Ed Rendell was impressed with John Fetterman. The former Pennsylvania governor and kingmaker in the state thought the then-46-year-old had a bright future after Fetterman finished third in the 2016 Senate Democratic primary.
While Fetterman lost to fellow Democrats Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak, he won Allegheny County despite running a threadbare operation.
During a sit-down with Rendell and some of his donors, Fetterman told the former governor that he was ready and willing to go around the state campaigning for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee that year.
“He said, ‘All I need is a car and driver, and to pay for hotel rooms,’ ” Rendell, a longtime Clinton ally, told The Hill in an interview last week, leading him to ask the Clinton camp for nearly $100,000 to cover the expenses.
“I begged the Clinton camp to do it,” Rendell said, “but they didn’t.”
Clinton ended up losing Pennsylvania and the presidency to Republican Donald Trump, sending shockwaves through the Democratic Party.
Six years later, Fetterman is the senator-elect after defeating Republican Mehmet Oz in a pivotal race of the 2022 midterms.
His victory is due in part to what the Clinton camp spurned: a “go anywhere” strategy that focused on competing in rural counties across the state and holding the party line in the cities and suburbs.
In one rural county after another, Fetterman limited the damage Democrats had incurred in those spots two years ago even as President Biden defeated Trump in the state.
According to strategists on both sides of the aisle, this effort coupled with Oz’s inability to fix what ailed him in a contentious primary proved to be a winning recipe for the senator-elect.
“He campaigned in places Democrats typically don’t,” said T.J. Rooney, a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and a Democratic operative. “You combine his reduction of the margins and his work in the collar counties. … It was a combination of those two things that makes the difference.”
“Fetterman could go everywhere, and when Oz went some places it just seemed forced,” Rooney added.
According to Republicans, Oz compounded the problem by focusing on political attacks hitting Fetterman on crime and other issues without prioritizing a ground game in the rural counties.
Oz’s suburban push was clear in the final weeks as he spent much of his time barnstorming the Philadelphia collar counties, headlined by a weekend appearance in Bucks County alongside Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), two moderates.
“Oz underperformed everywhere. … The worry pre-election was that rural Pennsylvania would underperform, and it did. But so did the suburbs,” one Pennsylvania-based GOP operative told The Hill. “Kind of a double whammy.”
Another hallmark of the race that swung things toward Fetterman centered on his authenticity with voters. Despite a stroke that kept him off the campaign trail from mid-May through early August, the hoodie-wearing, tattooed candidate was able to connect with the electorate in a way Oz just never was able to.
“Time and again, we see people underestimate Fetterman’s own base,” said J.J. Abbott, a Democratic operative who previously served as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) press secretary. “People really underestimate his base and his brand value. He’s a unique figure.”
In the only debate between the two men in late October, Fetterman’s auditory response problems were fully on display as he struggled at times to give clear answers to questions. A number of observers thought the debate might have doomed his campaign, but instead his base of support remained relatively stable.
Comparatively, Oz never recovered from the bruising primary battle that left him hobbled heading into the general election.
According to two national GOP operatives, Republicans pushed for Oz to go up on the air shortly after he emerged from the primary against David McCormick, a move that would have helped him boost his appeal at a time when no one else was on the air in the state. Instead, he didn’t start airing television ads until late August.
“He essentially squandered several months over the summer while Fetterman was sidelined with the stroke,” one of the GOP operatives said, noting that reports also emerged that Oz went to Europe for vacation in late June. “He lost a lot of time.”
Oz also had baggage that made it difficult for him to convince Republicans that he was one of them politically, despite his endorsement from Trump.
“The campaign was incredibly effective on two fronts: keeping Fetterman’s authenticity … and defining Oz as a phony, an outsider and someone you couldn’t trust,” Abbott said. “In the end, the combo of those two narratives were just so much better done by Fetterman’s team than anything the Oz team could put up.”
Fetterman received a major boost in the form of state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D), who handily dispatched state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race.
For weeks, Republicans had argued to The Hill that any margin of victory for Shapiro that entered the double digits spelled trouble for the GOP up and down the ticket. Their fears bore out, as Shapiro won by more than 13 percentage points over Mastriano, the far-right nominee who led the push in 2020 for Trump to overturn the Pennsylvania election results.
“I kind of misread the election. I thought this was about issues, but it was more about personalities,” said Rob Gleason, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, referring to the nonstop crime, inflation and economic messages Republicans bombarded Fetterman with. “Candidates matter. They really matter. … Issues will never override candidates.”
“Obviously, we had the wrong candidates,” Gleason said. “They weren’t acceptable to the rest of the state, and that’s what it boiled down to.”