PHILADELPHIA – John Fetterman is the rare candidate for U.S. Senate who belongs in dive bars like this one in north Philadelphia. But just because your candidacy is calibrated for hipsters – and there were a few dozen of them crammed into the charmingly dingy Billy Murphy’s Irish Saloon here last week – that doesn’t mean they’re going to treat you like a rock star, or even like Bernie Sanders, when you talk.
A few in the youthful crowd clapped when the Democrat Fetterman – who’s known as much for his brawny NFL stature as his unapologetically progressive politics – was introduced. More cheered after Fetterman, 46, declared that marijuana should be made legal.
But by the end of his five-minute speech, many had turned back to munching on their $5 hamburgers and chatting. Fetterman is supposed to be the embodiment of this year’s alleged anti-establishment wave, the mayor of Braddock, a small town near Pittsburgh, who’s trying to topple two better-known, better-funded candidates in Pennsylvania’s open-seat Democratic Senate primary.
But a few fans aside, the people here were not intrigued – certainly not as interested as the tens of thousands who have flocked to rallies for Sanders or Donald Trump. That could explain why, six weeks before the race’s April 26 primary, his campaign is lagging in the polls and starved for money.
For political outsiders in both parties running in House and Senate primaries this year, it’s a surprisingly common story. The success Sanders and Trump have had in the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries has yet to translate down the ballot.
In addition to Fetterman, two outsider candidates in Democratic Senate primaries – Andrea Zopp in Illinois and P.G. Sittenfeld in Ohio – are poised to suffer huge losses Tuesday in their primaries against establishment-backed favorites, according to polls. All House Republican incumbents in Texas won their primaries earlier this month. And Sen. Richard Shelby easily won his GOP primary in Alabama despite Trump’s and Ted Cruz’s popularity in the South, which some conservatives had hoped would give momentum to the incumbent’s conservative challenger.
It’s too early to rule out upsets later in the primary calendar. But this year’s early returns are proof that, compared to the presidential race, harnessing the electorate’s anti-establishment mood is a much harder task in House and Senate contests, according to political strategists.
“I was hoping that anti-Washington, pro-Trump, pro-Cruz, pro-Carson sentiment would boil down into those races,” said David Bossie, president and chairman of the conservative group Citizens United, which opposed Shelby’s re-election. “And what we’re seeing is that, so far, the presidential primaries just suck up so much oxygen that people don’t focus on these other races.”
The difference between outsider campaigns for the House and Senate and outsider campaigns for president comes down to two major factors: media coverage and money. There’s no wall-to-wall cable news coverage of down-ballot efforts. There’s rarely any TV coverage at all, in fact, even from local news, or big stories in digital and print media.
Sanders, for instance, has side-stepped Hillary Clinton’s institutional support by earning media coverage, which has allowed him to spread his message and draw supporters. That in turn has helped him raise money from an army of small-dollar contributors, whose assistance has helped the senator from Vermont exceed Clinton’s monthly fund-raising hauls.
Senate Democratic candidates such as Sittenfeld and Zopp could barely arrange a debate against their well-heeled foes (former Gov. Ted Strickland and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, respectively).
Their money and name recognition suffered: Zopp had more than $3 million less on hand than Duckworth on Feb. 24, according to Federal Election Commission documents. In a February poll from Quinnipiac University, 85 percent of voters didn’t know enough about Sittenfeld, a Cincinnati city councilman, to form an opinion.
Thomas Bowen, a Chicago-based Democratic strategist who has watched the Democratic race in Illinois closely, said that “most outsiders, especially in other down-ballot races, just can’t get free media attention for their outsider message to really break through.”
The coming primary calendar doesn’t offer much hope for those candidates, especially in races featuring incumbents. Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican, facing a primary challenge from a Club for Growth-backed opponent, is believed by many in Washington to be on track to win re-election. In Arizona, Sen. John McCain is viewed as a relatively strong bet to win the Republican primary against former state Sen. Kelli Ward.
Republican outsiders do have opportunities in two open-seat Senate races, in Indiana and Florida, and many Democrats think another Pennsylvania candidate, Rep. Joe Sestak, is just as much an outsider as Fetterman but has a chance to beat establishment candidate Katie McGinty in the primary. However, opportunities are few.
Strategists working on these campaigns don’t dispute that they’ve struggled. But in their mind, they need just one breakthrough moment to summon the attention of an electorate that is predisposed favorably toward their kind of campaigns.
“There is a moment where all these outsider candidates have to prove they can win, and at that moment they become incredibly powerful,” said one Democratic fund raiser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly because he works for the campaign of an outsider candidate. “Until then, they have to live off the land.”
Fetterman supporters have hope that their man can come from behind. Polls suggest state Democrats still haven’t made up their mind, and his unusual persona earns him as much media coverage as his rivals.
Even Fetterman's fans understand the challenges. After he finished posing for a few pictures, Fetterman was about to leave the bar when a young man stopped him. The two struck up a conversation – this Fetterman supporter was a social worker, and the mayor considers himself a social worker in practice if not title. Then the discussion turned to winning.
“Our biggest challenge is getting the message out,” Fetterman told him. His supporter paused before asking if money, then, was the hardest part of the campaign.
Fetterman didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”