clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

John Fetterman wins Pennsylvania’s pivotal Senate seat for Democrats

His victory is critical for Democrats’ attempts to hang on to their majority.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman speaks during a campaign event in Newtown, Pennsylvania, on November 6. Fetterman won the state’s Senate seat Tuesday, defeating Republican Mehmet Oz.
Matt Rourke/AP
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has won the state’s Senate seat, defeating Republican candidate and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and maintaining Democrats’ hopes of keeping their majority in the upper chamber.

The race was incredibly close, with Fetterman winning by just over 2 percentage points (as of early Wednesday morning), narrowly eking out a victory after the race tightened in the waning weeks of the campaign.

Democrats had eyed the Pennsylvania Senate seat as a pickup since President Joe Biden won the state in 2020, and Fetterman appeared to be an especially promising candidate. Though he initially had a big lead in the race, Republicans’ spending on ads attacking him on crime, and recent scrutiny of Fetterman’s stroke recovery, contributed to a closer race than initially expected.

“I’m so humbled, thank you so much,” Fetterman said in his victory speech Wednesday morning. “We had our slogan, it’s on every one of those signs right now: ‘Every county, every vote,’ and that’s exactly what happened. We jammed them up, we held the line.”

Fetterman was ultimately able to pull out a win by emphasizing his support for abortion rights, calling out Oz’s New Jersey roots, and stressing how his economic policies would help workers and the middle class. His success could ultimately prove decisive for Senate control, and puts former Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat in Democratic hands for the first time in over a decade.

How did John Fetterman defeat Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania?

Fetterman had been viewed as one of the strongest Democratic candidates this cycle given his focus on economic populism and his potential crossover appeal to former Trump voters. In addition to a more casual and grounded image — one highlighted by his fondness for working in hoodies and gym shorts — that differentiated him from other politicians, Fetterman has backed progressive policies including a $15 minimum wage and Medicare-for-all, while eschewing the progressive label.

Fetterman leaned into his experience in the state to contrast himself with Oz, whom he sought to paint as a carpetbagger. Prior to serving as the state’s lieutenant governor, Fetterman was the mayor of Braddock, a town in western Pennsylvania where he’s said he worked to reduce gun violence in the region.

Broadly, Fetterman has favored criminal justice reforms, which Oz’s campaign used to stoke voter fears about increased crime levels during the pandemic. As chair of the state’s pardon board, Fetterman oversaw a surge of pardons and commuted sentences, a record that Republicans tried to use to falsely suggest that he wants to free dangerous criminals.

Fetterman hit back by arguing that he focused on those who were wrongly convicted, and on people who’d been in jail for decades and were considered by corrections officials to be low safety risks. According to his campaign, no one who was released from prison during Fetterman’s time leading the pardon board has reoffended since.

Fetterman’s defense of his criminal justice record, as well as his steadfast backing of abortion rights, likely helped neutralize some of the critiques he faced and compelled swing voters to shift in his favor. Fetterman has said he would vote to codify the abortion protections of Roe if elected to the Senate, and made the issue a central part of his closing argument.

Questions about his health dogged the final months of his campaign. He released a doctor’s statement establishing that his cognitive abilities weren’t damaged by a stroke he experienced in May. He struggled during a debate in late October, and emphasized that he’s still experiencing auditory processing issues. That led to concern among Democrats that Republican attacks on his health would hurt him. Scrutiny of his stroke recovery didn’t wind up impeding his victory, and he’s said he’ll focus on continuing to recover in the coming months.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.