A look at Pennsylvania’s Senate Democratic primary
Are there any lessons for West Virginia?
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John Fetterman wins PA primary
This article in this morning’s Salon nicely sums up last night’s Democratic Party’s nomination for Democratic senator:
Centrist Conor Lamb loses by 30 points despite Joe Manchin's endorsement and millions from Wall St.
From the article:
Fetterman—who has vowed to be a decisive Senate vote in favor of abortion rights, pro-labor legislation, and abolishing the filibuster—went on to emphasize the stakes of the upcoming contest between him and the Republican nominee, a race that will determine who fills the seat left open by Sen. Pat Toomey's, R-Pa., retirement.
His political stances clearly differentiated him from his chief Democratic opponent, Representative Conor Lamb who, not surprisingly, had the endorsement of WV’s Joe Manchin. From Vanity Fair:
The Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary was billed along ideological lines; Lamb in the moderate, centrist lane, often boasting the benefits of bipartisanship, and Fetterman, conversely, positioning himself as a progressive outsider in the race. While Lamb’s traction in the polls wasn’t substantial, his endorsements were, with the backing of labor unions, the mayors of both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and many state representatives, including those from critical suburban districts. Notably, Lamb initially buddied up to Joe Manchin—a “moderate” if there ever was one—before seemingly distancing himself after the West Virginia senator scuttled a series of critical Democratic priorities.
Fetterman won big
He won by 30 points, and it was everywhere in Pennsylvania. Yes, everywhere:
John Fetterman won all 67 Pennsylvania counties last night in his Democratic Primary election for US Senate. Even taking Philly by a few percentage points, where it was predicted he would do poorly https://t.co/qUGp15p6AJ pic.twitter.com/2Vj1hbiqmW— Ryan Deto (@RyanDeto) May 18, 2022
An old political definition of Pennsylvania: "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with West Virginia in-between”
I grew up, was educated, and began my teaching career in Pennsylvania. Most of my adult life there was spent outside the Democratic urban centers whose presence make Pennsylvania a different state from West Virginia. Consequently, when I moved to the northern panhandle of West Virginia, I saw little difference in people’s political attitudes in my adopted state compared to those I had left behind. And while West Virginia was considered a more Democratic state, it was a different kind of Democrat; the WV Democrats reminded me of the Republicans I knew in Pennsylvania – they had the same political attitudes even if it was with a different political affiliation. Obviously, that has changed – a lot of those WV Democrats are now proudly Republican.
Today’s West Virginia political landscape: the Trump Party and the Manchin Party
In the last year, I’ve blogged a number of times about the Trump Party which has replaced the Republican Party in West Virginia. Just as dominating, if not as obvious, I think a similar argument can be made that the Democratic Party has become the Manchin Party. On the state-level, the Democratic Party apparently makes no important moves without Manchin’s, or one of his lieutenant’s, consent. (If you know anyone familiar with the state Democratic hierarchy, ask them about it sometime.) New ideas? Different perspectives? Don’t bother looking for them in either political party.
Progressives in West Virginia politics: the case of Paula Jean Swearengin
Could West Virginia elect a John Fetterman? I don’t know. A quick glance at the recent attempts by progressive Paula Jean Swearengin, challenging Manchin in the 2018 Democratic primary and then running as the Democratic nominee against Shelley Moore Capito in the 2020 general election, would, at first glance, suggest otherwise; Swearengin lost to Manchin by 39% and to Capito by 43%. With those numbers, it would appear to be hard to argue for progressive challengers in WV.
But for someone who has looked closely at those elections, there’s a lot more going on. First, Swearengin obviously received no Party support in challenging Manchin in 2018 and still received 30% of the vote. In 2020, I could find next-to-no political or monetary support from the Democratic Party in her challenge to Capito. Swearengin also received minimal coverage from WV media in both contests. For instance: locally, Swearengin’s name appeared exactly one time in Ogden papers from primary day to election day in her challenge to Capito, while the senator was covered frequently, often with extended feature articles. In both of those elections, I assume that most voters were unaware that Swearengin was even a candidate. In that light, I would consider that her 30% and 27% against these established candidates was a lot more than what might be expected. Yes, this progressive challenger was beaten but I’m not sure that means that any progressive challenger is doomed.
A quick tangent on ”a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm”
Yes, that’s how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “charisma,” a term that may be easy to define but difficult to possess. (It should also be noted that “charisma” can be used negatively by a leader as well as positively. See Trump, Donald.) The field of political rhetoric has long studied what it is, who has it, and how it is used, but it still has difficulty explaining how it is acquired, and why the person affects us so personally. (Note -- there is a whole school of thought that charisma can’t be acquired – you have to be born with it.) I believe the term can be applied to Fetterman and may explain at least some of his popularity. We shall see how far it takes him in Pennsylvania.
Back to the opening question: could a John Fetterman Democrat win in West Virginia?
My sense is that the Manchin Party wouldn’t let such a person happen. What do you think?