Sun. May 29th, 2022

For a certain kind of establishment Republican, David McCormick has the perfect CV: a West Point graduate and former Army ranger with a PhD from Princeton, several years in the George W Bush administration, and most recently, a stint as the chief executive of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s biggest hedge funds.

But in a crowded ballroom just north of Pittsburgh last month, McCormick, who is now running for US Senate, projected a different image: one of a “battle-tested” and “Pennsylvania true” candidate campaigning in lockstep with former US president Donald Trump.

Trump was not in western Pennsylvania that evening. But he cast a long shadow, with Lee Greenwood’s patriotic anthem “God Bless the USA”, a constant feature of the former president’s rallies, streaming over the loudspeakers. On stage, a parade of former Trump administration officials, from one-time White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to televangelist and self-described pastor to Trump Paula White, lined up tell voters why McCormick had their support.

At one point, McCormick thanked Sean Parnell — who Trump endorsed in the Pennsylvania Senate race last year before Parnell suspended his campaign amid allegations of spousal and child abuse — calling him a “great friend” and “great source of advice”.

At the same time, 40 miles away, on the other side of Pittsburgh, Mehmet Oz, the 61-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon and daytime television personality better known to most Americans as “Dr Oz”, was holding his own campaign events.

Oz, who is also is vying for the Republican party’s nomination, was equally surrounded by prominent figures from Trump world, including Rick Perry, Trump’s energy secretary, and Harold Hamm, the shale oil executive and prominent donor to the former president. Some 300 people turned out for a town hall in the small town of Canonsburg, with a panel discussion and question-and-answer session mimicking an episode of Oz’s long-running syndicated TV show.

His campaign materials, which describe the one-time fixture of liberal Hollywood as “pro-Second Amendment”, “pro-life” and “pro-freedom”, are emblazoned with a logo that matches the TV programme’s branding.

The Republican primary in Pennsylvania next month is becoming a pivotal event in this year’s midterm elections. Joe Biden defeated Trump in 2020 in the state, but only by a razor-thin margin. With Democrats currently holding the Senate by the narrowest of margins, who Republican voters choose as their candidate could prove decisive in determining who controls the upper chamber of Congress for years to come.

The primary will be a major test of Trump’s enduring influence in the Republican party at a time when candidates across the country are bending over backwards to secure the former president’s support. A similar dynamic is at play in the neighbouring state of Ohio, where Trump on Friday surprised many with his endorsement of “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance, a one-time critic of the former president who has taken a populist turn in recent years.

Frontrunners for the nomination

The hedge Fund manager

David McCormick

Born: August 1965 in Washington, Pennsylvania
Education: United States Military Academy (BS), Princeton University (MA, PhD)

The celebrity

Mehmet Oz

Born: June 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio
Education: Harvard University (BS), University of Pennsylvania (MD, MBA)

McCormick and Oz — two wealthy, first-time candidates touting their conservative credentials to the Trump faithful — are widely seen as the front-runners in a crowded Republican field in Pennsylvania.

Not everyone is convinced by the overtures to Trump and his supporters — particularly given the lingering legal challenges facing Trump and his allies, and a large share of the population’s continued distaste for the former president.

“It does not seem like some of these candidates are running as themselves. They are just pretending to be Trump loyalists, and nobody really believes it,” says Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. “In swing states, do you really want to tie yourself to Donald Trump? People keep forgetting: this guy lost. He did not win.”

But others insist the strategy is necessary, at least in a crowded Republican primary contest where only the party’s most loyal voters are likely to cast ballots.

“There is a realisation among people that in the Republican party today it is nearly impossible to get elected if you are deemed out of step with the former president and his supporters,” says one former McCormick colleague, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It is a very narrow path to walk, and every candidate needs to be themselves,” they add. “But if you do and say things that are offensive to the Trump legions in the Republican party, you increase your risk of losing in contested primaries. That is just a fact.”

Despite his endorsement of more than 100 candidates so far in primary contests across the country, many expected Trump to stay out of the Pennsylvania Senate race after he was burnt last year by his initial endorsement of Parnell.

But Trump, who launched his own political career off the back of a reality TV run, sent shockwaves through the Keystone State earlier this month, when he came out with a surprise statement in support of Oz — giving the doctor a major boost heading into the final stages of primary campaigning.

Dina Powell and David McCormick arrive for a State dinner at the White House in Washington, DC
David McCormick, who is running for the US Senate in Pennsylvania, with his wife Dina Powell © Ken Cedeno/UPI/Alamy

“He has lived with us through the screen and has always been popular, respected and smart,” Trump said in a statement.

