Without a clear primary preference from Trump or Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, Oz and McCormick’s teams are bracing for a war of attrition.
Both candidates flooded the airwaves with television ads in the first few weeks of their campaigns, spending a combined total of more than $10 million overwhelming primary voters with their messages. Super PACs supporting Republican candidates have deposited an additional $3 million in total. And another Republican candidate, former US Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands, has also spent more than $2 million on ads so far.
The ads, particularly from the super PACs, are hitting the competing candidates hard in everything from McCormick’s hedge fund investment in China to an Oz commercial touting the benefits of Obamacare. Pro-Sands ads, meanwhile, are yet to join the slugfest.
Rob Kania, a Pittsburgh-area Republican donor who is not yet in the running, says the candidates’ and PACs’ ads are all over TV. “You would think the election would be in two weeks,” said Kania.
And throughout the primary, competition looms over who can best appeal to pro-Trump Republican voters. That’s forcing candidates to align — or in some cases realign — with the GOP grassroots on issues like the validity of the 2020 election and toughness on China.
Targeted attacks on personal ties
Both Oz and McCormick are emphasizing their Pennsylvania roots while trying to undermine their opponents while attempting to sway pro-Trump, the main Republican voter.
In an Oz ad, the contestant points to the dormant smokestacks at the Bethlehem Steel plant and laments the loss of “Pennsylvania jobs.” Oz was born in Ohio and raised in Delaware but attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. His wife, the author Lisa Oz, is from Philadelphia.
“I can’t be bought,” Oz says in one of his ads, a line he uses frequently on the campaign trail that echoes Trump’s own 2016 claim of being above corruption.
For his part, McCormick was born near Pittsburgh and grew up in Bloomsburg, southwest of Wilkes-Barre. His high school gym is featured in one ad, and two of his friends and local hunting buddies are featured in another.
“America is under attack from the bright left, big tech and stupid government,” says McCormick in his latest ad.
But the more negative indicators show where the primary direction is headed. Groups supporting McCormick have already hit Oz with claims that he is a “Hollywood liberal” who supports Obamacare, while the Oz campaign aired an ad warning voters about McCormick’s financial investments in China to the sound of a pounding gong.
“McCormick: China’s friend, not ours,” the ad’s narrator said.
When a spokeswoman for McCormick’s campaign was asked to respond to the ad, she questioned his opponent’s own loyalty.
“Mehmet Oz – citizen of Turkey, creature of Hollywood – has spent the last 20 years making his fortune syndicating his show in China and enriching himself through censorship and CCP propaganda,” Jess Szymanski said in reference to the Chinese Communist Party. “While Mehmet remained silent on China until he had to quash Dave’s testimonies, Dave served our country and opposed the CCP.”
Syzmanski continued, “How can he claim to be America First when he has dual allegiances?”
Brittany Yanick, spokeswoman for Oz, called it a “disgusting attack”.
“He retains his dual citizenship to oversee the care of his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease,” Yanick said. “McCormick knows this and attacking a son standing by his mother has no place in public discourse. McCormick should be ashamed.”
The rest of the Republican nominees want to benefit from the crossfire, including Sands and Jeff Bartos, the party’s 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor. Bartos has made his background — and Oz and McCormick’s recent return to the state from the New York City area, where Oz produced his TV show and McCormick ran his hedge fund — a major topic, which helped him win some polls among party activists.
“They run across the state. They take Instagram photos and small videos. They almost collect, if you will, a scrapbook of where they visit us,” Bartos said. “I’ve been traveling across the state for five years. I was actually on Main Street with my sleeves rolled up trying to save small businesses.”
Charlie Dent, a former Pennsylvania congressman and CNN contributor, said the “big fight” between the three “self-financers” — McCormick, Oz and Sands — “might make it easier for Bartos to break through.”
Navigating the “Big Lie”
A dividing line in GOP primaries across the country is whether candidates accept Trump’s false claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election through widespread fraud. Trump has endorsed local office candidates for the US Senate who have undermined confidence in Biden’s victory.
While all Pennsylvania Republican Senate nominees run on almost everything on Biden’s failed record, not all have firmly acknowledged that his election was valid. Bartos told CNN, “I think Joe Biden won Pennsylvania and won the presidency.”
But Oz and McCormick have so far dodged the question, saying that Biden is president without specifically saying he was legitimately elected.
“Unfortunately, Joe Biden is the president and he was a disaster,” Oz told CNN.
A spokeswoman for Trump did not respond to questions about whether the former president, who endorsed Sean Parnell before Parnell dropped out of the race in November, is likely to drop another endorsement in the Pennsylvania GOP primary.
China connections under scrutiny
Like the 2020 election challenge, toughness on China has emerged as another litmus test for Republican candidates. McCormick seems to recognize his potential vulnerability to China even before he joins the field.
In December, while considering a campaign, McCormick told colleagues at his hedge fund Bridgewater Associates that he disagreed with co-chairman and founder Ray Dalio’s defense of China, according to a Bloomberg report. And he published an op-ed on Fox Business on Jan. 13, the day he entered the Senate race, calling China “the greatest economic and national security threat to the United States.”
McCormick also spoke positively about China as a senior Treasury Department official in the George W. Bush administration, at a time when Washington was broadly seeking to work with China and hoped to encourage it on a mutually beneficial path toward economic liberalization .
When asked what the biggest political difference in the Senate campaign was, Oz told CNN it was “honesty” before attacking McCormick in China.
“He chooses not to be honest with the Pennsylvania people about his business dealings and his comfort level with China,” Oz said in a statement.
David Urban, a former Trump campaign adviser, native of Pennsylvania and also a West Point graduate, defended his friend McCormick, saying his comments on China during the Bush era were “the conventional wisdom of the time.”
“The world view of China has changed,” Urban said. “It has evolved. Not just David McCormick’s, but everyone’s worldview has evolved.
GOP Rep. Dan Meuser told CNN that he supported McCormick because of his expertise in dealing with China.
“I am proud to support Dave for the US Senate and I know that with his battle-hardened experience he will hold his own against our adversaries like China, revitalize our economy and put America first from day one,” Meuser said .
Past praise for Obamacare
Oz, meanwhile, is grappling with claims from McCormick allies that he previously praised aspects of the Affordable Care Act. An ad by a group called the Pennsylvania Patriots uses a 2010 clip of Oz from a public service announcement in California touting the benefits of the newly passed Obamacare law.
“There is so much in the new health care law that can help Californians get better, more affordable health care,” Oz said at the time.
CNN asked Oz at a campaign rally in Erie about the ad’s claims that he “promoted” Obamacare.
“I made a public announcement surrounding the law, which aims to give more people coverage. That’s not the problem with Obamacare. The problem is that it hasn’t addressed the important issue of cost,” Oz said.
He later told CNN via email that “Obamacare and its rising costs have destroyed our healthcare system.”
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Pennsylvania Republican who has supported Oz, compared the scrutiny of Oz’s past activities to the issues other entertainment Republicans like Trump and Ronald Reagan have been able to dismiss.
“Dr. Oz will overcome this as his political positions become clearer to Pennsylvania voters,” Reschenthaler said. “But I can tell you that I have Dr. Wouldn’t have supported Oz if I had any question about where he stood on Second Amendment issues of life issues for the working men and women of Pennsylvania.”
The back-and-forth between Oz and McCormick and their allies is just the beginning of what’s to come in Pennsylvania over the next few months, said Dent, a CNN contributor.
“These ads are going to be about as subtle as a crowbar across the bridge of your nose,” Dent said.