just asking questions

John Fetterman’s Team on How a Stroke Changed His Campaign

Photo: Nate Smallwood/Getty Images

In 2016, John Fetterman’s campaign for Senate didn’t make it beyond the Democratic primary, in which he finished third. Six years later, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor took another shot at the Senate, only this time, days before the primary, he faced a more serious obstacle: a stroke that threatened his life, his chances of winning, and the Democratic majority in Washington.

Then, according to Rebecca Katz, who worked on both of Fetterman’s Senate campaigns, something unexpected happened: The stroke deepened voters’ connection to the candidate beyond his Carhartt persona. During an interview on Thursday, the senior campaign adviser talked about how the team regrouped after Fetterman’s health crisis, the controversy around debating Mehmet Oz, and how they managed to win.

The campaign ran on this mantra of “Every county, every vote.” What did that strategy look like in practice? 

It just meant never taking anyone’s vote for granted and literally going and asking for votes. John was mayor of a forgotten community that folks had given up on long ago, but he went in there, first just to help kids get their GEDs and later by running for mayor. To win Pennsylvania, Democrats try to run up the score in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and basically forget about the rest of the state. And when I say Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, I mean the media market. John just felt we were missing folks and we shouldn’t give up on them. So we didn’t. We knew we had something special. We launched in the middle of COVID, so it took a little while to start. Our first big event was in Mercer County, a red county in northwestern Pennsylvania, and John was basically mobbed — hundreds came out. It just felt like they finally had someone who saw them in a real way. John always said it wasn’t about turning red counties blue; it was about the margins in those areas.

Your team made it through a primary against two well-liked candidates, Malcolm Kenyatta and Conor Lamb, only to receive the news that your candidate had suffered a stroke. There’s the professional side of the effects it could have, but there’s also the personal side for you as someone who has worked with the lieutenant governor for many years. What was that moment like? 

It was extremely chaotic. I didn’t actually know what was happening. It took a while to get to the doctor’s and get the facts. I knew something was wrong. I’ve talked to John almost every day for years. I believe in him very much, and it was a moment where I didn’t know what was happening. It scared me. And then I saw him and then I knew it was going to be okay. You know, John has three young kids, and they are at the center of so much of who he is. And Gisele is sunshine. I remember getting there and she just said, “Everything’s gonna be fine.” When I finally talked to a doctor, they said he would make a full recovery, and he’s on his way.

I drove from the Lancaster hospital directly to our Election Night party, and it was just a very surreal experience. I was doing okay and then when we won the 67th county, when we won my city of Philadelphia, that was bittersweet. To feel that joy of knowing our theory of the case was correct and then not having John there to celebrate felt devastating.

Did you expect that level of negativity from Oz and the opposing side about the stroke?

You know, Oz was always trying to pretend to be Mr. Nice Guy. So when his staffer said that if John had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, he wouldn’t have had a stroke, I thought they would have to fire her because that shit is repulsive. And then he did this weird dance where he said, “She’s on my staff, but she doesn’t speak for me.” And I was like, buddy, she’s your spokeswoman. She speaks for you. That’s the fucking job. I thought it was just the nastiest, ugliest kind of politics I’ve ever seen, and I’m from Philly! People remembered that line up through Election Day.

Once you knew John was okay and you had to look forward, how did you all manage to regroup? 

We were able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We left John alone for a minute to let him recover, and the team got right down to business. Brendan McPhillips was brought in as our campaign manager. We did focus groups and research right away. We knew exactly what people thought of Oz and what people thought of John. Now you’ve got to remember the Republican primary was nasty and xenophobic, and it was a different kind of hate. We were never going to be a mean campaign. We might be funny, but we were never going to be mean. So we were doing these groups and it seemed that everybody was like, “Well, he’s from New Jersey, right? Why is he running in Pennsylvania?” And so we decided to have a little fun with New Jersey, and it was fun. After everything that had been happening, it was great to have fun again.

Political campaigns deal with serious issues, but do you think there’s this area where candidates can be a little more like themselves?

Somehow at some point, I think the Democratic Party lost its way and started trying to do these, like, cookie-cutter, milquetoast, very bland candidates. And that does not work against today’s Republican Party. I think we need candidates who want to stand for something. This is an old saying, I think it’s Axelrod’s, “If you give voters a choice between ‘strong and wrong’ and ‘weak and right,’ they’ll pick the strong candidate every time.”

In the beginning, there was more of a lighter tone from the campaign, from the Snooki video to the jokes about Oz’s New Jersey ties. But then you start to see another side of John following the stroke, where he spoke more directly about what he had been through and the impact it had on his family. What was it like having to juggle these two sides of the campaign?

I mean, it was tricky, no doubt about it. We wanted to be real with people. When I heard John hadn’t gone to the doctor in five years — because the doctor originally told us that, we’re gonna tell people that. There were so many Pennsylvanians who said, “He sounds just like my husband. My husband doesn’t go to the doctor either.” We got a lot of messages about how this helped other folks go to the doctor who hadn’t been in a long time. And, you know, there’s a lot of stubborn people who don’t want to go to the doctor, and our hope was that John could talk about his journey a bit so others might take similar action.

Were you surprised at how it panned out with voters relating to John’s experience? 

There were a lot of elite guesses about how this race would turn out, and I think they were all wrong. They misjudged John and his connection with voters at every turn. Something that maybe they would find unappealing is not the same as what voters consider disqualifying. John was human. That’s what we said from the start, flaws and all. And people accepted that.

To me, there were a number of media fails in this race, but the biggest one was the takeaway from the debate. There was a major blunder onstage at the debate — it was when Dr. Oz said abortion was a decision between women, their doctors, and local political leaders. We knew that immediately. We cut an ad that night about it.

