Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is heralded as the eighth wonder of the world in the Democratic race to replace retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey in Pennsylvania.
Standing 6 feet, 9 inches tall, weighing about 300 pounds and sporting a goatee and a bunch of tattoos, Mr. Fetterman has showcased an Andre the Giant-like gravitational pull that Democrats say helps him connect with voters that otherwise might pooh-pooh his far-left vision. He would be more closely aligned with the far-left “Squad” on Capitol Hill than the state’s centrist Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., but Pennsylvania political insiders say Mr. Fetterman’s persona clouds that distinction.
John F. Cordisco, chair of the Bucks County Democrats, said Mr. Fetterman’s image is part of his broader appeal, particularly with voters looking for someone plainspoken or just plain different.
“That is why he may have the ability to appeal to voters outside the progressive part of the party,” said Mr. Cordisco, who remains neutral in the race. “He speaks his mind, and by doing that he creates a very big image, and that is something the other candidates are going to have to deal with.
“John is a very intelligent guy,” he said. “I think people have a tendency to, at first glance, underestimate that.”
Republicans, meanwhile, see Mr. Fetterman’s big-guy appeal as a gimmick that won’t last.
“Carnival-like is not far off,” Michael O’Connell, a veteran Republican Party operative in western Pennsylvania, said of the Fetterman look.
“He has super trendy politics, flies the gay rights flag from his office and is all worked up about marijuana, but at some point, it is all the same shtick, and I don’t know if it flies in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Mr. Fetterman, 52, is a married father of three. His wife, Giselle, is a Brazilian-born activist who came to the U.S. with her mother as a young illegal immigrant. She is now a naturalized citizen.
He is the front-runner in the race for the Democratic Senate nomination against Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyetta.
The winner will represent the Democratic Party in what is expected to be one of the nation’s most-watched Senate races this year.
Mr. Lamb, 37, is a former Marine and federal prosecutor with a centrist brand. He gained notoriety in 2018 after he flipped a House seat in a special election in Trump country just north of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Kenyetta, 31, is the first openly gay person of color in the Pennsylvania legislature, and he is battling Mr. Fetterman for the hearts and minds of liberals.
Since Mr. Fetterman announced his bid a year ago, his campaign has been leaning into the idea that he is different from the others.
“To win Pennsylvania in 2022, Democrats can’t run a typical campaign, and we can’t nominate a typical candidate,” said Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello. “In a year when traditional Democrats are going to struggle, John doesn’t have to convince people he’s not like other Democrats or even other politicians. They can see it for themselves.”
Mr. Fetterman has become a familiar face on the national stage.
The New York Times ran a profile on him in 2011 when he served as mayor of Braddock, a small town in the suburbs east of Pittsburgh where he was first elected in 2005.
He was cast as the face of a Rust Belt renewal. He earned a lot of attention for the tattoos decorating his arms, which include the Braddock ZIP code and the dates of people who “we lost to senseless violence in Braddock since I took office.”
Mr. Fetterman is politically ambitious. He parlayed a failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016 into a successful bid for lieutenant governor in 2020.
Mr. Fetterman won a five-way Democratic primary race, making Lt. Gov. Mike Stack the first incumbent lieutenant governor to lose in a primary election.
During the Trump years, his public stature grew.
Mr. Fetterman became a familiar face on television talk shows opposing the former president’s claims of a stolen election. His appearances gave viewers a glimpse of an unconventional style that contrasts with the more traditional, often stuffy ways of Washington.
He is now running as an unabashed liberal, a behemoth messenger for the far-left vision of politics that has been most commonly associated with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s far-left “Squad,” a frequent Republican target.
Mr. Fetterman supports raising the federal minimum wage, Medicare for All and legalizing marijuana. He also supports abolishing the legislative filibuster in the Senate, which has become a far-left litmus test for Democratic candidates.
He has challenged mandatory sentences of life without parole for second-degree murder. He says the law is ruining the lives of people who have never taken a life and is costing taxpayers.
Mr. Fetterman has defended hydraulic fracturing, distancing him from the liberal grassroots activists who want to ban the practice.
He has the support of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws Political Action Committee (NORML PAC), the United Steelworkers District 10 and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776.
Asked whether Mr. Fetterman’s physical appearance helps open people to his message, Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML PAC, said, “I have no comment on aesthetics.”
Mr. Altieri instead credited Mr. Fetterman’s success to his policy vision. He said Mr. Fetterman “realized early something that many elected officials are only just coming to understand: that ending our failed prohibition on marijuana isn’t just good policy; it is good politics.”
“Fetterman has been able to articulate succinctly to the broader public why prohibition is a disastrous policy and what the benefits are of moving to a regulated market for marijuana,” he said.
Mr. Fetterman has momentum in the Senate race.
The latest campaign finance reports show him with more than $5 million in the bank. Mr. Lamb has $3 million, and Mr. Kenyatta has $285,000.
The limited polling available shows him in the lead.
“I don’t think that is a shocker because John is serving as lieutenant governor, has been very outspoken and definitely has higher name recognition,” Mr. Cordisco said. “Conor has been really restrictive to his immediate universe.”
Mr. Fetterman scored a moral victory late last month after no one in the field of contenders reached the two-thirds threshold needed to win the endorsement from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
Mr. Lamb pulled in 58% of the vote, followed by Mr. Fetterman with 23.5% and Mr. Kenyatta with 17.3%.
The outcome was billed as a blow to Mr. Lamb.
Conventional wisdom says Mr. Lamb’s brand of politics is more aligned with the party establishment in Pennsylvania and more palatable to a statewide electorate that helped power Joseph R. Biden’s victory over President Trump in 2020.
Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania in 2016, the first time a Republican won the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
The race for Mr. Toomey’s open seat is seen as a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats as they try to defend their razor-thin majority in the Senate.
Mr. O’Connell said he finds it hard to believe the Democrat establishment in Washington and Pennsylvania will support Mr. Fetterman in the primary.
“I could be wrong, but for a very long time Republicans have been saying, ‘The Democratic Party has been taken over by wild-eyed leftists, the world is coming to an end and you have to vote for us,’” Mr. O’Connell said. “The last time I heard this was 2020, and unless you are writing a lot of stories about President Sanders, you’d have to ask: How has that worked out?”