Trump, 75, who is publicly toying with another bid for the White House in 2024, lavished more praise on the TV star at a rally in Selma, North Carolina, suggesting Oz’s celebrity following would put him in good stead at the ballot box.

“They liked him for a long time,” Trump said. “You know, when you are in television for 18 years, that is like a poll. That means people like you.”

For now, public opinion polls conducted prior to Trump’s intervention show McCormick maintains a slight edge over Oz among Republican primary voters in Pennsylvania, with 21.8 per cent backing McCormick, compared with 17.6 per cent for Oz, according to an average calculated by Real Clear Politics. The next most-popular candidate is conservative commentator Kathy Barnette on 10.6 per cent, followed by Carla Sands — a Republican donor and Trump’s ambassador to Denmark who describes herself as the “only America First candidate that conservatives can trust” — at 10 per cent.

But with less than one month remaining until polling day, and recent surveys showing as many as half of Republican voters in Pennsylvania are still undecided, Trump’s endorsement is likely to shake up the hotly contested race, where the leading Republican candidates and outside groups have already spent a record more than $45mn on political advertising to date, according to figures compiled by AdImpact.

There are some indications Trump’s blessing will bolster Oz’s credentials with the Republican grassroots. A Fox News survey conducted last month found 82 per cent of likely Republican primary voters in Pennsylvania had a “favourable” view of Trump, with 65 per cent saying they felt “strongly” positive towards the former president.

But sceptics also abound, noting while Trump has sought to cement his status as a kingmaker in the Republican party by making many endorsements, a number of his decisions have backfired.

More recently, Trump scrapped his support for Mo Brooks after the Alabama congressman failed to gain traction in his state’s US Senate race. The latest polls in Georgia, another key swing state, show Trump’s preferred gubernatorial candidate, David Perdue, trailing incumbent Brian Kemp by a double-digit margin ahead of another primary there next month.

“Trump has a greater capacity to hurt people than he has to help them,” says Dent. “Just because Trump endorses you, as he did with Mo Brooks . . . and David Perdue, what good has that done?”

Asked about Trump’s Oz endorsement in a television interview earlier this month, Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, hesitated to say whether it would change the state of the race in Pennsylvania.

Days later, McConnell cautioned that even with Biden and the Democrats struggling with record low approval ratings heading into the midterms, Republicans could “screw this up” if they picked the wrong candidates in the primaries.

“In the Senate, if you look at where we have to compete in order to get into a majority, there are places that are competitive in the general election,” McConnell said. “You can’t nominate somebody who’s just sort of unacceptable to a broader group of people and win.”

Oz is a candidate very much in Trump’s image. The heart surgeon and former Columbia University professor first began appearing on national TV as a regular guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the early 2000s, before launching an eponymous syndicated series in 2009. Oz stopped recording the show — which had a large following but also prompted criticism from medical experts who accused the surgeon of spreading pseudoscience and false claims — earlier this year after announcing his Senate bid.

Media personality and physician Dr Mehmet Oz (left center) and media personality Oprah Winfrey (right center) cut the ribbon to signal the start of the ‘Live Your Best Life Walk’ to celebrate O, The Oprah Magazine’s 10th Anniversary at Intrepid Welcome Center in 2010 in New York City
Mehmet Oz, the 61-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon and daytime television personality better known to most Americans as ‘Dr Oz’, was a regular guest on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ in the early 2000s © Jemal Countess/Getty Images

He enjoys the public backing of several Trump allies, including Fox News host Sean Hannity and hotel magnate Steve Wynn.

“Everyone, especially David McCormick — a pro-China, Wall Street insider, wanted this endorsement,” Oz said in a statement following Trump’s announcement that underscored his campaign’s efforts to attack McCormick over Bridgewater’s investments in China, and bill himself as the Trump-aligned “outsider” in the crowded field.

Although he is a political novice, Oz’s mandatory financial disclosures, published earlier this month, showed the TV star, who has already spent millions of his personal wealth on his campaign, has at least $100mn in assets. McCormick, who is married to Dina Powell McCormick, a Goldman Sachs executive and former member of Trump’s National Security Council, has yet to submit his filings, but is expected to disclose a similarly hefty personal war chest.

In Canonsburg, where the local economy relies heavily on oil and gas, Oz — who was previously critical of fracking, raising concerns about the public health consequences of oil exploration — called for the Biden administration to loosen existing regulations to promote more domestic drilling.

The comments underscored what Oz’s critics see as a key vulnerability for the candidate now billing himself as a “conservative who will put America first”: a long public record of supporting liberal policies, ranging from abortion rights to restrictions on gun ownership, on his TV show and in other media appearances over the years.

