This list of towns in the Keystone State’s so-called rural “T”—the vast area that lies between the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metro areas, stretching north to the New York state line—could have been either.
In fact, this was U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman’s campaign itinerary on Saturday, May 7, just ten days before the Pennsylvania primary. This 245-mile, five-town circuit was part of his commitment to visit each of the state’s 67 counties, a very literal execution of his “every county, every vote” slogan.
And the strategy paid off. Fetterman won every Pennsylvania county to claim his party’s nomination, with 59% of the Democratic vote.
In doing so, Fetterman deposed opponents associated with the state’s urban centers, State Senator Malcolm Kenyatta, of Philadelphia and U.S. Congressman Conor Lamb of Pittsburgh. Not a bad showing for a boy from York who served for 13 years as mayor of Braddock, population 1,761 (albeit part of the Pittsburgh metro area), before he was elected Lt. Governor in 2018.
Extraordinary Rural Outreach
If you’ve never heard of the five Pennsylvania towns Fetterman visited that day in early May, you’re surely not alone. With populations between 3,000 and 10,000, they’re small enough that many folks in Philly or Pittsburgh would be hard-pressed to place them on a map.
And that seemed to be the point. Fetterman’s messaging wasn’t aimed at metro Pennsylvania. He was talking to rural Pennsylvanians, letting them know he sees them. He put his body—all 6 ft. 8 inches of it—where his mouth is and showed up to meet them in their community centers, VFW halls, and churches.
Fetterman thus swam against the tide: In recent years, most Democratic candidates for statewide office have left rural voters to the GOP, letting them slip away without a fight. New York Senator and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer admitted as much in 2016—specifically referencing Pennsylvania. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania,” Schumer said, “we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.”
That strategy didn’t work out so well for the Democrats. Pennsylvania was one of three states (along with Michigan and Wisconsin) that handed the presidency to Donald Trump by a relative handful of votes. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just 44,000 Pennsylvania votes (out of 6 million cast) in 2016 to claim the state’s 20 Electoral College delegates.
Rural votes, it turns out, do add up.
Truth is, Fetterman didn’t just show up in rural Pennsylvania. The rhetoric of his primary campaign regularly elevated rural people and their concerns. He talked frequently about reaching both red and blue voters—sprinkling red and blue dots generously throughout his tweets to illustrate the point.
In sharp contrast, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh got barely a mention in his Twitter feed this spring, which touted no appearance in either city in the run-up to the primary. When Fetterman did mention the population behemoths anchoring the eastern and western ends of the state, he used them as a foil to remind voters in overlooked places that they matter, too. “Don’t forget that a vote in Tioga County counts as much as one in Pittsburgh or Philly,” he declared at a stop in the nonmetro county of 41,000. It’s a line Fetterman rolled out frequently on the campaign trail, a fill-in-the-rural-county _____ schtick that delighted audiences in the hinterlands. “Right. Yes,” the crowds cheered in response.
It was almost as if Fetterman was taking urban dwellers for granted—leaving them to play second fiddle, for a change, to their rural compatriots.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis of Fetterman’s trajectory between his first state-wide race in 2016 (his first run for the U.S. Senate) and the recent 2022 primary shows, at the county level, how his popularity grew. Part of that growth was due to rising name recognition associated with being Lt. Governor. (A generally obscure office, being Lt. Governor in Pennsylvania means Fetterman’s photo, like that of the Governor, hangs framed in every rest stop, a not insignificant visual exposure). Fetterman’s rising popularity is also surely attributable to his leave-no-county-behind tack. Indeed, over those six years, his rise in support was steepest in the Republican stronghold of the “T.”
It’s surely significant, too, that Fetterman’s 67-county primary campaign tour was not his first visit to the state’s rural reaches. In fact, his inaugural circuit was in 2019 when, as newly minted Lt. Governor, he visited every county to conduct town hall meetings on the issue of cannabis legalization. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch expressed it, when Fetterman returned to ask for their votes, he was “shrouded in the purple haze of a political rock star.”
The Democrats’ Rural Problem
Fetterman’s extraordinary investment in the rural vote came amidst a national crisis for Democrats. A February survey showed that two out of three rural voters view the Democratic Party unfavorably.
According to a Meet the Press segment on the Democrats’ rural problem this spring, rural voters’ declining support for Democrats is a long-term trend that has only accelerated in recent years. Bill Clinton carried roughly half the nation’s rural counties (1,117) in 1996, but Barack Obama carried only 455 in 2008. Joe Biden won just 194 in 2020, a mere 17 percent of what Clinton garnered a few decades earlier.
Trump is one reason for the sharp recent decline in the Democrats’ rural fortunes. He tapped not only rural nostalgia but also rural anger over crummy job markets associated with the widening regional inequality that has left most nonmetropolitan areas struggling. Trump openly bashed urban phenomena, as when he linked inner cities to “American carnage.” Though progressives heard this as a racist dog whistle, it proved an odd salve on the deep rural wound of being unseen and underappreciated.
Of course, that rhetoric also aggravated polarization along the rural-urban axis, and some bad behavior predictably ensued. An Associated Press feature in February included vignettes of small-town Democrats removing bumper stickers and yard signs to avoid harassment by conservative neighbors.
Meanwhile, progressives have wrung their hands over what to do—if anything—to attract rural voters. The New York Times ran an essay in December by former Montana Governor Steve Bullock advising how to cultivate the rural vote, and Dirt Road Revival, a recent book by Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin and her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward, was all the rage for a few weeks this spring. It was held out as a how-to manual for Democrats willing to vie actively for rural voters, but also critiqued as the work of a silver-spoon candidate in a district experiencing rural gentrification.