Between, I would say, elite reporters and Establishment Democrats, they literally lost their minds after the debate, and the knives were out for us. I mean, people were on record saying how this had cost us the election. But voters understood that what John did under enormously challenging circumstances took a lot of fucking courage, and they didn’t hold it against him. It only showed folks he was human, and too often candidates are not human. People definitely didn’t think Dr. Oz was human, that’s for sure.

Was there ever a moment when you guys considered not doing the debate? 

We knew it would be very difficult. The No. 1 thing people tell us when you’re recovering from a stroke is to make sure the survivor is around as little stress as possible, right? There was nothing more stressful than trying to win this Senate seat and having this pivotal debate be a part of it. And I was worried about that level of stress leading up to the debate. There was disagreement in the team, I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t, about whether we should or should not do the debate. We decided to do one debate, and we decided to try to do it with closed captioning. It worked much better in prep. And we did it and it was a lot of work and it was a grueling exercise.

What did John think about his performance and how everything went that night?

I mean, you got to understand that we held our own. The press coverage the next day in the statewide papers was “Candidates spar” or “Candidates trade barbs.” It was fine. The news coverage of the event, the TV local news, was fine. And then Democrats and Washington pundits lost their minds and day-two stories became “Dems fret.”

A lot of people who go on TV thought John was bad on TV. But a lot of other people thought this was a guy who’s doing his best, who’s reading closed captions, and is trying because he wants to fight for us.

An unexpected outcome of this situation was having more of a public discussion about health issues and accessibility and what that would look like in the political world. Did you ever expect that to happen? 

Not really. He was recovering in real time. A popular line we said was “In January, John’s gonna be better, but Oz will still be a fraud.” And that’s the thing. For a stroke, it takes six months, a year, 18 months. There were all these different levels of improvement. So he had a stroke in May, and he is still in the middle of his recovery, so we weren’t necessarily prepared to have a discussion about disability because we’re still on the road to recovery. So it was like making the plane as you are trying to fly the plane. But from the very first interview he gave in July, we were very clear that John was using closed captions, and to his credit, he does it very well. And that is why we attempted to bring NBC News in for a look behind the curtain. When you see John on TV, this is what it actually looks like; this is what he sees. And we wanted to show that especially before the debate so people understood.

Were you surprised that the closed captioning became such a talked-about issue?

I was floored by the coverage — not necessarily in a good way. The interview itself was shocking because of the way that they, I believe, treated John like he was an animal in the zoo. I remember there was this line in a story that “staff required us,” the word required, “required us to use closed captions.” Actually, that was the whole point of the interview, to show that. And then obviously the line about small talk. What was so heartening is tons of other people had that same reaction, and within 24 hours of that interview, we had an extra million dollars in donations with little notes. Like, I’m rooting for you, you’re doing it, you’re doing the damn thing. We knew we were tapping into something, right? People were connecting with him. When he was on the trail, he had that line where he would say — and this was all John — “How many of you had or know someone who had a stroke?” And all these hands go up. So while these pundits were like just berating him for not being perfect, regular people saw someone they knew in him, if not themselves.

Election Day arrives, and it’s what everything has been building toward. Walk me through how the campaign was feeling that day. Did you have specific targets you were looking at? 

I mean, I felt great and was at peace and then everybody else made me nervous. So we were looking at a few bellwethers: Erie, Northampton, Bucks. We were looking at turnout. The first thing we learned was that Democratic turnout had outperformed both 2010 and 2014. We knew that right away; that was heartening. So the worst wasn’t going to happen. Then we started seeing the numbers come in from the rural counties, and John was outperforming Biden in every single one of them. Then when we got the final numbers on Erie, I think we won Erie by nine points, eight to nine points, and that is when we knew. That was the bellwether of bellwethers. Erie holds a special place in John’s heart. It’s where we went, you know, for his first event after the stroke, and that got us emotional.

We had written a memo the day before, saying, “Buckle up and prepare for a long week.” And then they declared him the winner that night. I’d said good-bye to my kids a week earlier like I was going off to war, you know, in terms of not knowing when I would be back.

We were trying to write a speech. We didn’t know we were gonna give a victory speech that night. We definitely did not want to jinx ourselves. You should know that campaign staffers, like athletes, are very superstitious. They have certain jackets and vests and shoes that they wear. I mean, I kept knocking on wood. So we kept tweaking how we talked about, like, well, things look good or things are heading in the right direction. I was just like, “You gotta say you won.” And it’s getting closer and closer to saying that he won, and he just kept saying, “Are we sure?” And then NBC News declared him the winner. I pointed at the TV, like, Look! It’s not just me saying this. We have all of our numbers people. The only votes left are in the Philadelphia area. Oz cannot make up for what he lost in those rural red areas where you increased on his margin. And then we said let’s go give the speech, and he did and it was really fun. That was an Election Night we all got to celebrate together. The primary had been so emotional without him and then finally we got to savor it together. It was special.

What did you personally learn from this experience? 

I’m too old for this. I mean, I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns. This was my third try for a Pennsylvania Senate race. I’ve had this theory of the case that our candidates need to be a lot more likable and have a lot more backbone. There’s this whole “This will never work in a purple state. This only works in bright-blue districts” or this and that. We as a party need better candidates. Obama came in for us and it was fucking magical, let me tell you. But he’s been out of office for how many years now? Where’s our bench? Like, we can’t just keep hogging these seats with members of Congress who have been there for decades. We need to give people something to get excited about besides all of their rights being taken away.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Fetterman’s Team on How the Stroke Changed His Campaign