Trump’s Oz endorsement in Pennsylvania vexes GOP allies
Frustration is mounting on the GOP’s right flank over former President Trump’s endorsement of Mehmet Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate race.
Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon who rose to fame as a talk show host, got a jolt over the weekend when his campaign received a surprise endorsement from Trump, who observers previously said might stay out of the race. The imprimatur instantly changed the tenor of the race, providing Oz with the backing of the GOP’s most popular politician and de facto leader.
However, past stances Oz has taken on issues such as ObamaCare, abortion and guns have sparked frustration among hard-line populists — who also happen to be some of Trump’s staunchest backers — in an indication that the endorsement will not automatically deliver Oz the nomination.
“There’s no question about it,” one former Trump administration official said when asked if Oz’s previous stances contributed to the backlash. “I think his past positions and his statements on guns, on abortion, that’s gonna be problematic.”
Oz won Trump’s endorsement in a Saturday evening statement, with the former president noting Oz’s long-running television show and arguing his presence in Americans’ living rooms would make him electable. He also insisted on Oz’s conservative bona fides, hitting on several issues Republican voters hold dear.
“Dr. Oz is Pro-Life, very strong on Crime, the Border, Election Fraud, our Great Military, and our Vets, Tax Cuts, and will always fight for and support our under-siege Second Amendment. He will ensure America will become Energy Independent again. Dr. Oz also passionately believes in high-quality education and protecting parent involvement throughout the process,” Trump said.
“Perhaps most importantly, I believe that Mehmet Oz will be the one most able to win the General Election against a Radical Left Democrat looking to do unthinkable harm to our Country,” he added.
However, several prominent hard-line conservatives and populists expressed shock over the endorsement, dredging up past policy positions from Oz that he’s since reversed.
Among the comments populists took most issue with were positive remarks on ObamaCare, opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade and support for so-called red flag laws that would allow law enforcement to take firearms from people they deem dangerous.
“I have enormous respect for President Trump. I was honored to have his endorsement in PA. Twice. But I’m disappointed by this. Oz is the antithesis of everything that made Trump the best president of my lifetime — he’s the farthest thing from America First & he’d be very bad for PA,” tweeted Sean Parnell, who was Trump’s chosen candidate in the Senate race before he dropped out during a contentious custody battle.
Raheem Kassam, the editor-in-chief of The National Pulse, who boasts a large social media following, called the endorsement “indefensible,” while radio host Tim Young said to “expect [Oz] to vote for basically everything the Biden administration asks for.”
“Dr. Oz just seems a bridge too far for Trump endorsements. My text messages blew up last night from a lot of people who have been generally defenses of his endorsements and are now in ‘WTF is Susie Wiles doing’ mode,” Erick Erickson, a prominent radio host, tweeted, referencing Trump’s political adviser.
That kind of response has been months in the making, with former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick, Oz’s main primary rival, and his allies launching an ad blitz using past clips of Oz to define him as a closet liberal and, in an ad released Monday, “a complete and total fraud.”
In internal polling numbers shared with The Hill, a McCormick campaign survey showed that 18 percent of GOP primary voters described Oz as liberal in January — a figure that shot up to 43 percent earlier this month.
“The commercials simply pointed out what Oz’s true beliefs are in his own words. That’s tremendously effective,” said one longtime Pennsylvania operative supporting McCormick. “Donald Trump can stand up all day long and say Mehmet Oz is a conservative, but people have already seen and heard Oz himself say otherwise.”
The backlash was also the latest signal that Trump’s endorsement is not always determinative in a primary and that while he remains overwhelmingly popular with the base, GOP voters still look for candidates with certain policy positions.
In conversations with more than a half-dozen Republicans, operatives said they thought Trump ultimately endorsed Oz because of his celebrity status and support from people such as Sean Hannity and former first lady Melania Trump — not any ideology.
“Why did Trump endorse Oz? Because he’s part of this America First agenda and he’s the best person for the job and he’s gonna fight for us on all this stuff? He endorsed him because he’s on TV, because Melania likes him,” said one GOP strategist with experience in Pennsylvania. “It’s got nothing to do with the reasons why these activists get into politics.”
Still, the Trump endorsement is a boon for Oz, who had been mainly competing with McCormick for the former president’s backing. And Oz is still anticipated to make headway among fierce Trump loyalists, even if that doesn’t extend to some ideological hardliners.
“I think there’s gonna be a blend,” the former administration official said. “You’ve got a lot of Trump supporters that will stick with the president, and then you got hardcore Republicans who are gonna say, ‘No way.’”
Nonetheless, Oz’s camp has reason to feel confident. Trump’s statement could provide some cover for his past stances, and a poll from The Hill and Emerson College, conducted in March, showed that while huge swaths of voters remain undecided in the primary, 61 percent of GOP voters said a Trump endorsement would make them more likely to vote for a candidate. Another poll from The Hill and Emerson College, conducted in early April before the endorsement, showed Oz neck and neck with McCormick.
“President Trump endorsed Dr. Oz because he’s pro-life, pro Second Amendment, and an outsider,” said an Oz campaign spokesperson. “A lot of people that were paid to help make McCormick fake his way into being a conservative are sad today.”
If other races are indicative, Oz is anticipated to tout Trump’s support going into the May 17 primary. And while an endorsement may not put the race away, increased involvement by Trump would be a massive help — if Oz convinces him he’s worth the added effort.
“I think Dr. Oz will win now because of the endorsement, but it’s not a fait accompli. It also depends on how much President Trump decides to actually campaign with Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania,” said former Trump aide Sam Nunberg. “Dr. Oz is going to have to show him progress from this.”
Oz’s ability to show that progress could have an outsize impact for the GOP’s efforts to keep retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat and end Democrats’ current 50-50 and Trump’s political capital as he mulls a comeback bid in 2024.
An Oz primary and general election win would rob Democrats of a top pickup opportunity and show that Trump can push a candidate with a spotty ideological history across the finish line in a swing state.
But a loss could hurt the GOP dearly. And even though the vast majority of Trump’s endorsees are expected to win this year, and the Pennsylvania field is packed with supporters, an Oz defeat would spark an unfavorable narrative for the former president.
“One of Trump’s biggest assets is people view him as a winner. And he knows this,” said the GOP strategist with experience in Pennsylvania. “Anything that dents the narrative that Trump is a winner is a problem for him, and people start looking somewhere else.”