But Oz supporters insist they are confident in the candidate’s conservative credentials, even drawing parallels to Trump, whose Republican bona fides were also questioned in the early days of his first presidential bid.

“Some people say, ‘How do I know he is a conservative?’” Hannity, the Fox News host, said as he laid out his endorsement. “Well, I got the same questions about Donald Trump, and I think I was proven right.”

Mehmet Oz speaks during a town hall campaign event in Old Forge, Pennsylvania
Oz, who is vying for the Republican party’s nomination in Pennsylvania, is seen as a frontrunner along with McCormick © Christopher Dolan/AP

Oz has also faced accusations of being a “carpetbagger” from out of state, given he grew up in Delaware and lived most of his adult life — bar postgraduate education at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and Wharton School — in New Jersey, and maintains a second home in Palm Beach, Florida. He changed his voter registration to his in-laws’ address in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, in 2020.

At an “energy summit” with local business leaders in Canonsburg, Perry said Pennsylvanians should welcome Oz with open arms, likening the doctor to Tesla founder Elon Musk, who recently left California for Texas.

“Dr Oz chose to come to Pennsylvania . . . to help this state,” Perry said. “People ought to be celebrating that every day, that you have people of his stature, his ability, his capabilities, coming back into your state to give it the pizzazz, to give it the focus that he can give this state.”

But others are less convinced. “The fact is, Pennsylvania, we are not New York,” says Ed Rendell, the state’s former Democratic governor. “If you don’t live here, the general attitude of Pennsylvanians is: don’t run here.”

McCormick — who grew up in central Pennsylvania and later worked in Pittsburgh as a consultant at McKinsey before running FreeMarkets, a local software company — has faced similar charges of flip-flopping and carpetbaggery, having criticised Trump as recently as last year. He only returned to the state after several years in Connecticut with Bridgewater.

While some friends and former colleagues say privately they are “uncomfortable” with McCormick’s embrace of Trump world, nearly all agree he is taking the right strategic steps if he wants to both secure his party’s nomination and win a general election in a swing state where he will need to garner support not only from the Trump base but also moderate suburban voters in areas such as the Philadelphia suburbs.

David McCormick speaks during a campaign event in Coplay, Pennsylvania
McCormick will need to garner support not only from the Trump base but also moderate suburban voters in areas such as the Philadelphia suburbs © Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg

Several see a model in Glenn Youngkin, the former Carlyle chief executive who threaded a political needle last year to win the governor’s race in Virginia with the support of both rural Trump voters and middle-class, highly educated voters in the Washington suburbs. McCormick has hired several Youngkin campaign staffers, including Axiom Strategies, the Republican political consulting firm.

McCormick had for months painstakingly pursued Trump’s endorsement, hiring a bandwagon of the president’s former staffers and as recently as last week travelling to meet Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

But now McCormick allies insist that their candidates’ impressive resume — and Oz’s relative weaknesses — will allow the former hedge fund boss to win the party’s nomination, even without the Trump nod. Jim McLaughlin, McCormick’s pollster, says the campaign’s latest internal poll found around half of Republican primary voters had an unfavourable view of Oz.

Former president Donald Trump greets the crowd before he speaks at a rally in Selma, North Carolina, this month
Former president Donald Trump greets the crowd before he speaks at a rally in Selma, North Carolina, this month. Trump sent shockwaves through Pennsylvania this month when he came out with a statement in support of Oz © Chris Seward/AP

“The idea of Oz is not sitting well, and the fact that Trump tried to wave a magic wand and say, ‘hey, I like this guy,’ only works if Oz is a credible conservative, and he is not,” says one longtime Republican operative in Pennsylvania, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Yet others question whether the about-turns will work either for McCormick or Oz, assuming one of them advances to November’s midterms as the party’s candidate. Democrats are holding their own primary contest in Pennsylvania next month. The two front-runners in that race are the state’s self-described populist lieutenant-governor John Fetterman, and the more centrist congressman Conor Lamb.

“Given the amount of money that they have spent portraying themselves as deeply conservative Trump Republicans, any pivot is going to feed into the perception that whoever comes out as the candidate is disingenuous, two-faced, not who they say they are,” says one Democratic national operative.

Gunner Ramer, political director at the Republican Accountability Project, a group formed in the run-up to 2020 to encourage Republicans to vote against Trump, says even in a midterm cycle where Republicans are likely to have an advantage over Democrats, centrist voters may still find it difficult to back those aligned too tightly to Trump.

“There are still a significant number of disaffected Republicans. They may still consider themselves Republicans or former Republicans, but they decided the election for Joe Biden in swing states . . . They do not like these kinds of candidates at all . . . even in a red wave year, which it looks like it is going to be in 2022, candidate quality still matters.”

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