Sitting on $1.4 million in campaign cash, Fetterman takes another step toward U.S. Senate

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gavels in a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate before Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year, Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gavels in a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate before Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year, Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is officially a candidate for U.S. Senate, although the outspoken 51-year-old maintains he hasn’t yet announced the start of his campaign.

A minor fuss ensued on social media Friday after several news outlets noticed he’d filed a statement of candidacy for Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race. But Fetterman, long assumed to be a serious contender for the open seat, dismissed the event as routine paperwork.

“Everyone deserves an answer,” Fetterman said of his anticipated run. “And they’re going to get an answer.”

The lieutenant governor and his campaign staff say the filing was simply procedural: Fetterman had raised too much money to continue operating under his existing exploratory committee.

The Federal Election Commission stipulates that while candidates can spend and raise money while “testing the waters” for a run for office, once they have at least $5,000 in donations, they have to officially register.

In the month since Fetterman announced he was seriously exploring a run, he has far surpassed that threshold. Last week he said he’d quickly raised more than a million dollars in donations. On Friday he estimated the number is closer to $1.4 million or more — mostly, he added, in small donations that average around $31.

Filing a statement of candidacy does not mean a person is necessarily obligated to carry out a run.

Rebecca Katz, a spokesperson for Fetterman’s campaign, echoed her boss’ promise to make his plans explicit soon. “This is routine paperwork,” she told WHYY. “John has been honest and straightforward that he is taking a hard look at running.”

This isn’t the first time Fetterman has gone after one of Pennsylvania’s Senate seats.

His first attempt was in 2016. Then the little-known mayor of the small borough of Braddock, outside Pittsburgh, he jumped into the Democratic primary against two candidates who were both better-known and better-funded — former state Secretary of Environmental Protection Katie McGinty, and former Congressman Joe Sestak.

Fetterman ran as a staunch progressive, declaring himself a Democratic Socialist and endorsing Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. He came in third, but captured a respectable 20% of the vote.

Profiles of him then, and now, often attribute his unexpected success to his progressive, labor-focused politics, and also to his image.

He stands 6’7”, is bald, goateed and tattooed, and favors cargo shorts over suits. His active social media presence — he has more than 350,000 Twitter followers — often features his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, their three children and dog, and their home in a converted Braddock car dealership. In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, his cable news appearances were prolific.

Politically, he has tried to thread a needle between the increasing conservatism of his adopted Western Pennsylvania home, where President Donald Trump garnered a lot of support, and the area’s deep ties to organized labor.

“I think the union way of life is sacred,” he told Teen Vogue in a profile last year. “Unions have marked the upward surge of our middle class in America, and it provides a safeguard against a complete co-opting of the wealth that this economy generates from going to the top 1%.”

He also pushed to use his seat on Pennsylvania’s pardons board as lieutenant governor to push for clemency for people who’d been stuck in prison for decades. And he has tried to take a nuanced approach to fracking, a notable engine for jobs in Western Pennsylvania — saying natural gas can be a bridge to cleaner energy, unlike other progressives who favor a ban.

Fetterman is joined by plenty of other Pennsylvania politicians vying for U.S. Senate in 2022.

Incumbent Republican Pat Toomey’s announcement in October that he wouldn’t run for reelection has cracked the field wide open on both sides of the aisle. Both the primaries and general election are expected to be crowded, expensive, and highly contentious.

At least one Republican, Montgomery County real estate developer Jeff Bartos, has said he’s seriously considering a run. Fetterman noted he considers Bartos a close personal friend — the two met during the 2018 gubernatorial election, when Bartos was running for lieutenant governor with GOP candidate Scott Wagner, who lost to Gov. Tom Wolf by a significant margin.

Former GOP Congressman Ryan Costello, who represented parts of Chester and Berks counties, is also expected to launch an exploratory committee for Senate. Several current members of Congress are also rumored to be interested in the seat.

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