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Fetterman, Ryan Work to Appeal to the Working Class | The Report


One Senate candidate Twitter-trolls with scathing finesse, and is rarely seen in anything more formal than a hoodie and baggy shorts. The other one laments the loss of manufacturing jobs, the economic threat from China and the hits to America’s working class.

They’re both middle-aged white men, both Democrats facing celebrity-candidate Republicans, and both may provide the key to saving control of one chamber of Congress for a party which has branded itself as the party of diversity and which has been moving to the left.

In Pennsylvania. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is in a competitive race against Mehmet “Dr.” Oz for a U.S. Senate seat, and appears positioned to give Democrats a pickup in the 50-50 Senate. In redder-tinted Ohio, Democrat Tim Ryan faces a tougher fight but is neck-and-neck in polls with his Republican opponent, former venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance.

Both men are conducting a little counter-programming as they campaign in states that have become less friendly ground for Democrats in recent years. Even as the Democratic Party suffers from a massive shift towards the GOP among non-college educated, white voters, Fetterman and Ryan are making a direct appeal to working class voters, casting their GOP opponents as the elitists who can’t understand the struggles of post-industrial America.

“The working class, those with a high school education or less, are conservative on cultural issues, support the Second Amendment, and are not wild about climate change legislation. They’ve moved away from the Democratic Party,” says G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and a veteran pollster in the state.

But former Braddock, Pennsylvania mayor Fetterman – whose coal country roots give him some credibility among that voter group – “has worked hard to connect with working men and women, with working class voters,” Madonna says.

Ryan, now a congressman, is making a similar appeal in Ohio, although his hurdles are higher because once-swing state Ohio has trended steadily towards Republicans over the past two decades. But Ryan – focusing heavily on matters of trade, jobs and investment in manufacturing – is hoping to make enough inroads with the working-class vote to join the state’s only statewide-elected Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown, in the Senate.

Democrats have lost non-college educated, white voters because that voter group “sees them as the party of elites,” focusing on matters like LGBTQ rights, abortion and other social and cultural issues “that are not central to the economic declines these communities are facing,” says Lisa Pruitt, a professor at the UC David School of Law who has written extensively about the working class. “That has really hurt them.”

As the country moves towards majority-minority status, Democrats have capitalized, casting themselves as the part of inclusion, representing Black and brown communities as well as new immigrants. But while that may well pay off electorally as the demographics shift, pockets of white, working class voters in critical states are helping Republicans stay in power, experts say.

Former President Donald Trump, for example, took 68% of the white, non-college educated vote in 2016, winning similarly lopsided majorities of that voter group in pivotal states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

But peeling off just a small number of those voters made the difference for President Joe Biden in 2020, when the Democrat flipped Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin back to the blue side of the electoral ledger.

In Pennsylvania, Biden won 34% of the white working class vote, compared to the 32% Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton got in the Keystone State in 2016. In Wisconsin, Biden took 41% of the white working class vote, compared to the 34% Clinton got in 2016.

That’s hardly a groundswell, but shows that small shifts in the vote can make the difference between a win and a loss, experts say.

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“There’s a limit to how much of an inroad Democrats can make with the white, working class vote. The majority of white, working class voters are not persuadable, and are pretty firmly in the Republican camp,” says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor who studies political behavior.

“But there’s still a segment of the white working class vote that’s movable, if you have the right kind of candidate and right situation. Candidates like Ryan and Fetterman have, I think, a greater ability to appeal to those voters.”

Fetterman is an atypical candidate – a tattooed, self-described “huge biker dude” who endorsed Bernie Sanders for president and has a master’s degree from Harvard. Fetterman has also dropped his support for a moratorium on fracking, a process to extract oil and gas that alarms environmentalists but creates jobs in Pennsylvania.

Oz has celebrity, a medical degree and the support of former President Donald Trump, which could help bring out a GOP base already statistically more inclined to vote in midterms.

Polls have Fetterman ahead of Oz by 4-9 percentage points, although political analysts warn that Fetterman’s health could derail his campaign. In May, Fetterman suffered a stroke, revealing only weeks later that he “almost died” and had not been taking his health as seriously as he should. He has not actively campaigned in person since his illness, although he gave an interview recently to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saying he was confident he would be able to “run fully” for the seat.

That hasn’t stopped Fetterman from raising pots of money (more than $11 million in the second quarter of the year, to Oz’s $3.8 million) and needling his fall opponent with tweets showing Oz in his opulent home, or kissing his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Oz has posted an ad of himself jogging – a not-so-subtle reference to the difference in the men’s health conditions – and taunts Fetterman about being away from the campaign trail.

“Curious as to why you have to fill up your tank so often when you’re not out on the campaign trail meeting with Pennsylvanians,” Oz tweeted after Fetterman posted a tweet about high gas prices.

Pennsylvania. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman speaks with supporters in Philadelphia, in 2016. Fetterman is running as a Democrat for Sen. Pat Toomey's seat.

Pennsylvania. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman speaks with supporters in Philadelphia, in 2016. Fetterman is running as a Democrat for Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat.(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“Dude, you’re literally from Jersey. I bet you don’t even know how to pump your own gas,” Fetterman retorted, a reference to Oz’s recent residency in New Jersey, the only state in the nation where drivers are not allowed to pump their own gas.

Oz’s campaign dismissed Fetterman’s characterization of the TV doctor as elitist. “Unlike John Fetterman, Dr. Mehmet Oz has spent the summer criss-crossing the commonwealth and listening to Pennsylvanians who are dealing with the impacts of inflation,” Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick said in an email. “Working class voters will vote against Fetterman in large numbers due to his support for banning fracking and raising taxes.”

Ryan, meanwhile, has underscored his own roots in the once-booming steel-town of Youngstown, Ohio. His most recent ad notes that he voted with Trump on trade and against a trade deal supported by former President Barack Obama.

“I don’t answer to any political party,” Ryan says in the ad. “I answer to the folks I grew up with and the families like yours all across Ohio.”

Vance also has Trump’s endorsement, and bills himself as a “conservative outsider” who will help Ohioans who have felt left behind by their current leaders. Vance also wants to end abortion and promote tax policies that “reward marriage and family.”

On paper, Vance should be a shoo-in; the party out of power tends to lose seats in the midterms, and Republicans are dominant in Ohio politics, controlling both chambers of the state legislature as well as almost every statewide office.

And Vance has his own working-class credentials, says Ohio-based GOP consultant Mark Weaver. Vance “has a powerful story to tell, and I imagine he will lean into his roots, growing up in Appalachia, and being a Marine.” Vance also has systemic advantages, such as a strong Republican ground game in Ohio and Biden’s dismal approval ratings in the Buckeye State.

Yet polls show the two essentially tied, with Ryan a few percentage points ahead of Vance. Further, Ryan announced he had raised $9.1 million in the second quarter of the year, a record in Ohio. Vance, meanwhile, reported raising more than $2.3 million in that period.

Democrats aren’t poised to win back working class white voters as a group, says Dante Atkins, a Democratic strategist. “What Democrats need to do is to figure out how to stop the erosion, win back a little bit,” Atkins adds.

“If you’re John Fetterman, and can reduce the margin (of GOP dominance) in coal country by 50,000-80,000 votes, you can offset” the decline in Democratic turnout that often happens in midterms, Atkins says. “It’s ultimately a numbers game.” Small shifts in numbers, this fall, that will decide who runs the Senate.



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