values” over civil liberties, Democrats pushed a theme of bipartisanship.

This has caused Democrats to try to appeal the most to moderate voters who could potentially vote Republican, but who are disillusioned with the recent rightward sway that the GOP has taken.  Because of this, moderate Democrats have been preferred in the party establishment over progressive Democrats.  The Democratic Party establishment knows that, at the end of the day, progressive Democrats will vote blue if the alternative is a Republican, but the same can not be said for moderate Republicans, independents, and even some moderate Democrats.  Look at Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign.  He was ahead of Biden in delegates after the first 3 primaries.  Then South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, arguably one of the most complete embodiments of the Democratic establishment, endorsed Biden, Biden won the South Carolina primary (one close primary win compared to Sanders’s two with much wider margins), and Biden was declared the front-runner.  Sanders’s delegate count was never far behind Biden’s while Sanders was still running, with Sanders only being mathematically eliminated after he dropped out, but once Biden won South Carolina, news reporters and Democratic staffers alike flocked to Biden as the presumptive nominee.

From Joe Biden winning over Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential election, to moderate Amy McGrath being valued over progressive Charles Booker in the 2020 Kentucky Democratic Senate primary, to moderate Shontel Brown being preferred over progressive Nina Turner in a recent Ohio congressional primary, there is a constant narrative of more moderate candidates being the “safe choice”, while progressives, who have the same “D” next to their names, are viewed as “outsiders”, who are only able to appeal to certain segments of the electorate needed to win general elections.

This leaves progressives in a helpless, demoralizing position.  The story of a progressive voter can be summed up as putting hope in a candidate who embodies their views, watching that candidate lose a primary election over fears of not being “bipartisan” enough, and having to settle for a moderate candidate, who has wildly different values, just for the sake of preventing the election of a Republican.  With this reality being far too present in the minds of progressive voters nationwide, they would expect a statewide election in a swing state such as Pennsylvania to follow the same storyline, but for some glorious reason, this is not the case.

Enter six-foot-nine Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman.  His first stint in public service was through the AmeriCorps program, where he helped foster a GED program for people who did not complete high school in Pittsburgh.  He continued this initiative in Braddock, PA, a blue-collar, post-industrial town outside of Pittsburgh, where he created the Braddock Out-of-School Youth Program in 2001.  Six years later, he ran for mayor, only winning the Democratic primary by one vote, but then going on to win the general election.  While he was mayor, he worked to improve relations between police and the community’s black population.  He brought new businesses into the town, built new affordable housing, and opened urban gardens and a community center.  His success as mayor prompted him to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016, but he lost in the primary.  Regardless of his loss, his senate run enabled him to publicize his success as Braddock’s mayor to a larger audience, and because of this, he gained a statewide following.  Two years later, he challenged Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack and won by 14 percentage points, paving his way to become the next Lieutenant Governor along with popular Governor Tom Wolf.

Just as he did while he was mayor, Fetterman has continued to support progressive policies in Harrisburg despite being elected to a statewide position in a swing state.  In 2013, he flouted Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage by officiating a wedding for same-sex couple John Kandray and Bill Gray, as well as other gay couples before same-sex marriage was legalized in the state.  In fact, he was the first person in Western Pennsylvania to officiate same-sex marriages.  He has been a longtime advocate of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.  He is a strong supporter of fully legalizing marijuana, both medical and recreational, including the immediate release of those who have been incarcerated for marijuana-related charges, and government reimbursement for those who are freed.  He defied state law by flying pride and marijuana flags from the balcony of the Pennsylvania capitol building, and when the state legislature ordered him to take the flags down, he replaced them with bigger flags.

With his notable, progressive political career, he announced on February 8, 2021, that he was running for the same U.S. Senate seat that he tried to win six years earlier.  With the Senate being split 50-50, any swing Senate election in 2022 is crucial for determining whether the Democrats will have more commanding control over the chamber (and not have to constantly live in a state of fear over whether centrist Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema will vote with them).  Because of this, Pennsylvania will arguably be the most-watched election in next year’s elections, with incumbent Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, announcing that he is not seeking reelection, giving Democrats a greater opportunity to flip the seat next November.

Out of the field of Democrats who have announced that they are running for the open seat, one would expect that U.S. Representative Conor Lamb, a moderate from Western Pennsylvania, would be a clear favorite for the nomination, but, for some reason, voters here are reacting differently.  In the most recent poll that has been conducted, Fetterman is expected to garner 40% of the primary vote, compared to just 21% for Lamb.  Fetterman also has $3 million in his campaign as of September, which is $1 million more than any of his other opponents.  Looking forward to the general election, Fetterman has already proven that he can win at the state level.  Besides his massive primary win in 2018 for Lieutenant Governor, when running alongside Governor Tom Wolf in 2018, they won almost 58% of the vote.  Compare that to the 2020 presidential election, where Biden won just 50% of the vote in the state.

With his successful track record, as well as his continued support of progressive policies while representing swing constituencies, John Fetterman has marked himself as a hero for progressives seeking offices throughout the country.  The fact that he could become a U.S. Senator in a swing state like Pennsylvania could spark hope in a progressive movement that has become deflated by several recent electoral losses.  It can prove to the Democratic Party that they no longer have to always cower towards the center in order to appease moderates that are seeking refuge from an increasingly nationalist Republican Party, but rather they can embrace the countless progressive assets that they have in their own party, and Democrats can finally be a party that paves the way for substantial progressive changes in this country.