How the right learned to stop worrying and love John Fetterman

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During the 2022 Senate race in Pennsylvania, Sam DeMarco was outspoken about Democrat John Fetterman: He labeled him a “fraud” and a “human wreck” whose “woke liberal policies” would endanger Pennsylvanians.

DeMarco is the Republican Party chairman in Allegheny County, where Fetterman — now a senator — lives. At the time, he castigated Fetterman as someone who kept finding “a way to fail upward” and questioned how any “reasonable” person could vote for him.

But that was more than a year ago. Now DeMarco has a strange new respect for the senator, which he sees as a welcome surprise.

“A lot of this has surprised me, OK?” DeMarco told NBC News, cautioning that Fetterman’s voting record still leaves a lot to be desired for conservatives. “I never anticipated that he was going to be taking these positions that he has on the issues he has.”

In recent weeks, Fetterman has generated headlines for his staunch support for Israel, his warnings about the influx of migrants, his efforts to eject Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., from Congress amid charges of bribery and other wrongdoing, and even his pushing back against regulations on Zyn, a newly popular nicotine pouch that has become a staple of conservative internet culture.

All those moves come as Fetterman, a former supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, has distanced himself from the left, saying he is “not a progressive.”

As video rocketed around the internet late last month of Fetterman waving an Israeli flag from his rooftop at pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside his home near Pittsburgh, DeMarco tweeted: “Jesus this guy is making me respect him! Never would have thought that would happen.”

DeMarco is hardly alone. In recent weeks, people at all levels of the conservative movement — from online influencers to U.S. senators — are suddenly seeing a lot more they like in Fetterman, a member of Congress who was expected by many to be on his party’s left flank.

“I’m shocked,” a Republican operative who works on Senate races said. “I thought he would be the exact opposite and I would hate him.”

The right is embracing Fetterman as its new favorite Democrat as he has seemingly alienated onetime left-wing allies who see what he’s doing now as anywhere from a disappointment to a betrayal. Fetterman’s unexpectedly loud approach to several cultural hot-button issues has the potential not only to forge new coalitions within the Senate but also to help shape critical elections in the state this fall, as Republicans say he now offers a natural contrast with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who is up for re-election in the critical battleground state.

A quick search on X shows dozens, if not hundreds, of tweets labeling him as “Based Fetterman,” a term of endearment on the right. A prominent conservative who once described Fetterman’s views as “terrible” spoke recently about having “never been more wrong about a politician in my life.”

Dave Reaboi, a pro-Ron DeSantis conservative commentator, posted that Fetterman was actually “kicking ass on the very issues Trump’s buddy Dr. Oz would be terrible on,” calling out Mehmet Oz, the Republican who lost to Fetterman in 2022.

Speaking with NBC News, Reaboi said warnings from some conservatives not to make “too much” of Fetterman’s rhetoric because he will eventually “break our heart” miss the impact of his actions.

“He was brave enough on some of these big issues to come out and speak and be good,” he said. “We should definitely give him an attaboy and put it in the context of who we could have had in that seat. You know, it’s not bad.”

Fetterman is embracing the newfound appreciation. Last week, he attended the Washington Press Club Foundation’s dinner as a guest of the Washington Examiner, a conservative outlet. And he made a surprise appearance at the birthday party for Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., as she posted on X.

“People on both sides of the aisle thought they had John pegged a certain way. It’s been interesting to watch people on both sides realize that they were wrong. Some people are mad about it, and others are happy about it,” said Adam Jentleson, Fetterman’s chief of staff. “If people are pleasantly surprised to find out that John is not the hard-left socialist he was portrayed as during the campaign, then it’s an opportunity to maybe work together and get some things done.”

And opportunity has arisen. Fetterman said he has spoken with Republicans about their shared belief in stricter border and asylum laws as the Senate takes up legislation that includes new immigration provisions. And Republicans say he is helping their prospects to reach a legislative deal by swatting down suggestions on the left that the legislation is xenophobic.

“I don’t think it’s so much his philosophy as it is just his independence,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “He seems to not be tethered to any club, so to speak. And that’s evidenced by his dress code, evidenced by his demeanor. So I’m surprised, but when I think about it, I probably shouldn’t be.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said of Fetterman, who is 6-feet-8: “He’s growing taller and taller in my esteem. And he’s already a pretty tall guy.”

