This Tuesday the contentious, bizarre, yet crucial GOP Pennsylvania Senate Primary will come to an end. Currently, the top contenders in the race are Kathy Barnett, an African-American firebrand conservative with a history of controversial past opinions, Dave McCormick, a former hedge fund manager, and Dr. Mehmed Oz, a TV star with large name recognition but with a dubious ideological background. This primary has scrambled many of the political assumptions and dynamics that have characterized the GOP during the Trump era, and its result will be crucial in determining the fate of the Senate in this year’s midterm.
Pennsylvania is one of the most important states in this year’s elections. The state was one of those that Biden managed to barely retake from Trump in 2020 and has become a clear target for both parties’ strategies to take power in the next election cycles. Furthermore, the incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey announced he will be retiring after this year, making Pennsylvania an open seat race, giving both parties good chances to win the seat.
The Republican path to retaking the Senate lies in keeping all of its seats up for reelection and taking back at least one seat currently held by Democrats, Georgia and Arizona being the most obvious targets. Hence, it is crucial for the GOP to retain Pennsylvania, as losing here would mean the Republicans will have to win at least two Democratic-held seats to compensate.
The strange, confusing, unpredictable Pennsylvania Senate Primary
The national dynamics in the 2022 primary races for the GOP usually go as follows: candidates try to appeal to the most populist wings of the party in order to get the Trump endorsement for the primary, while the candidates with no chance of getting Trump’s support plan to coalesce the support of the other wings of the party and hope for the best. This is essentially what happened in Ohio, when J.D. Vance and Mandel tried for months to get Trump’s support while the other candidates tried to appeal to the rest of the party.
This election is different. Countering the dynamics in Ohio, the candidate who arguably has the most populist, conservative pedigree is being actively opposed by former President Trump, who decided to give his full endorsement to Dr. Mehmed Oz, a candidate who has been accused by opponents and many conservatives as not in step with the party’s policies and beliefs.
The Oz candidacy was only even possible after the PA primary was rocked by scandal after the former main contender for the nomination, Sean Parnell, withdrew from the race after he lost an ugly custody fight with his former wife, who accused him of being physically abusive against her during their marriage.
After Parnell’s withdrawal last year, the race became a truly open election and both Oz and McCormick jousted to occupy the political space left open by Parnell. However, despite Trump’s endorsement, which has been a crucial asset in other races, Oz has not built a clear lead against his rivals, and both his position and McCormick’s has recently come under a direct assault by Barnett. The most recent poll puts all three candidates in a technical tie, with 18% of voters still undecided.
Who are the candidates?
Dr. Mehmed Oz, a Turkish-American cardiothoracic surgeon, made his name as the host of his TV show “Dr.Oz” which was centered on debating health issues and promoting certain medical practices to solve them. Albeit Oz was accused by some of promoting pseudoscience and false medical information in the program, the show was extremely successful and made him a household name in popular culture.
Oz was appointed by Trump as a member of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition in 2018, he appeared several times on Fox News in 2020, usually discussing COVID-related issues. Before he announced his candidacy, Oz has taken positions that are not shared by the conservative majority of the party, especially on the issue of abortion, and has been pummeled by his opponents for it.
Dave McCormick is a 56-year West Point graduate, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, a former hedge fund manager, and served in various positions during the George W. Bush Administration. Although his background is one that could easily be labeled as part of the GOP “establishment” he has decided to run his campaign as an advocate of most of Trump’s policies. McCormick has been endorsed by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Kathy Barnett, who is trying to be the surprise of the election, is a conservative commentator and former member of the Armed Forces reserve who has made an impressive run during the last weeks of the primary as her numbers have risen high enough to threaten both McCormick and Oz.
Barnett has surged partly after a viral pro-life video where she confesses she is a byproduct of rape, she has been qualified as an “ultra-maga” candidate by former trump strategist Steve Bannon, and lately, there has been controversy over past comments she posted on Twitter regarding Muslims that will be used against her during a hypothetical general campaign.
Barnett received an important boost to her campaign when she got the endorsement of Susan B. Anthony list an influential pro-life group, and has been aided by the Club for Growth, which was embroiled in a divisive and toxic fight against J.D Vance in Ohio, with a last-hour media blitz in her favor.
As election day comes nearer, the fate of the Pennsylvania GOP and the Republican party’s chances to win back the Senate in 2022 will be in the hands of the Pennsylvania voters.