The ‘cult’ of John Fetterman has a national following. What could that mean for his political future?
Fetterman is at the forefront of the Wolf administration’s defense of the 2020 election against unfounded claims of election fraud and malfeasance by President Donald Trump.
This story originally appeared on WITF.
If you’ve been paying attention to the post-election news cycle in Pennsylvania, you’ve no doubt heard the voice or seen the face of John Fetterman, the state’s quirky lieutenant governor.
He’s been profiled by Paste Magazine, Glamour, and Teen Vogue.
Those are a few of Fetterman’s introductions to national audiences. He has an unorthodox style and presentation, and is full of straightforward sentiments.
This imposing character — bald, 6-foot-8, tattooed and owner of an Ivy League degree — is at the forefront of the Wolf administration’s defense of the 2020 election against unfounded claims of election fraud and malfeasance by President Donald Trump.
That exposure is raising his political profile along with questions about whether he’ll run for statewide office in two or four years. But for now, Fetterman is a sought-after interview as national news organizations report on how Pennsylvania is responding to unprecedented interference by a president who is attempting to overturn the results of an election.
He popped up on CNN analyzing President Trump’s chances of winning his legal challenges:
“Math doesn’t care about his feelings” — Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman about Trump pic.twitter.com/enLMcfaPOL
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 12, 2020
“If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, the president would be on deck to have a better Thanksgiving than he’s going to have,” Fetterman told CNN Correspondent John King.
The self-described progressive made a similar impression during a taped interview with Rolling Stone. Reporter Andy Kroll asked him to analyze the behavioral trends among voters on Election Day.
“Mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania during this election were as predictive for Democrats as driving a Subaru,” Fetterman said. “Voting in person was as predictive as an Under Armour golf shirt for Republicans. OK?”
He even offered a promise to NPR’s Morning Edition: “I will never tweet out anything that Twitter has to slap a warning on like a pack of cigarettes,” Fetterman told host Steve Inskeep.
His style seems to have found an ideal outlet in the post-election world, which Fetterman used to sum up the attempts by Trump’s campaign to discredit the state’s election through baseless lawsuits and audit requests.
“You could sue a ham sandwich and it’s not going to change anything,” the lieutenant governor pronounced. “Well, you could audit a ham sandwich and it’s not going to change anything.”
Neither Governor Tom Wolf nor Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar have talked much since Election Day, leaving much of the election fraud debunking to the lieutenant governor.
That’s been OK with him, even though he’s had to take on that responsibility for several weeks as the Trump campaign’s challenges persisted. He even trolled his Texas counterpart on Twitter, after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick offered a $1 million dollar reward for evidence of voting fraud.
Hey, Governor Patrick- it’s your counterpart in Pennsylvania.
I’d like to collect your handsome reward for reporting voter fraud.
I got a dude in Forty Fort, PA who tried to have his dead mom vote for Trump.
I’d like mine in Sheetz gift cards pls.
ps. The Cowboys blow. https://t.co/Y21Q3ZkSEH
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) November 10, 2020
“One of the internet jokes or memes is that I’m Governor Wolf’s anger translator, and so there’s some truth to that,” Fetterman said of his role, referencing a “Key and Peele” skit from the Obama era.
While he’s gotten a lot of attention for stepping into that role, Fetterman said he’d rather focus on a more important issue now that Pennsylvania’s vote count has been certified.
“My hope is we can finally agree the true enemy is the coronavirus, not each other. Let’s just stop and address the pandemic, which is raging under our noses at this point,” he said.
Of course, the lieutenant governor has a life outside of anger translation.
Fetterman was mayor of Braddock, downriver from Pittsburgh, between 2005 and 2019. He pushed an agenda of reinvention in a community that’s home to Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, and even gave a TED Talk on the topic in 2013.
He and his family still live in a converted car dealership in the borough. Giselle Fetterman spearheads the family’s efforts to give back to the community through a nonprofit donation center called the Free Store.
All the while, at the local and state level, Fetterman has championed progressive policies, like legalizing recreational marijuana.
Legal Weed For Pennsylvania. pic.twitter.com/iKCLzWm8og
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) November 18, 2020
Combining all these factors, political science professor Chris Borick of Muhlenberg College says he believes Fetterman could have a recipe potent enough to pull off a statewide election win.
“He could speak for the challenges of working class people on the margins and some of the problems that they have, from substance abuse to access to healthcare,” Borick said.
It’s too early to say whether Fetterman will run for governor or U.S. Senate, the top two contests on the 2022 ballot. He tried the latter back in 2016 and finished third in the Democratic primary. But just two years later, he won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor with nearly 38 percent of the vote in a five-way race.
Fetterman told WITF he’s exploring his options for a future run, if he decides to go for a spot at all.
“I’m considering both lanes, but that is certainly not my primary focus right now,” Fetterman said.
If he does decide to run in either of those races, Borick said Fetterman might have to work against Gov. Wolf’s pandemic-era choices. He noted no public polling on Fetterman’s performance as lieutenant governor exists.
“I think it has cost [Gov. Wolf] some of his standing,” Borick said. “I don’t know necessarily if that has eroded any support that the lieutenant governor might have had, because I really don’t know where he stood beforehand.”
But when the 2020 election cycle finally ends, it will be hard to count the lieutenant governor out in two years.
In fact, longtime Republican political consultant Christopher Nicholas is already thinking about him.
“I think most Republican political consultants like myself would rather face someone like him in a general election than a more traditional candidate,” Nicholas said. “In my opinion, he’s too far out of the mainstream for the state as a whole.”
Danielle Gross, on the other hand, doesn’t think so. She’s the director of communications at public relations and political strategy group Shelly Lyons. She believes a traditional candidate wouldn’t necessarily be a shoo-in or appeal broadly to voters statewide.
“We’ve definitely seen that whole concept upended in politics lately,” Gross said. “Is John Fetterman maybe the guy that, if you put out a casting call, [would be] the person that you’d expect to fill it? I’m not sure, but we’ve seen some really quirky casting choices by Pennsylvania voters.”
Either way, Pennsylvanians should expect to hear more from the man GQ magazine calls an “American taste god,” thanks to his laid back mechanic-esque fashion sense.
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