GOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania

A front-runner suspending his campaign over domestic abuse allegations and a lost custody battle. An out-of-state reality television host launching a bid of his own. A hedge fund CEO possibly dropping tens of millions of dollars on a campaign to be launched in the coming weeks.

The Senate GOP primary in Pennsylvania has become a free-for-all after apparent front-runner Sean Parnell’s decision to bow out late last month after losing custody of his children amid the allegations brought by his estranged wife. Now, the party is again contending with an unsettled field as big personalities — with big money behind them — make late entries into arguably the country’s most significant Senate race.

Mehmet OzMehmet OzThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Pennsylvania Republican David McCormick launches Senate campaign McCormick stepping down from hedge fund to consider Pennsylvania Senate bid MORE, the cardiothoracic surgeon and host of talk show “Dr. Oz,” jumped into the race Tuesday, boasting substantial personal wealth and high name recognition. He will likely be followed in the coming weeks by David McCormick, the CEO of Bridgewater Associates and a former Treasury Department official, who is expected to pour a significant amount of his own money into his campaign, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

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Former Rep. Keith RothfusKeith James RothfusGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud Former GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus eyeing Pennsylvania Senate race MORE (R-Pa.) is also reportedly mulling a run, while businessman Jeff Bartos and Carla Sands, former President TrumpDonald TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll MORE’s ambassador to Denmark, are plugging along with their own campaigns. Even more names could be added to the contest to replace retiring Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyConservatives are outraged that Sarah Bloom Raskin actually believes in capitalism Meet Washington's most ineffective senator: Joe Manchin Black women look to build upon gains in coming elections MORE (R-Pa.) in the coming weeks.

“You've got a vacuum, and now there's an opportunity to win, and so everyone's rushing into the vacuum,” one GOP strategist with experience working in Pennsylvania said.

The primary had largely been settled before the domestic abuse allegations were leveled against Parnell, who was widely considered the front-runner after winning Trump’s endorsement.

But the suspension of his campaign appears to have opened the floodgates for other contenders who may have felt shut out. And it appears no candidate is set to consolidate support among Parnell’s backers.

“Folks who were looking to support him are now going to be looking for another candidate to support. And from that perspective, I think that's what you can talk about as a shake-up,” said Allegheny County GOP Chairman Sam DeMarco.

Oz was the first to launch his campaign this week. Though critics argue he’s a blank slate ideologically, observers say he can’t be discounted due to his high name recognition and a campaign bank account that can be filled from his personal coffers. In a statement, Oz’s campaign said he would “speak out against more government lockdowns and mandates” and “stand up for American jobs.”

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McCormick, also independently wealthy, will similarly not face any fundraising issues, though he is more established in Republican circles after serving during the George W. Bush administration in the Treasury Department.

“Oz has celebrity status, and that has to be taken seriously. But I believe the best candidate in Pennsylvania is Dave McCormick, and he's best positioned, both from a policy perspective and an experience perspective,” said Jim Schultz, a McCormick adviser who served as a White House lawyer during the Trump administration and general counsel to former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R).

Pennsylvania operatives unanimously say both contenders will automatically enter the race as heavyweights by virtue of their wealth.

“I think they're going to be very, very strong,” DeMarco, who has spoken with both men, said.

Still, neither Oz nor McCormick is without baggage, leaving existing primary candidates — and Democrats — ready to pounce.

Oz is expected to be pressed on his Turkish dual citizenship and his service in the Turkish military as well as over pushing diet pills and other medical advice that have been criticized as questionable or inaccurate. Meanwhile, while he attended the University of Pennsylvania for his medical and business degrees, he has long lived in New Jersey.

McCormick has more extensive ties to Pennsylvania, having grown up and worked there. However, he’s lived for years in Connecticut, and critics are expected to link him to accusations of offshoring jobs and comments from Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio this week comparing Chinese human rights violations to acting like a “strict parent.”

Also, no candidate can boast a Trump endorsement in the GOP primary, a factor that could keep Republicans sitting on the sidelines. And while Sands served in his administration, as did McCormick’s wife, it is unclear if Trump will even issue another stamp of approval.

“There's no 600-pound gorilla in the Senate race, let alone an 800-pound gorilla. So when other candidates are looking at the field, there's no one candidate in there that is preventing other candidates from thinking, 'Hey, maybe I should do it.' So you're getting a rolling list of people coming in and out,” said veteran Pennsylvania GOP strategist Chris Nicholas.

Amid the new entries into the race, both Bartos and Sands have given no hint of backing down.

Bartos’s campaign indicated it is prepared to highlight what it sees as vulnerabilities for Oz and McCormick, while Sands, who’s donating millions of her own money to her campaign, suggested she’s looking to lock down the pro-Trump lane.

“The choice for Pennsylvanians is clearer than ever: In Jeff they have a lifelong Pennsylvanian who helped save countless small businesses during the pandemic. Or they can pick two out-of-state guys who have done more for China's economy and Turkey's army than they have for the people of Pennsylvania,” said Bartos campaign spokesman Conor McGuinness.

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Sands, meanwhile, touted herself in a statement as “the only candidate in this race who fought for the America First agenda, supported President Trump and served in the Trump Administration before running for Senate.”

Other operatives say the fact that more Republicans are jumping into the race rather than coalescing around Bartos and Sands doesn’t bode well for the two candidates.

“People recognize that this is going to be one of the most hotly contested races in the country, and as a result of that, we believe as Pennsylvanians and Republicans that we need to nominate a strong candidate who can win. And I think that's why you have some new folks looking at this thing,” said Mike DeVanney, who is advising McCormick.

Democrats, who are also grappling with a packed primary field, are happy to let the GOP sparring escalate.

“Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary continues to descend into chaos,” Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokesperson Jack Doyle said in a statement. “It’s clear this GOP Senate primary will get nastier, more expensive — and whichever Republican candidate ultimately limps out of this intra-party fight will be deeply out of step with the Pennsylvania voters who will decide the general election.”

The primary race’s instability is taking place over the backdrop of a fierce battle for the Senate, which is currently split 50-50.

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Toomey’s open seat is viewed as a top pickup opportunity for Democrats in a state President BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE narrowly won last year, and flipping it would deal a blow to GOP chances of controlling the next Senate.

Republicans expect some bloodletting as the primary field grows — with DeMarco warning the race could get “nasty” — but say the process is working as it should.

“That's what primaries are for,” said Nicholas. “They're not to be decided six months before in backrooms; they're to be decided at the election, which for us is in mid-May.”