Takeaways from Monday’s Pennsylvania GOP Senate debate
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The top five candidates in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary squared off in the state’s capital on Monday night, just three weeks before the May 17 nominating contest.
The event, which marked the first time all five contenders appeared at a televised debate, featured former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick, celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz, conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, former lieutenant governor candidate Jeff Bartos and former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands.
The candidates threw elbows throughout the hourlong debate in the hope of gaining even the slightest edge in the home stretch to the primary, with the debate largely devolving into personal attacks on past policy positions, where candidates have lived and their standing with former President Trump.
Here are five takeaways from the debate:
Oz, McCormick take battle to the stage
Oz and McCormick did not hold back during the prime-time debate.
McCormick spent much of the debate looking to paint Oz as a closet liberal, pointing to his past stances on issues including abortion and gun rights, while Oz parried the attacks by repeatedly highlighting Trump’s surprise endorsement last week.
“Mehmet has flip-flopped on every major issue,” McCormick said.
For his part, Oz said at one point that McCormick was “unable to pull the wool over [Trump’s] eyes” and dubbed him “dishonest Dave.” The former TV personality said that he earned Trump’s backing precisely because he is conservative.
“The reason Mehmet keeps talking about President Trump’s endorsement is he can’t run on his own positions and his own record,” McCormick claimed later on. “The problem, doctor, is there’s no miracle cure for flip-flopping.”
The two playbooks illustrate the power Trump’s late endorsement had on the race.
Oz scored a coup with Trump’s imprimatur but now has to make it sink into the minds of the GOP’s more hardcore flank, which may be wary of his past positions, including supporting so-called red flag laws for firearms.
McCormick, meanwhile, has to work all the harder to promote his Republican bona fides.
The sparring was a continuation of the battle that has been a mainstay of the campaign trail in recent weeks.
Oz and McCormick have been the two front-runners since their entries into the race and have gone toe-to-toe on everything from their ties to China to their personal history in Pennsylvania. That infighting is expected to only escalate heading into May 17.
Oz looks to shut down questions on past comments, background
McCormick was not the only candidate to go after Oz over his past comments on hot-button cultural issues.
Barnette and Sands also took their swipes at the surgeon, casting him as insufficiently conservative on some of the GOP’s most important issues.
“Oz is Turkey first,” Sands said, referencing Oz’s past service in the Turkish military, which he says he was “obliged” to perform as a dual citizen there.
Barnette cast Oz’s appeal as part of his sprawling name ID from his time as a talk show host, which she suggested could cut both ways.
“People know he’s not a conservative,” she said.
Oz toed a consistent line throughout the debate, saying he kept his dual citizenship so he could visit his ailing mother and defending his conservative credentials by touting Trump’s support.
“President Trump endorsed me,” Oz said. “The first point he made about why is I’m a conservative, America-first Republican.”
Oz also tamped down criticism that he spent limited time prior to his campaign in Pennsylvania, saying that he lived very close to the state just over the border in New Jersey and also attended the University of Pennsylvania.
Trump’s shadow looms large
Beyond Oz’s touting of Trump’s backing, other candidates discussed the former president at length — in regard to both his endorsement and his impact on the GOP at large.
The other candidates looked to tamp down on the impact Trump’s endorsement would have in boosting Oz, saying he may have been misled.
“President Trump doesn’t always get the best advice,” said Sands, who served as ambassador under the former president. “It’s unfortunate but true.”
The candidates also debated whether it was time for Republicans to move on from the 2020 election as Trump continues to claim — without evidence — that widespread fraud robbed him of a win.
“We cannot move on,” Oz said, while others did not address the fraud claims as directly.
“The 2020 election was a catalyst for what we’re seeing now,” said Bartos, adding that the nation is struggling because Joe Biden “is the president.”
Barnette, arguably the most vocally conservative candidate in the primary, suggested that the GOP and the Make America Great Again movement are bigger than Trump.
“MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” she said. “MAGA belongs to the people.”
Lower-tier candidates look for a breakout moment
Barnette, Bartos and Sands, all of whom need polling boosts in the race’s few remaining days, were clearly seeking breakout moments.
Barnette and Sands got into a bitter back-and-forth over the 2020 race, with Sands hitting Barnette over her failed House bid in 2020.
“She lost by 20 points, and it was not stolen by 20 points. We need someone who can win this election,” Sands said.
“Are you telling me the 2020 election was above par?” Barnette shot back, suggesting that Sands was bucking Republicans who still insist fraud marred the 2020 cycle.
Bartos, meanwhile, did not get into direct arguments with any one candidate but repeatedly sought to hammer home the message that he is the most qualified to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate after raising money to help businesses hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m running to save Main Street Pennsylvania,” Bartos said before arguing that he’s spent more time in the Keystone State than his competitors. “You can’t help Main Street Pennsylvania if you can’t find Main Street Pennsylvania.”
Not a game changer
At the end of the day, the debate is unlikely to fundamentally change the dynamics of the race.
The arguments featured were largely extensions of what the candidates have been saying on the campaign trail, and no candidate landed a knockout punch or made any major stumbles — likely leaving Oz and McCormick in polls’ top tiers.
“I don’t think anybody put their foot in their mouth,” said veteran Pennsylvania GOP strategist Chris Nicholas after the debate.
“There were no bad performances,” Nicholas said. “Everybody did well.”
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