But not many candidates have recently done what Fetterman did in Pennsylvania. Few have actually pulled a Johnny Cash and “gone everywhere, man.” Fewer still have done what Fetterman did this spring, proving he wasn’t a flash in the rural pan by showing up a second time. (For the record, Beto O’Rourke deployed a similar strategy in 2018 when he visited all 254 Texas counties in his narrow loss to Ted Cruz for a U.S. Senate seat, and he’s recently announced he’s doing it again in his bid for Governor. Meanwhile, Chris Jones, a political newcomer who is the Democratic nominee for Governor of Arkansas, is “walking a mile in your shoes” in each of the state’s 75 counties as he takes on Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
A Good Fit for Rural Pennsylvania?
Great as his investment in rural Pennsylvania has been, Fetterman faces the added challenge of endorsing especially progressive policies in places that tend conservative. His stances on abortion, unions, LGBTQ rights, and legalizing “dreamers” are all pretty far left—and articulated firmly and decisively. He recently declared health care “a right, NOT a privilege” in relation to the anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid:
Fetterman has called repeatedly for abolishing the filibuster to advance a progressive agenda, and he’s criticized his neighbor, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for obstructing the Democratic agenda in Washington. The only issue on which Fetterman doesn’t align with the progressive playbook is fracking, which he supports. It is, after all, a staple of the Pennsylvania energy economy.
But Fetterman may have a not-so-secret weapon for appealing to rural voters, apparent policy mismatches notwithstanding: He’s a “dude” with an unconventional, anti-elite vibe. The Democratic establishment did not initially embrace him, endorsing other candidates in the primary, though they’ve since rallied around Fetterman.
More visibly, Fetterman has attracted national attention for his wardrobe choices, most recently hoodie and gym shorts on the campaign trail. (In his official Lt. Governor portrait—the one in the rest stops—Fetterman is wearing a gray button-up work shirt, no tie, and his trademark serious face, which borders on a scowl). He owns a single suit and, as of the primary debate, it didn’t fit well. Fetterman’s arms are tattooed, the Braddock zip code on one and the dates of shooting deaths in Braddock on the other. It was a spate of shooting deaths there—with victims including two of social worker Fetterman’s GED students—that led him to get involved in politics two decades ago.
In short, having played the everywhere card, Fetterman is now prioritizing the everyman card. And even some Republicans admit he wins the “someone-I’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with” contest. The question is: will Fetterman’s relatability be enough to bring conservative-leaning rural voters along with his progressive agenda?
A Shift in Focus for the General Election
Fetterman’s energetic engagement with rural Pennsylvania came to an end just a few days before the Pennsylvania primary in mid-May. Less than a week after traveling that 245-mile loop to visit those five small cities on May 7, Fetterman was hospitalized following a stroke. He is on the mend after getting a pacemaker, but barely back on the campaign trail. (The two July stops he publicized on his Twitter feed were both in the Philly metro—still in hoodie and gym shorts among the well-heeled crowd).
Meanwhile, Fetterman’s messaging has shifted as much as how he spends his time. The colored dots in his Twitter feed are more recently used to illustrate rhetoric about flipping the seat from red to blue (Republican Pat Toomey is retiring). Fetterman is now trolling his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz (television’s “Dr. Oz”) for only recently having moved to Pennsylvania, to his mother-in-law’s address, no less.
The Fetterman campaign engaged Snooki from the reality TV show “Jersey Shore” to chide Oz for leaving Jersey to “look for a new job,” and Stevie Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band to implore Oz to “come back to New Jersey where you belong.” Among Fetterman’s popular campaign merch is a bumper sticker that says, “Dr. Oz for NJ” and, in smaller print, “Fetterman for Pennsylvania.”
Fetterman is also attacking Oz’s wealth—noting he owns nine homes and is worth a reported $104 million. In contrast, Fetterman appears to live a modest life with his wife and three children in Braddock, in a building that used to be a car dealership. (After he was elected Lt. Governor, he forewent the mansion in Harrisburg, instead opening its swimming pool to locals). Fetterman’s tweets about inflation and corporate greed reference the cost of filling up his Dodge RAM pickup and buying groceries at Giant Eagle, a Pennsylvania grocery chain. He’s been tweeting a lot in recent weeks about “making sh*t in America” again. He’s also been writing guest editorials about inflation in small city newspapers like those in Johnstown and Erie.
It remains to be seen how Fetterman’s new focus will play in rural Pennsylvania, especially since a less energetic candidate isn’t likely to make a third circuit of the Keystone state. But it may not matter much with rural voters, given that Fetterman has probably already done what he can to woo them—just by showing up and demonstrating his respect for the forgotten places, the forgotten people.
The bigger wild card now is Fetterman’s health.
Meanwhile, one can only hope that other Democrats running for statewide office—among them Senatorial candidates like Tim Ryan in Ohio, Mike Franken in Iowa, Trudy Busch Valentine in Missouri, and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin—are looking with envy at what Fetterman built in rural Pennsylvania and rethinking their own rural strategy.
Or maybe they’re finally asking if they even have one.
They might start with a listen to Johnny Cash’s traveling song.
Dr. Lisa Pruitt, the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at U.C. Davis, was raised in rural Newton County, Arkansas. She writes about silences on rurality in academic legal literature in academic journals and on her blog, Legal Ruralism.