Trump's endorsement of Oz reframes the Pennsylvania GOP Senate contest
The Republican primary in the high-stakes Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race has been reshaped since former President Donald Trump offered a coveted endorsement.
Mehmet Oz, the celebrity TV doctor who received Trump's backing earlier this month, has cited the endorsement as proof of his conservative credentials.
And the campaign of Oz's chief rival, former hedge fund CEO David McCormick, has responded by quickly launching ads designed to blunt the endorsement. One uses archival video to question Oz's conservative beliefs. Another has McCormick surrounded by fellow motorcyclists who are holding Trump flags.
Both GOP candidates had lobbied hard for the former president's endorsement.
Trump's decision surprised and angered some conservatives. But Trump, a former reality TV star himself, made it clear that Oz's celebrity was a big factor in his choice.
"Tremendous, tremendous career," Trump said at a recent rally. "And they liked him for a long time. That's like a poll. You know, when you're on television for 18 years, that's like a poll."
He's also said he thinks Oz is more likely to win over a swath of Pennsylvania voters.
"Women, in particular, are drawn to Dr. Oz for his advice and counsel," Trump said in a statement announcing his endorsement. "I have seen this many times over the years. They know him, believe in him, and trust him."
The open Senate race is likely to be crucial for whichever party controls the chamber. Democrats, too, are locked in a crowded primary.
A fight over conservative credentials
Oz and McCormick — both ultra-wealthy, first-time candidates — have been introducing themselves to voters, while trying to bat away any critiques.
On the campaign trail, McCormick touts his successful business career, his West Point pedigree and his family's seven generations in the state.
"I grew up with a family farm," he said on a small stage in front of a giant American flag at a firehouse in Lititz, Pa. "I bailed hay, I trimmed Christmas trees, I was a busboy. I had a paper route. I hunted the first Monday after Thanksgiving, and I played football and I wrestled in places like Shickshinny and Shikellamy."
More recently, McCormick has lived in Connecticut where he was CEO of one of the world's largest hedge funds, Bridgewater Associates. Prior to that he worked in the administration of President George W. Bush.
In the Senate contest, McCormick has faced tough questions about his Wall Street ties and pro-China comments.
For Oz it's an immigrant story. His parents came to the U.S. from Turkey, settling in Ohio. Now he's a celebrity doctor worth millions.
"I attended great universities, raised a family and became a successful surgeon," he said in his campaign kickoff video. "I invented a heart valve that saves thousands of lives. Then I started TV show to advocate for you taking control of your health, and took on the medical establishment."
But Oz's campaign faced some immediate criticism: that he had until recently been a resident of New Jersey. And there were controversies from his time on TV, including that he dispensed questionable medical advice to his audience.
And Oz has also been targeted by many conservatives for his past praise of liberal figures like Hillary Clinton, and his past statements on issues such as abortion, gun laws and the use of masks to combat the coronavirus.
Does Trump sway voters' minds?
Professor Berwood Yost of Franklin & Marshall College says Oz has very high name recognition — something candidates crave — but also has high unfavorability scores in primary polls.
"I think Oz's larger problem is that he's not well-liked among Republicans," Yost said. "And that's why I think President Trump's endorsement of Oz is a bit risky."
One question in the race's final weeks, before the May 17 primary, is whether Trump's endorsement now changes Oz's numbers with conservatives.
There are other candidates to note, including political commentator Kathy Barnette, businessman Jeff Bartos and former Trump administration Ambassador Carla Sands.
And polls show that the Senate primary also has a high percentage of voters still undecided.
Another question is whether the Trump endorsement will have an effect on those who've not yet made their choice.
At the McCormick event at the firehouse, 71-year-old Bob Rapp said he was still trying to make up his mind. But he did say he won't vote for Oz. Rapp is a big Trump supporter, but he's not looking for Trump's guidance on this.
"You don't agree with your leaders 100% of the time," he said, before adding a flat "no" to whether the former president's endorsement could sway his opinion.
But Gina Sanguinetti, who works in health care, said she would give Oz a new look because of Trump, even though she's not sure Oz is strong enough in opposing abortion. She said she's seeking out all the information she can get.
"I'm just going to pay attention to everything right now, but I put a heavy weight on what Donald Trump has to say," she said.
Still, Sanguinetti is undecided and liked what she heard from McCormick.
The endorsement of Oz is actually Trump's second in the primary.
He backed Sean Parnell, an Army veteran who dropped out of the race after allegations of physical abuse against his wife and children emerged. (Parnell has denied those accusations.)
Parnell is now backing McCormick and said he was "disappointed" by Trump's new endorsement.
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