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Pennsylvania Senate contests will be some of the most closely watched this year

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Now a trip to Pennsylvania, which is home to one of this year's most closely watched U.S. Senate contests. Two-term Republican Pat Toomey is retiring. The top Republicans in the race to replace him are a TV personality, Dr. Mehmet Oz, better known as Dr. Oz, and a former hedge fund manager, David McCormick. But it's also considered a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats, whose top contenders we'll be looking at right now - three very different personalities all taking very different approaches to campaigning.

We're in a parking lot in Clarion, Penn., about an hour and a half northeast of Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania primary is just about three months away. That means campaigning is really starting to pick up. That's why we're here, to see the lieutenant governor who's running for U.S. Senate, Democrat John Fetterman.

JOHN FETTERMAN: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good. I tried to make a bet on if you'd wear shorts or not.

GONYEA: The building is a brewpub open early and serving coffee to about 60 local Democrats who have shown up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thanks for coming out to see us. I appreciate how you really - I see you on TV, how you fight, you know, take the...

GONYEA: The candidate has five stops on this day, all in Trump country. The former president lost the state in 2020 but still carried rural PA by wide margins. Local Democrats are thrilled Fetterman has shown up here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Coming into enemy territory. It's good.

FETTERMAN: No, not enemy territory, just friends we haven't met yet.

GONYEA: Fetterman's working the room, taking selfies. It's cold outside, but his campaign wardrobe today - shorts and an oversized Carhartt sweatshirt.

Fetterman's image is that of the anti-politician. He has tattoos, shaved head, chin beard, listens to heavy metal in his truck. His stump speech is short and informal and hits topics important to working-class voters.

FETTERMAN: How's your broadband up here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Awful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Terrible.

FETTERMAN: It is awful. And If you believe that 7.25 as a minimum wage is plenty, I'm probably not your candidate.

Have you found health care useful in your life? I have.

We need to continually make more and more stuff in our country. I just fundamentally believe that.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Fetterman is from western Pennsylvania, far from the state's major population center in and around Philadelphia to the east. He's been a small-town mayor. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2018. Early afternoon, it was another event in another small community, Smethport. More than 100 people showed up at a local fire hall.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: In an interview, I asked Fetterman about the drive over - 90 minutes on back roads, rolling past countless signs and banners reading Trump-Pence, Trump 2024, impeach Biden, plus those with a four-letter word next to Biden's name.

FETTERMAN: And some folks would say, why would you waste your time? And I'm like, because you have rooms like this, and you have people that have the same core values and same issues as you do. And if you don't show up and you don't engage, then who else are they going to listen to?

GONYEA: He says there are Democrats out here. You meet them. And maybe some others will give a listen as well. Fetterman describes himself as a progressive, but he likes to say things he supported years ago, like the $15 minimum wage, are now the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Another thing Fetterman promises - that he'll be tough on Republicans and that he can play hardball as well as they can.

Today, you were talking about the Republican Party and describing them as united and ruthless.

FETTERMAN: Yeah. When it comes to achieving a goal that they want, they are united and ruthless. When it came to blocking Merrick Garland's appointment to the Supreme Court, they were united and ruthless. When it comes to driving out the impurity in the party in terms of, like, the Liz Cheneys and the Adam Kinzingers, they are ruthless and united because they do not tolerate dissent. And why can't Democrats embrace that philosophy but for working families?

GONYEA: Fetterman is the early front-runner, and he's raised the most money so far. But another leading contender is U.S. Congressman Conor Lamb, a moderate Democrat who represents a western Pennsylvania district where he has shown he can win in a place that's closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. In appearance and style, Lamb and Fetterman are opposites. Look no further than Lamb's Facebook profile, which says, quote, "marine, prosecutor, patriot, Catholic, Democrat." But call Lamb the centrist candidate in the race, and you get a reply like this.

