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John Fetterman easily wins Democratic Senate race in Pennsylvania

John Fetterman election 2022.JPG
Kimberly Paynter
File photo of Pa. Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman speaking to the press.

Pennsylvania Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman won the state's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate after taking a commanding lead almost immediately after polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The Associated Press called the race in Fetterman's favor less than an hour later. Fetterman, who remained in a hospital in Lancaster after a stroke sidelined him from campaigning, thanked supporters in a tweet:

He cast his vote via emergency ballot at the hospital Tuesday, according to his campaign.

Also Tuesday, he underwent a procedure to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator to treat atrial fibrillation. The procedure went well, according to his campaign.

In his place, Fetterman’s wife Gisele spoke to the crowd of supporters after the results were called by multiple news organizations.

“John has a plan and a purpose to make sure that Pennsylvania’s best days are ahead of us,” Gisele Fetterman said. “He’s going to fight for abortion rights. He’s going to fight to raise the minimum wage and protect the union way of life.”

She also highlighted his support for eliminating the filibuster, legalizing cannabis and curbing gun violence and inflation.

Other speakers touched on Fetterman’s time as mayor of Braddock in suburban Pittsburgh and his work in the region with AmeriCorps.

Fetterman won’t be back on the campaign trail for at least another week as he continues to recover from the stroke, according to Gisele Fetterman. She said doctors as of Tuesday have not given a timetable for his release from the hospital.

When asked if her husband's health could be used as fodder for attack ads, Gisele Fetterman called the idea “ableist.”

“I think that anyone who would imply that he would be unfit to serve because of this procedure is also, I think, offending millions of Americans who have pacemakers,” she said. “The reality is that families come with health scares. That is a very American thing. What he is going to want to fight for is to make sure that everyone would have access to the same care that he was able to receive.”

Other criticism Fetterman will face in the general election stems from a 2013 incident when, shotgun in hand, he confronted a Black man in Braddock because he suspected the man was involved in gunfire nearby. The incident was used to criticize Fetterman’s absence from candidate forums by U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, his closest Democratic rival in the Senate race..

In a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer last year, Fetterman said the incident was a “split-second decision," and that he did not point a gun at the jogger and was not aware of his race. Gisele Fetterman said her husband will confront critics head-on with the “truth.”

Known for his hulking, 6-foot-9 stature and tattoos, and for championing causes such as universal health care, Fetterman has appealed to many Democrats with an outsider image. His watch party Tuesday was attended by supporters and campaign volunteers who stood in the hotel ballroom cheering election results projected on a screen.

Many of those supporters who spoke to WESA cited Fetterman’s personality — not his policy ideas — as the reason why he earned their vote.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

“People want to have a one-on-one with people. So that was why I voted for him — his personality. And his love to help people,” said Kemi Bottoms of Swissvale.

Carly Bellini of Pittsburgh was among those who argued that Fetterman’s blue-collar appearance and outsider persona will earn support from rural and urban voters alike.

“I think that he appeals across the board because he’s very common-sense,” said Bellini.

John and Susie Marbella from West Mifflin also cited Fetterman’s personality as a key driver of their support.

“He’s very down to earth. He’s very real,” said John Marbella. “He speaks from the heart. There’s nothing fake about him.”

Marbella’s mother Susie agreed, saying she'd expected Fetterman to take the Democratic nomination easily.

“I knew he had it all along,” Marbella said. “It was no big surprise.”

Fetterman did not enjoy support from many elected Democrats during his primary campaign. After the race was called in his favor, however, U.S. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania announced his endorsement of Fetterman in a statement.

“Among a talented, experienced field of candidates, Pennsylvania Democrats chose John to help defend and expand the Senate majority,” Casey said in his statement. “John is a tireless advocate for working families who has never backed down from a fight. We need his voice in the Senate, and I'm going to do everything I can over the next six months to flip this seat blue and elect John in November."

For his part, Lamb said “democracy is on the line” in the November election.

“Democrats need to be unequivocally united in our defense of this democracy, and we will be," Lamb said in a statement. "John’s vote in the Senate is essential to protect this democracy, and he will have my vote in November. I will do everything I can to help Democrats win.”

In addition to Lamb, Fetterman also defeated state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Jenkintown Borough Councilwoman and Democratic activist Alex Khalil. According to WHYY, Kenyatta conceded the race Tuesday evening and announced his support for Fetterman.

One of the biggest questions of the night is who will compete against Fetterman in the fall. Trump's preferred candidate, Mehmet Oz, has divided conservatives and faces what looks like a far tougher race. Some are suspicious of the ideological leanings of the celebrity heart surgeon who gained fame as a frequent guest on Oprah Winfrey's talk show. Oz has spent much of the campaign in a heated fight with former hedge fund CEO David McCormick.

That enabled commentator Kathy Barnette to emerge in the final days of the primary as a conservative alternative to both Oz and McCormick. By early Wednesday, however, former hedge fund CEO David McCormick and Oz were locked in a neck-and-neck race, with McCormick slightly ahead.

Trump, who held campaign-style rallies with Oz, insisted he is the best candidate to keep the Senate seat in Republican hands in the fall. Given his level of involvement in the race, a loss would be a notable setback for the former president, who is wielding endorsements as a way to prove his dominance over the GOP ahead of a potential 2024 presidential run.

Tuesday’s contests could ultimately determine how competitive the general election will be this fall, when control of Congress, governor’s mansions and key elections posts are up for grabs. That’s especially true in the perennial political battleground of Pennsylvania, where some Republicans are already worried that state Sen. Doug Mastriano is too extreme to woo moderates who are often decisive in general elections.

The Associated Press contributed.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.