HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Democrat John Fetterman won Pennsylvania’s pivotal race for the U.S. Senate, flipping a Republican-held seat as he recovered from a stroke during the bare-knuckle campaign and giving Democrats hope to retain control of the tightly divided chamber to energize President Joe Biden’s agenda for two more years.
Fetterman, the towering and outspoken Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, who became a progressive hero as mayor of an oppressed steel town, defeated Dr. Mehmet Oz, the wealthy cardiac surgeon turned TV celebrity who had just moved in the presidential battleground state. run for the Senate.
Fetterman credited his “every county, every vote” campaign strategy, in which the tattooed, hoodie-wearing candidate sought to bring the Democratic Party back into predominantly white working-class areas that increasingly rejected him, so even though he was running on a progressive platform.
“And that’s exactly what happened,” Fetterman, 53, told a cheering crowd Wednesday morning at a concert hall in Pittsburgh. “We blocked them. We held the line. I didn’t expect us to turn these red counties blue, but we did what we had to do and we had this conversation in each of these counties.
It promised to be Democrats’ ’51st vote’ to pass fundamental legislation to protect rights to abortion, health care, same-sex marriage, unions and voting, as well as raise wages minimum.
Fetterman compared his May 13 stroke — which prevented him from speaking fluently and quickly turning spoken conversation into meaning, a common effect called auditory processing disorder — to getting knocked down and embraced it as campaign mission.
He ran for “everyone who got knocked down who got back up,” he told the crowd. “This race is for the future of every community across Pennsylvania, for every small town or person who has felt left behind, for every job that has been lost, for every factory that has been closed, and for every person who has worked hard but never gets ahead.”
In brief remarks to his crowd on election night at a suburban Philadelphia fitness center, Oz thanked his supporters and expressed optimism.
“When all the ballots are counted, we believe we will win this race,” Oz told the cheering crowd on Tuesday night. He had not conceded a goal Wednesday morning.
Oz was carrying heavy baggage, especially after leaving his New Jersey mansion and barely winning a deadly primary in which opponents portrayed him as an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal.
Throughout, Oz — a political novice with no roots in Pennsylvania politics — struggled to connect with some Republican voters, including those who thought he was too close to Trump, too liberal or too inauthentic.
Fetterman won despite national political headwinds for Democrats, such as rising inflation. He will succeed retired Republican Senator Pat Toomey.
Fetterman sought to tap into the outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion and vowed to vote to end the filibuster.
Polls had shown a close race, with the economy and abortion rights weighing heavily on voters.
About half of voters in the state say the economy and jobs are the most important issue facing the country, according to AP VoteCast, an extensive survey of more than 3,100 voters in the state. Among this group of voters, Oz had a lead over Fetterman.
About half said they were confident Fetterman was healthy enough to serve effectively, and half said they had reservations, according to the survey.
More voters said they weren’t convinced Oz knew enough about Pennsylvania to serve effectively as a senator than those who expressed confidence, the poll found.
Fetterman was forced to explain progressive positions to a swing-state electorate, including a flip-flop on natural gas drilling and pardons for state inmates convicted of murder.
Fetterman is irreverent, swears casually on social media and looks more like an aging professional wrestler. At 6ft 8in, he is tattooed, with a goatee and black eyes, with a clean shaven head and casual attire that often involves shorts, even in winter.
Democrats have come to see him as someone who could normalize the party with disillusioned voters in the Trump era.
Oz was torn between a primary in which he tried to fend off attacks that he was secretly liberal and a general election against Fetterman in which he tried to appeal to moderates and black voters.
Even with Trump’s endorsement, he won the primary with just 900 votes in a contest that was subject to a statewide recount. Trump was a longtime friend and fellow artist whom Oz had come to know through New York’s social and charitable fundraising circles.
The election was the most expensive for a U.S. Senate seat in this campaign cycle, topping $300 million. Money from national bands poured in, and Oz spent over $25 million of his own fortune on the race.
Much of the Republican money for TV ads dwelt on crime, suggesting Democrats have failed to protect people from violence and drugs and aiming to undermine one of the avenues of appeal from Fetterman to black voters: his efforts as lieutenant governor to free the overly incarcerated, rehabilitated or innocent.
Fetterman, the former mayor for 13 years of impoverished little Braddock, near Pittsburgh, used his time there to establish credentials with the black community in the majority-black city, to fight gun violence and to maintain a hospital in the crime-ridden community.
He is tattooed with Braddock’s postcode – 15104 – on one forearm and, while mayor, the date of every murder in the town while working to prevent crime.
Associated Press reporter Matt Rourke in Newtown, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report. Follow Marc Levy on Twitter: twitter.com/timelywriter.