Fetterman’s not giving an inch on Israel and at times sounding very much like a conservative himself have disgruntled left-wing allies. But he and allies point to positions he took on Israel in his last campaign, as well as years of distancing from the progressive label, as evidence that it isn’t some sudden evolution. Fetterman hasn’t distanced himself from the left-wing economic policies he campaigned on.

Melissa Byrne, a progressive organizer and former Sanders campaign adviser, isn’t at all surprised. She was sounding the alarm on Fetterman during the 2022 Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania, posting that Fetterman, who was then the lieutenant governor, changes who he is “each cycle.” Then, she called him “the second coming” of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., the former Democrat who left the party last year.

Byrne said Fetterman’s moderate positioning after having aligned with the left “creates alienation” and “distrust in government” with key voting groups.

“It’s a bummer,” she said, taking particular issue with how Fetterman treats others, whether they be protesters opposing his position on Israel or fellow Democratic officials he doesn’t see eye to eye with.

A big part of Fetterman’s successful 2022 campaign bid was his social media strategy — particularly his adeptness at internet trolling — even as he was off the trail for months because of a serious stroke he suffered. Now, he’s calling out members of his own party, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“People remember how you make them feel,” Byrne said. “And going into an election year in a swing state, him alienating all these people who do the grunt work of knocking doors and making phone calls just to, what, ‘own the libs’ or ‘own the left’ and just be troll-ey? How is that helpful?”

Fetterman was surprised by the backlash to his rejection of the progressive label in December. While his social media feeds filled up with users pointing to examples of his identifying as a progressive before the 2020 election, he began backing away from the label when he began running for the Senate. In an April 2021 interview at his home in Braddock, near Pittsburgh, he said, “I don’t know if I consider myself a progressive.”

Jentleson argued that comparisons to Manchin and Sinema fall flat because Fetterman “will always stick to his guns when it comes to economic populism.” In recent weeks, Fetterman pledged to block a merger between U.S. Steel and a Japanese steelmaker, expressed solidarity with striking newsroom workers and sent a fundraising email mocking Republicans for speaking out against a bill to expand the child tax credit. He’s an outspoken proponent of raising the federal minimum wage, even if it means abolishing the filibuster to achieve it. Over his first year in office, Fetterman’s voting record is in line with much of his party.

For Reaboi, there’s no obvious political reason for Fetterman to take the stances he has.

“I don’t actually think it’s calculated. I don’t think it’s positioning,” he said, adding, “People don’t know what to do with this guy.”

Many conservatives have speculated without any evidence that Fetterman’s outspokenness on several issues was the result of his stroke or the month and a half he spent at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington to be treated for clinical depression he said came about after his health scare.

Jentleson offered a different explanation, pointing to Fetterman’s upbringing in York, Pennsylvania — a consistently red part of the state — with a family full of Republicans.

With Pennsylvania set to play a pivotal role in the battles for control of both the Senate and the White House, Republicans said they may play up any contrasts between Fetterman’s positioning on key issues with that of Casey, who looks as though he will face Republican Dave McCormick. Even when Casey and Fetterman are aligned, Fetterman’s outspokenness could be weaponized against Casey, who is in his third term, though Republicans say it’s too early to say whether any money will be put behind highlighting such contrasts.

“If you went back to the beginning of 2023 and you were like, ‘Who’s going to be the more moderate senator from Pennsylvania — Bob Casey or John Fetterman?’ I don’t think people would have said John Fetterman,” said a second Republican operative who works on Senate races.

Fetterman performed a hair better in 2022 among Pennsylvania Republicans than President Joe Biden did in 2020, but even some of his new fans say that ultimately, he won’t have their votes when he’s next up for election in 2028.

“I don’t think we agree on about 60% of the issues, but at least he’s not acting completely irrational,” said Joey Mannarino, a pro-Trump internet personality from Pennsylvania. “Now, is some of that the fact that he knows Pennsylvania is more of a swing state than people want to believe? Sure. But I actually do think he’s a relatively sensible person on some of the issues. With that being said, he would never have my vote.”

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