HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — John Fetterman was sitting, alone, in the corridor outside the hotel ballroom where Pennsylvania's Democratic Party committee members were gathered, looking every bit like someone who didn't belong there.
Moments later, Fetterman — Pennsylvania’s sitting lieutenant governor — got trounced by more than 2 to 1 by U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb in the endorsement vote in the party’s primary race for U.S. Senate.
In barely two months, Democrats will find out if the party's electorate feels differently about nominating Fetterman, a mold-breaking candidate much better known to Democrats than his rivals, to be its standard-bearer in a premier Senate contest.
Not only did Fetterman come from the party’s progressive wing, but he is irreverent, blunt and, well, something to see. At 6 feet 8, he is tattooed and goateed, his head is clean shaven, and he is most often seen wearing shorts — even in winter — and casual work shirts.
Fetterman leads in campaign fundraising and is also the only one in the race to have won a statewide campaign, or even run statewide. He has campaigned around Pennsylvania numerous times now, as far back as 2008, when he stumped in the presidential primary for Barack Obama.
But the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol stiffened the resolve among Democratic state committee members to vote for the candidate who is most electable in the November general election in this presidential battleground state, some Democrats say.
For many, that means voting for Lamb, viewed as a more moderate, more conventional candidate with a resume that has more crossover appeal.
“Those of us in politics who are in the know, we want to win the Senate race, so we want to pick the most electable person statewide, and I think a lot of people agree that that person is Conor Lamb,” said Christina Proctor, the Democratic Party chair in Washington County.
The seat being vacated by retiring two-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is viewed nationally as up for grabs and among the few chances Democrats will have to pick up a seat in a daunting year when President Joe Biden and Democrats face a critical and pessimistic public, according to the February poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Republicans have a wide-open field, including three wealthy and well-connected transplants from out of state — including Mehmet Oz, host of daytime TV's “The Dr. Oz Show” — who are spending millions of dollars on TV ads.
On the Democratic side, Lamb, 37, a clean-cut former federal prosecutor and ex-Marine, worked hard for months to win the party's endorsement, coming up just short of the required two-thirds vote threshold after months of courting state committee members.
Fetterman's campaign dismissed the process as an “inside game” and maintained that his focus is on campaigning and expanding the map of friendly voters by finding new supporters in far-flung places where Democrats get trounced.
“John comes off as an outsider; that’s been the case from Day One as far as the state party goes,” said Aaron Stearns, the Democratic Party chair in sparsely populated Warren County.
Fetterman doesn't fit into the box the party has built for its candidates, Stearns said, either on issues, such as Fetterman’s outspoken advocacy for legalizing marijuana, or on looks, such as Fetterman being anything but clean-cut and suit-wearing.
“We’re still trapped in that whole cycle of ‘That’s the only way you can get elected,’” Stearns said.
When Fetterman visits Stearns' rural area, he is genuine and approachable, and he looks and dresses “like us," Stearns said. “I’m not 6-8, but I think for everyday Democrats, it’s a bonus.”