In his latest intervention in a major Republican primary, Donald Trump has endorsed Mehmet Oz in the Pennsylvania race to choose a successor to retiring GOP senator Pat Toomey. A cardiothoracic surgeon turned TV star (first as a regular guest of Oprah Winfrey’s, then with his own show) and promoter of various dubious health remedies (including some related to COVID-19), “Dr. Oz,” as he’s known, is a Turkish American from Ohio who has mostly lived in New Jersey (where he and his wife voted in 2020). His main tie to the Keystone State is that he received both medical and business degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. Now that he’s running for the Senate, he is renting property owned by his in-laws.
But Trump, who has upset Republicans in North Carolina and Tennessee by endorsing “carpetbagger” congressional candidates with few ties to the districts they hope to represent, doesn’t care about all that; Oz’s ties to Trump himself are what matters most, as the former president’s statement endorsing him suggests: “I have known Dr. Oz for many years, as have many others, even if only through his very successful television show. He has lived with us through the screen and has always been popular, respected, and smart. He even said that I was in extraordinary health, which made me like him even more (although he also said I should lose a few pounds!).”
Trump also weirdly asserted that “women, in particular, are drawn to Dr. Oz for his advice and counsel. I have seen this many times over the years. They know him, believe in him, and trust him.”
This could well be a veiled reference to the views of Melania Trump, which as NBC News recently reported, is a fan of the candidate her husband just endorsed:
“But this isn’t just about what Melania wants,” said [a top Republican familiar with the conversation], who is neutral in the race and was not authorized to speak publicly. “There are a lot of Melanias out there. There are a lot of women, in whose living room and bedroom TVs Dr. Oz has been for a decade. They have a very personal relationship with Dr. Oz.”
But Trump’s move is going to upset some other key advisers who are backing a different Trumpy carpetbagger in the race. David McCormick is as famous as Oz in financial circles if not elsewhere, as a longtime senior executive with the giant Wall Street hedge-fund investment firm Bridgewater Associates. He is also a graduate of West Point who served as a paratrooper in the first Gulf War (Oz’s service in the Turkish Army isn’t comparable in political value, obviously). Unlike Oz, he is a Pennsylvania native, though he has lived in Connecticut for years and just moved back to the Keystone State on the brink of his Senate race. McCormick, who is married to former Trump national security adviser Dina Powell, has been going hard MAGA in his well-funded campaign, and has already locked up support from several top former Trump administration officials, including Stephen Miller, Hope Hicks, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Robert Lighthizer (all prior to Trump’s endorsement of Oz).
The two wealthy carpetbaggers have been hammering each other in ads as traitors to the MAGA cause, while not so stealthily trying to secure Trump’s endorsement, or at least to deny it to the other. Oz’s problem, other than his dual U.S.-Turkish citizenship (he says he will surrender his Turkish passport if he is elected to the Senate), is his association with showbiz, which in today’s politics automatically means “woke liberal” for some voters. A super-PAC supporting McCormick is going after Oz on this ground:
Reinforcing that image are some random pro-choice and even pro-trans utterances in his largely apolitical past and video of an interview he once did with Michelle Obama.
McCormick’s problem is that Bridgewater Associates did quite a bit of business with the People’s Republic of China, and also managed a Pennsylvania public-school teachers’ retirement fund that did not do well in its investments. Oz has hit the China angle in ads:
Oz isn’t the first candidate Trump has endorsed in this Senate race. The candidacy of his original endorsee, Sean Parnell, imploded last fall. Parnell — an Afghanistan war hero, frequent Fox News guest, and prize 2020 GOP recruit to (unsuccessfully) challenge Democratic congressman Conor Lamb — dropped out last November when he lost custody of his children in proceedings that publicized allegations of domestic abuse. (Parnell, who has endorsed McCormick, bemoaned Trump’s decision on Saturday, calling Oz both “the antithesis of everything that made Trump the best president of my lifetime” and “the farthest thing from America First.”
There are other credible Republican candidates in the primary race as well, though all have been overshadowed by the Oz-McCormick battle: former lieutenant-governor nominee Jeff Bartos, former Trump-administration ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands, and conservative political gabber and former congressional candidate Kathy Barnette.
Based on public polling prior to Trump’s endorsement, the state of the race hasn’t been all that clear. A Fox News poll in early March showed McCormick building a solid nine-point (24-15) lead over Oz, with no one else in striking distance but with a lot of voters still undecided. A more recent (late March) Emerson poll showed the ranks of the undecided swelling to 51 percent, which could show that the attacks the two top candidates have launched on each other are hitting home.
Presumably Trump’s support for Oz will give him a significant if not decisive boost. But a lot depends on how McCormick (and to a lesser extent other candidates) react. If the entire field goes medieval on Oz, it could get interesting.
One thing is certain: If the Republican primary does get even more divisive, the beneficiaries will be the two major Democrats running for the Senate, progressive lieutenant governor John Fetterman and centrist congressman Conor Lamb. Fetterman has led handily in every public poll so far, but there are signs Lamb may go very negative in an effort to show himself as the only electable candidate. If it’s not enough to lift Lamb, then the attacks will likely help Republicans make out Fetterman as too left-wing for Pennsylvania. But at least both Democrats have been living in Pennsylvania for quite some time.
The race could be important nationally. The authoritative Cook Political Report lists nine competitive U.S. Senate races this November that will together determine control of the upper chamber. Five of those races involve seats currently held by Republicans, and two are considered toss-ups: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. While the latter has become highly competitive in recent years (Donald Trump and retiring GOP senator Pat Toomey both won narrowly in 2016), Democrats currently hold the top three elected offices in the state and won the last gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in 2018 by landslides. Joe Biden won Pennsylvania, his native state, by 1.2 percent.
If, as is expected, the 2022 midterms feature a Republican wave, Pennsylvania could easily be caught up in it. But as in other states, Trump’s involvement could change the landscape by making the race a referendum on him and his “stolen election” fables, not just on an unpopular President Biden. And to the extent that David McCormick and Mehmet Oz’s other rivals don’t roll over and concede to Trump’s newly minted candidate, the state’s second referendum on the 45th president may have just begun.
More on the Midterms
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