Politics

Fetterman 2022: The Steampunk Version of Biden in His Basement

When John Fetterman, the rangy, 6-foot-8 aspiring senator from Pennsylvania, suffered a stroke on a Friday in mid-May, his medical emergency alarmed Democratic strategists as well as the unusual personal network of artists, activists and admiring celebrities he’s built up during a decade-plus in politics.

And when his campaign released a doctor’s note subsequently revealing that he also had a serious, previously undisclosed heart condition, many in the political press corps immediately began asking probing questions about the unspooling series of revelations — the result, his campaign said, of medical propriety, not with an intent to be less than fully transparent about the candidate’s condition.

“Like so many others, and so many men in particular, I avoided going to the doctor, even though I knew I didn’t feel well,” Fetterman confessed when his doctor released a letter, which effectively scolded him for neglecting his health. “As a result, I almost died. I want to encourage others to not make the same mistake.”

More than a month into his recovery, Fetterman is trying something utterly novel in American politics: a towel-snapping virtual campaign of sassy online memes, withering mockery of his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and fourth-wall-bending television ads and online videos that explode many of the usual tropes of political campaigns.

Fetterman and his team of seasoned but decidedly nontraditional political operatives are making the most of a health crisis that would doom many less nimble campaigns — fending off suspicious reporters, opposition researchers and the usual gossip that can pose dangers to any campaign.

Fetterman’s advisers caution that polls, which show the lieutenant governor with a healthy but potentially soft lead over Oz, will inevitably tighten as wayward Republicans return to the fold and as the G.O.P. Wurlitzer of attack ads and opposition research spins up in earnest.

But for now, strategists in Pennsylvania and Washington say, 2022’s steampunk edition of Biden in His Basement seems to be working surprisingly well.

President Biden reached out to Fetterman’s wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, to express his concern and well wishes, according to a person familiar with the interaction, and connected with John himself not long afterward.

They held two video calls together, with Luján offering tidbits of wisdom and Fetterman peppering him with questions about Senate business that could affect Pennsylvania. Luján’s main advice: Don’t rush your recovery, a recommendation in tension with the hothouse pressures of a crucial Senate campaign.

“He looked and sounded great,” Luján said. Longtime friends of Fetterman say he is not fully healthy but is still very much his old self — gruff and iconoclastic, flaunting his stinging sense of humor, razor-sharp memory and an encyclopedic knowledge of political and cultural arcana.

Fetterman’s campaign has thought carefully about how to convey that he is on the road to recovery, while acknowledging that he is not 100 percent ready to return to the campaign trail. His aides are mindful that a major slip in his first outing could raise questions, perhaps even unfair ones, about his true condition.

Luján was uniquely sympathetic to the dilemmas of how much information to disclose to the news media, and when. His own doctors pushed back on calls to issue a detailed initial statement, urging his staff to await their full medical assessment of his health before divulging information that could be weaponized or misrepresented in the press.

Before he conducted any interviews, Luján said, “I was a nervous wreck.”

Only a few public polls of the general election have been released so far, but all of them show Fetterman with a commanding lead — for now.

Polls show that Oz is viewed negatively by many voters after weathering millions of dollars in attack ads during his bruising primary with Dave McCormick, a former hedge fund executive.

But both campaigns anticipate that tens of thousands of Republican voters will find ways to put aside their questions about his conservative bona fides and, as one Republican official put it, “put their team jerseys back on.”

Fetterman’s advisers hope to make authenticity the fulcrum of the campaign — the hoodie-and-shorts-wearing former mayor of a downtrodden steel town on the banks of the Monongahela River versus the Cleveland-born, New Jersey-bred purveyor of sometimes questionable medical advice who misspelled the town in his Pennsylvania address in an official campaign document.

Republican groups allied with Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, meanwhile, are gearing up to hit Fetterman with negative ads portraying his support for universal health care, the federal legalization of cannabis, sweeping criminal justice changes and raising the minimum wage as too left-wing for a swing state like Pennsylvania.

Fetterman has attacked Oz’s credibility with the zeal of dogged internet troll, in one case mocking the Republican nominee for posing in a construction hat by juxtaposing a cartoon image of a small child driving a plastic excavator.

The tweet, a picture caption with the words, “My Dream Construction Truck,” had left-leaning online forums hailing Fetterman’s posting skills with internet-native language like “edgelord,” “dunked on” and “pwned.”

While Fetterman has been recovering at home with family, taking long walks, driving his kids to and from school and shopping at grocery stores, Democrats have been passing out yard signs that say “Oz for New Jersey” and dreaming up new ways to bash their Republican opponent.

Gisele Barreto Fetterman, a Brazilian-born community activist and philanthropist who happens to be a friend of Kim Kardashian, has been lighting up Instagram and other social media platforms with videos of her out and about promoting her husband’s candidacy.

Yet the Fettermans are swimming against a tsunami of countervailing forces: high inflation, a deflated Democratic Party and a president many voters see as helpless, slow-footed and struggling to pass his agenda.

In Pennsylvania, where the Senate race could determine control of the chamber and the trajectory of Biden’s next two years, John Fetterman’s health complications add yet another layer of complexity to the dynamic, compounding Democrats’ anxieties about the race.

There also remains the question of just how well Fetterman’s tattooed, blue-collar Everyman appeal plays outside his political base in Western Pennsylvania, culturally the most remote and insular part of the state. Elections in Pennsylvania are often won and lost in the populous Philadelphia suburbs, where Oz may be able to make inroads among moderate voters worried mainly about low taxes and the cost of living.

“You can’t just put on a Carhartt jacket and shorts and expect to win over all these Trump voters,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican former political consultant based in Sacramento.

Should Fetterman win, however, Luján noted that he’ll face some hard decisions about his wardrobe: The Senate has fairly strict rules of decorum, including a formal dress code, and decades of genteel protocols and norms.

“It’s not a shorts-and-hoodie kind of place,” Luján said.

  • It was an afternoon of bombshells on Capitol Hill, where a junior White House aide gave extraordinary testimony saying that Donald Trump knew the crowd he had gathered in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, was armed and could turn violent, but wanted security precautions lifted because he said his supporters were not there to attack him. Read more on the Jan. 6 committee’s hearing.

  • Rudolph Giuliani has emerged as a central figure in a Georgia criminal investigation of efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn his election loss in the state, Danny Hakim and Richard Fausset report.

  • Illinois, New York, Colorado and several other states held elections today that included important primaries for Senate, governor and secretary of state. Follow our live updates and watch the results as they flow in tonight.

— Blake

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