Bob Casey
Susan Walsh/AP

John Fetterman Is Setting the Tone for Bob Casey’s Reelection

Bob Casey and John Fetterman are one of the Senate’s signature odd couples. Casey’s Republican opponent is trying to create a wedge between them.

The brash and unconventional style that made John Fetterman a national name is now putting his Democratic colleague, Bob Casey Jr., in an awkward position — just as the three-term incumbent faces his toughest-ever campaign.

The two senators from Pennsylvania, at times, appear to be from different worlds. Fetterman, in his traditional hoodie and shorts, is adept at making his way into a headline, whether that’s for mocking progressive protesters or ridiculing an indicted colleague. Casey, the son of a beloved former governor, prefers traditional suits and a quieter demeanor.

Since Fetterman joined the Senate last year, Casey has been forced to grapple with the conspicuous differences in tone and substance between himself and his colleague. That’s been especially true when the state’s junior senator bucks his party in a way that angers progressives while impressing Republicans. Even when the two men agree, such as on Israel’s war in Gaza, Fetterman’s rhetoric often goes further than Casey’s, overshadowing the senior senator in a way his critics contend makes him look tame and ideologically rigid by comparison.

Republicans plan on calling attention to that gap early and often this campaign.

“It does put Bob Casey between the dog and tree on a couple of issues,” said Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist based in Pennsylvania. “And it’s going to be another factor that forces Casey to take real positions on issues for the first time in his life.”

Democrats counter that Fetterman and Casey share many of the same beliefs, and, on balance, Fetterman remains an important ally regardless of their differences.

But the early attention on Fetterman underscores the outsized role he will play in Pennsylvania’s Senate race despite not appearing on the ballot. Both Casey and his presumed GOP opponent, David McCormick, are now aiming to use Fetterman’s high profile to their benefit.

“Bob Casey and John Fetterman are in every way the odd couple, but they’ve found the assignments that each work for them and allow a certain degree of latitude,” said Jeff Coleman, a Republican strategist in the state.

But in the Senate, Fetterman has also reacted to events and embraced positions in ways Casey hasn’t. Only Fetterman, for instance, has flat-out rejected the “progressive” label.

Both have said they want President Joe Biden to prioritize border security, but only one has suggested that a population the size of Pittsburgh is crossing the border every year and drawn praise from conservative media. Fetterman made national headlines for his views on border security more than a month before Biden negotiated a proposed immigration deal that saw many Democrats pivot to the center on the issue.

Fetterman and Casey may both be against a cease-fire in Gaza, but only one of the two waved an Israeli flag from a roof during a pro-cease-fire protest.

McCormick has repeatedly called attention to the differences in how Fetterman and Casey respond to events. Republicans say it’s something they expect to do regularly in this campaign.

“This race is going to come down to leadership, and where Senator Fetterman has shown moral clarity on important issues, Senator Casey has regularly come up short,” McCormick campaign spokesperson Elizabeth Gregory said.

The Casey campaign brushed off the senators’ differences.

“Senator Casey is proud to work with Senator Fetterman to deliver for Pennsylvanians and knows Senator Fetterman will have his back during this campaign,” campaign spokesperson Maddy McDaniel said in a statement.

Both the Casey and Fetterman campaigns also emphasized their similar stance on Israel. “Everyone in Pennsylvania knows that Senator Casey has long been a staunch supporter of Israel,” a Fetterman campaign spokesperson said.

And even as he gives Republicans a persistent talking point, Fetterman can give Casey something he otherwise largely lacks: an edge.

Fetterman has a long history of taking on the attack role for a more buttoned-up senior politician. As lieutenant governor under Gov. Tom Wolf, Fetterman described himself as Wolf’s “anger translator,” stepping in with sometimes colorful language to talk about legalizing cannabis and raising the state’s minimum wage.

He did the same for now-Gov. Josh Shapiro, who campaigned alongside Fetterman in 2022. On abortion, Shapiro said, “Whenever an anti-choice bill reaches my desk, I will veto it. Every time.”

In response, Fetterman tweeted: “Anger translation: Gonna veto that shit 💯.”

“John was proud to serve as the ‘anger translator’ to Gov. Wolf when he served as lieutenant governor, and he is willing and eager to do that again for Senator Casey,” Eric Stern, a senior adviser to the Fetterman campaign, told NOTUS.

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Fetterman is already acting as surrogate anger translator against McCormick, regularly posting memes criticizing McCormick’s connection to Connecticut, as he did in 2022 against his own Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz.

Casey is content to take the quieter role, but he’s shown comfort in campaigning alongside the louder Fetterman.

Casey was one of Fetterman’s strongest surrogates in 2022. After suffering a stroke that brought his campaigning to a standstill, Casey quickly became an in-person surrogate and vocal spokesperson on behalf of Fetterman at a time when his lack of public appearances raised questions about his viability.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen a candidate in recent history who is better prepared to serve the people of our state as a United States senator from Pennsylvania,” he told reporters in June 2023, less than a month after Fetterman’s stroke.

That partnership continued on in the Senate as Fetterman joined the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which Casey chairs. And Casey came to Fetterman’s defense last year when Fetterman checked himself in for treatment for clinical depression.

“Casey and Fetterman really grew to like each other, and Casey was very supportive of Fetterman during the race,” one Pennsylvania Democratic strategist told NOTUS. “You don’t necessarily look at them and say, like, these guys look like they’d be best buddies, but they seem to occupy different spaces.”

Two senators from the same state and same party sometimes fall into similar political lanes, which can lead to competition. But for Casey and Fetterman, “they have such different political identities, I think that actually helps,” the strategist said.

“It’s not like he was an unknown quantity to the state, but I do think he was not as well known as Casey is,” said Matt Caffrey, director of community organizing with Swing Left, a national group organizing grassroots support for battleground races.

Today, Fetterman is a far cry from an unknown quantity. Nationally and to younger Democrats in the state less aware of the Casey dynasty, Fetterman has eclipsed Casey in visibility. As a campaign surrogate, Fetterman can play a key role in stumping for Casey among those groups, Caffrey said.

“[Fetterman] is appealing to voters that maybe are turned off by some of the formality or rigidness of our political discourse,” Caffrey said. “Showing up in a hoodie and shorts to a campaign rally is just gonna be different; it’s gonna reach a different set of people, and I think that’s really refreshing for a lot of voters.”

But even as the Casey campaign looks to Fetterman as a surrogate, it’s still Casey on the ballot. Republican strategists doubted how much the junior senator’s fame — and perhaps to progressives, infamy — would affect turnout for Casey in November, particularly in a presidential year.

“I really don’t think this election is going to be determined by how much Casey contrasts with Fetterman,” said former Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Charlie Dent. “It’s going to come down to Trump and Biden, and which one of those two wins. The winner of that race will likely determine the Senate outcome.”

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow. Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS.