This is who he’s been for the 28 years since the accident, Fetterman insisted. He said he could give me proof, and he headed over to the other side of his loft. After popping open a plastic box near a built-in hot tub, he showed me shots from his job setting up the first community computer labs in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Then he went over to his Mac and pulled up a few more—pictures of him and Nicky from a few years after they met, then another showing the two of them smiling with a new baby, his oldest son, cradled in Gisele’s arms. In all the photos since his friend died and his life changed, he’s unmistakably the same guy, with the same shaved head, facial hair, and nowhere-near-Brooks Brothers wardrobe.
“We are running out of time to actually start getting things done for people [in a way] that matters,” he said. “In Pennsylvania, a few simple policy tweaks would generate billions of dollars to rebuild our infrastructure; create more jobs; help some of these struggling, small, rural communities; help some of the very business communities that [Republicans] purport to care for so much. It’s true in Washington too. Like how on earth can you make 180 grand as a senator with luxe health care and sit there and be like Nero, thumbs up or down, on paying someone a living wage? I don’t understand that.”
On paper, Fetterman doesn’t seem like the “right” candidate for next year’s Senate race—aside from the fact that he was elected statewide just three years ago. Democratic operatives in Washington, D.C., tend to be drawn to a certain type of person to run for the Senate: a clean-cut moderate—ideally a veteran—with a proven record of winning independent and Republican votes who’s relatively fresh to politics but has long ties to his community. In Pennsylvania, two potential Senate candidates fit that model: Representative Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force captain who flipped a Republican seat near Philadelphia in 2018, and Representative Conor Lamb, a former marine and prosecutor who flipped a Republican district on the other side of Pittsburgh. Neither is running so far, but both have the potential to be strong candidates.
Right now, the only other declared candidate in the Democratic primary is State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, from North Philadelphia. Young, Black, and gay, he was an early endorser of Joe Biden. Kenyatta, who entered the race after Fetterman, is already backed by local and national teachers’ unions and the progressive Working Families Party. He and Fetterman have gotten along in the past: Last year, there was chatter about them teaming up as running mates if Fetterman decided to run for governor. Now Kenyatta may cut into the support Fetterman is counting on from the left.
Fetterman has already raised lots of money—$500,000 in just the first 72 hours he was in the race—in part as a power move to scare the opposition. “He’s doing everything right: raising money in small donations; he’s getting around the state; he’s employing his wife, who’s charming and bright and a great speaker,” says former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who wasn’t happy to see Fetterman run in the 2016 Senate primary against his own preferred candidate, in what was that year’s most complicated, divisive Democratic primary. “He’s the candidate to beat, no question.” A poll that circulated around Washington in February, in the weeks after the shotgun story resurfaced, showed that Fetterman didn’t take nearly the hit with voters that he did with the Twitterati. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who plays an active role in Democrats’ Senate-candidate recruitment, hasn’t weighed in yet. But for those who believe he’s still mad that Fetterman complicated the 2016 race, or who have noticed how unlike the usual Schumer candidate Fetterman is, I was assured that the Senate leader is interested only in expanding his party’s margins in the Senate. “A lot of activists think the party would hold grudges,” one person familiar with Schumer’s thinking told me, asking for anonymity to avoid seeming to favor Fetterman. “The only thing that counts is who’s the best candidate to win in November.”