CONOR LAMB: Yeah, well, I'm not really big on the term centrist because when I hear centrist, what I think of is someone who just looks at where the two extremes are and jumps in the halfway point regardless of what they actually believe. You know, I have things I really believe in, and I've been campaigning on them and voting for them for four years.

GONYEA: This is from an event two days ago in the former steel town of Bethlehem. The speaker is Mayor Willie Reynolds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM REYNOLDS: OK. It is absolutely wonderful to be here to announce my support and my endorsement for...

GONYEA: Congressman Lamb describes himself as a strong supporter of President Biden's agenda, especially the infrastructure plan that was passed with bipartisan support and the so-called Build Back Better proposals which have not passed. They are designed to address what's known as human infrastructure, things that include funding for home health care and for the transition to jobs in energy-efficient industries. And ultimately, Lamb says, his resume and his record make him the one that can beat a Republican in the fall in Pennsylvania.

LAMB: I think the overriding issue in the primary is simply who can stand a chance to win the general election. And my experience is that I've beaten Republicans three times in a row in tough districts and under a big spotlight, and so, you know, I've been making the case that that qualifies me to be the one to carry our banner this year. And I also think my work in Congress and especially my votes in Congress on many of the most important issues give people a little bit of certainty about how I would perform as a senator.

GONYEA: The third leading Democrat running for the U.S. Senate seat is State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta. He represents North Philadelphia in the state House. He too has his eye on working-class voters. He says that's the community he grew up in.

MALCOLM KENYATTA: Being a working person is not about dressing a certain way. It's about your life experiences and what it means to have to look your kids in the eyes, as my parents had to look me in the eyes, and say, baby, I don't know what we're going to do this week. For us, we understand that our story is grounded in a reality that so many other people share.

GONYEA: Kenyatta says he'll campaign all across the state and that he'll rally Democrats wherever they are, but he also stresses that he's the one who can drive turnout in the state's urban areas, especially with the Black vote.

KENYATTA: It is going to be critical that we have massive, massive turnout in southeastern Pennsylvania. If folks want to win this race, then you know what? We're going to have to have a lot of people turnout in southeastern Pennsylvania as well as everywhere across the state.

GONYEA: He's also running in hopes of seeing two barriers crumble. He wants to be Pennsylvania's first Black U.S. senator. Kenyatta would also be the first statewide officeholder who's a member of the LGBTQ community.

KENYATTA: Because I inhabit so many different communities, we're going to be well-positioned to bring people together. And I'll just end with this note. When you know what it's like to be treated differently because of who you are, you think about that in policy.

GONYEA: Back at the fire hall in Smethport after that John Fetterman event, most of those we talked to were either Fetterman supporters or leaning that way. But many also said they don't yet know which Democrat they'll support. Then there was the Republican we spoke with. His name is Francis Auriemmo. He voted for Trump but said he's open to possibly supporting Fetterman in the general election.

FRANCIS AURIEMMO: You know, just his thoughts on revitalization - that shows promise. Now, it's my understanding, when he was mayor, he did do a lot. And if he had that much energy for his own town, he just might have that much energy for the state.

GONYEA: But this is a Democratic primary, and Republicans can't vote in it. And many Pennsylvania Democrats aren't banking on many votes from the other side in the general election. And at these events, you do sense the anxiety that they feel at the start of a midterm election year when historic trends show that the party that holds the White House takes a beating. Take Marty Wilder. She's the chairperson of the McKean County Democrats.

MARTY WILDER: I'm terrified, in all honesty. I can just see what's going on. I don't know what's going to happen. And being in the middle of Trump country up here, it's a little bit scary. I'm honest. I don't know where the country's going.

GONYEA: In a few months, Pennsylvania will have a Democratic Senate nominee. It's that person's notion of where the votes are that will ultimately shape the fall campaign. So that's one slice of the story from Pennsylvania. We'll be watching it and covering it all year, tracking candidates from both major parties and watching the voters watch them.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAFORM'S "CRUSH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.