In the Pennsylvania Senate Race What Motivates Voters Is Complicated

ERIE, Pa. — Every election cycle in America, plenty of people will decide, for one reason or another, not to show up to vote. Their reasons often vary. They may not like either candidate’s personality or may not feel either candidate represents their views — or they just don’t think the government will change, no matter who is in power. 

Sometimes, however, they make that decision based on cues from someone who they believe has their and the country’s best interests at heart, somehow thinking that by abstaining from voting, they are sending a message. In the heat of the moment, though, they forget the real-life consequences of elections.

In January 2021, around 400,000 Georgia Republicans decided to stay home and do just that, with most of them freely admitting they were deterred from voting by then-President Donald Trump’s insistence that the 2020 elections in Georgia were “illegal and invalid.” Consequently, they doubted, even if they showed up, that the state’s election system would produce valid results. 

It was a decision that gave the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate in addition to the White House and the House of Representatives. By now, Republican voters are painfully aware of that Democratic power monopoly, particularly after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., struck a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to create a new tax-hiking bill on climate change. 

For some reason, the press and the Democrats anticipate that the bill’s passage will motivate Democratic voters to show up and get independents and centrist Republicans back on their side — much in the same way they foolishly speculated that the passage of Obamacare was going to save Democrats from a midterm catastrophe in 2010. Instead, Democrats caused their own political catastrophe, with Republicans sweeping to power in Congress that year.

So, what about this November? 

The answer lies not on Twitter or in strategy Zoom calls or on a keyboard in a newsroom but instead is found in the towns and the suburbs across America — and, in particular, here in Pennsylvania. 

The answer also lies in the psyche of the voters — in particular, Republican voters: Do the Pennsylvania Republican voters want to be known as equivalent to the Georgia voters of 2021, not showing up because their guy or gal didn’t win the primary? 

Ask Georgia Republican voters, and they will tell you they regret that decision and loathe the consequences.

Ask a Pennsylvania Republican voter, and they will tell you unequivocally no. 

Currently, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast model has Democratic nominee John Fetterman as a 67% favorite to win the Senate race in Pennsylvania, though actual polls show Fetterman at 50% to Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz’s 46.8%. That number may soon be changing, though, based on two things: voters starting to understand that Fetterman isn’t the blue-collar guy his image suggests, and Pennsylvania Republicans not wanting to be like the Georgia Republican voters of 2021. 

Voters are also raising concerns about Fetterman’s health after his stroke earlier this year — but they do so quietly. 

Fetterman, for his part, has spent his time on Twitter, largely because of the impact his stroke has had on a number of his sensory abilities, and adopted a take-no-prisoners Twitter persona similar to Trump’s that has effectively driven up Oz’s negativity. 

Fetterman has also run ads cut before his stroke — again, very Trump-like — that discuss his decision to move to the tiny town of Braddock and run for mayor so he could improve the town. It’s a constant claim that should motivate the national and local press to dig in to see if he did indeed improve Braddock.

A drive along Braddock Avenue from one end to the other may lead some to doubt the notion. 

When Fetterman became mayor in 2006, the population of the once-booming Mon Valley city, whose heyday was over 50 years ago, was 2,159. When he left 13 years later to become lieutenant governor, that number had dipped 20 percentage points to 1,721, with most residents living in poverty. The median income is a paltry $22,000. 

Everyone knows the gritty stories Fetterman tells and knows about wife Gisele’s impressive “Free Store” along Braddock Avenue — but few tell the rest of the story. 

Crime rose, not fell, when Fetterman was mayor, with hikes in property crimes, thefts, robberies and assaults. The center of the community, not just for jobs but also for socialization, Braddock Hospital, was torn down, and while a brewery and a high-end restaurant were brought in, one has since closed down and the other barely stays open four days a week. Both were too expensive for the people in Braddock to afford. 

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed that Fetterman, whose York County family is wealthy, had lived off his parents’ money from 2006 to 2019, indicating that his blue-collar image is largely manufactured. 

This week, Fetterman is set to headline his first rally in Erie, the politically fickle county he says is the center of the Senate race. In 2016, it gave Trump its vote; it voted for then-candidate Joe Biden in 2020; and last year, for the first time in decades, the entire county voted Republican for county executive. 

It is a county that Oz has visited relentlessly, at business roundtables, diners, festivals and drop-ins walking through the towns — visits that never make the national or local news but, like the 130-plus stops he made across the state last month, count in earning voters’ support. 

Oz’s challenge isn’t Oz himself, and it isn’t even Trump. It is the mystique surrounding Fetterman that the press has created that has turned him into a folk hero. But the answer lies in the voters who must decide whom they want to have the power in November. If they vote on putting the brakes on the Democrats’ policies, it will be Oz, but if they are going for imagery, it will be Fetterman.

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