As Trump Endorses Dr. Oz, Extremists Fume
The Pennsylvania race is not only important because it could flip a Senate seat from red to blue, but also because it aggravates a looming civil war in the GOP
Here is an installment on my promise to focus on the 2022 election: where better to start than a critical race in my beloved home state of Pennsylvania? If you know a political junkie who would be interested, please:
Late Saturday night, breaking news came across my Twitter feed. Donald J. Trump had just endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz in the Pennsylvania Republican primary contest to replace Republican Senator Pat Toomey. Toomey announced his intention to step down from public service on September 18, 2019. He was one of several Republicans to call on Trump to resign after the January 6 insurrection, so Democrats are eager to flip the seat, while Republicans are determined to make the Keystone state Trumpy.
The endorsement, relayed on Twitter by Taylor Budowich, the Director of Communications for Save America, had been rumored for days. But it was timed to coincide with Saturday night’s rally in North Carolina and capture the Sunday morning news shows. And it’s a kick in the teeth for Oz’s opponent, multi-billionaire former hedge fund manager and Bush Treasury official David McCormick, who has made at least two pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago to woo the former prez. In addition, McCormick’s wife is Dina Powell, deputy national security advisor in the Trump administration.
But Pennsylvania is also shaping up as another kind of battleground: an intra-party one between Republicans still adhering to Trump the person and a Trumpist GOP eager to leave him behind. Oz, a television celebrity host, belongs to neither group. Initially lifted up as a talk show personality by Oprah Winfrey, he shares a polling lead with McCormick. Significantly, McCormick has endorsements from numerous GOP stalwarts: Ted Cruz, Mike Pompeo, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders (who has been endorsed by Trump in her bid to become Governor of Arkansas.) On Sunday, McCormick also got the nod from Rick Santorum, who is about as far right as you can get in Pennsylvania without being in New Jersey.
So McCormick is not dead yet. And it’s a dicey move for Trump. Republican voters could easily intuit the truth about this race: Oz has lots of baggage and no political principles, while McCormick is most likely to be an influential senator who works for MAGA principles.
Does Trump (or whoever wrote the press release) know or care what a senator does? Unclear. Except for the opening sentence (“This is all about winning elections in order to stop the Radical Left maniacs from destroying our Country”), the endorsement statement reads like a letter of recommendation required for renting or buying a coop.
Oz is “brilliant and well-known,” it reads:
I have known Dr. Oz for many years, as have many others, even if only through his very successful television show. He has lived with us through the screen and has always been popular, respected, and smart. He even said that I was in extraordinary health, which made me like him even more (although he also said I should lose a couple of pounds!). He is a graduate of Harvard University and earned a joint MD and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Wharton School of Finance. He has authored more than 350 original publications, written 8 New York Times bestsellers, and received patents for developing medical devices that have improved countless lives and performed thousands of life-saving heart operations.
The idea that we can “know” someone through television stands out and causes me to ponder, not for the first time, how profoundly Oprah, well before Trump, altered politics and public life. Indeed, if we learned anything from the horror of incoming Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings, it was how much TV skills matter to a Republican strategy organized around non-governance.
Performances matter more than anything in a MAGA world that consciously employs media styles, religious rhetoric, and vilification of sexual and racial minorities usually associated with talk radio, Fox News punditry, and authoritarian leadership. For example, at Saturday night’s rally, Trump-endorsed incumbent Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorne (NC-11) performed a simulacrum of a religious miracle. Cawthorne is five weeks away from his own primary and struggling on several fronts: because of this, the GOP in that state has endorsed his opponent, State Senator Chuck Edwards.
Cawthorne, who cannot walk due to a car accident, “stood up from his wheelchair” in the middle of a culture wars barnburner and announced that God had granted him the power to use his legs. Standing at the podium on a walker after heaving himself to his feet (assisted by braces, two aides, and an effort with his arms that left him sucking wind), Cawthorne declared to the cheering crowd that “with God, all things are possible!”
A miracle walk by a person with paralysis is a standard televangelical performance grounded in the long history of tent revival faith healings. Expect Cawthorne’s “miracle” video clip to circulate widely in those circles.
Until recently, Cawthorne had a comfortable and undisputed path to re-election and will probably still win. But the Oz endorsement is a gamble for Trump in more ways than one. Pennsylvania is a critical state for deciding the fate of the 50-50 Senate in 2022, and the Diet Doc is in a statistical dead heat with McCormick in a 7-person primary (mercifully, 11 candidates, including accused domestic abuser and former Trump endorsee Sean Parnell did not make the ballot.) The election is on May 17, so yes, the endorsement could cause GOP voters to break for Oz. Or one or two of those candidates could drop out and throw their voters to McCormick, in which case he is cooked.
And Oz has baggage that MAGAs don’t like. He holds dual citizenship with Turkey, which is offensive to Christianized, anti-immigrant Republicans. Many on the right also believe that he is a closet liberal—because he used to be a liberal. If that were not enough, Oz has a legal address in Pennsylvania but still seems to live in New Jersey most of the time.
So, other than looking good on the tube, why did Trump endorse the dicey Mehmet Oz? The strategy seems to be this: most Pennsylvania elections turn on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (although unexpectedly high turnout in the central, conservative counties is what won Trump the state in 2016.) Trump advisors are also said to believe that the wealthy suburban women who vote most reliably in the suburbs of those cities stay home all day watching TV as Trump does.
Therefore, it stands to reason that these women must be devoted to the charismatic TV doctor, whose quackery embraces anti-vaxxer theology, wacko diet remedies, and the belief that 200 orgasms annually leads to a longer life. Finally, what if these silly women think that Oz is a closet liberal because he has supported abortion rights in the past? All the better! All of these women are pro-choice. Trump himself was liberal on abortion before becoming a political candidate.
But there is already a cost attached to Trump backing Oz. The lunatic fringe GOP that converged around Trump in 2016 saw the endorsement as not an opportunity but a betrayal. Steve Bannon hates the diet doc—we can start there—and he recently accused Fox News of “pimping” Oz out to conservatives. “Dr. Oz—promoting transgender children since 2010,” GOP extremist Jack Prosobiec tweeted after appearing on Bannon’s internet show, The War Room. And America First Congressman Josh Barnett (AZ-01) asked: “Maybe I’m wrong but isn’t Dr. Oz pro-choice, anti-gun?”
These guys aren’t wrong. While Oz’s website now claims he is 100% pro-life, as recently as 2019, he was pro-choice. Now stringently pro-gun, he asserts that columns advocating gun control, published under his name between 2017 and 2019, were written by someone else.
And while policies attacking the rights of transgender children appear nowhere on Oz’s campaign site, less than four months ago, he defended transfeminine swimmer Lia Thomas’s right to compete. In addition, he had sympathetic segments on his show about transgender adults and children multiple times after 2010. Nevertheless, on March 14, 2022, a spokesperson insisted: "Doctor Oz is a conservative who doesn’t believe biological men should play women’s sports, and he’s running a TV ad presently to that effect. In fact, Doctor Oz has repeatedly praised JK Rowling’s brave stance for stating the truth about this important issue."
And yes, until he decided to run for office, Mehmet Oz’s official residence of three decades was New Jersey: according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he may still be living there.
In other words, the Pennsylvania race is now not just important because it could flip a Senate seat from red to blue and because Trump’s endorsement of this incoherent amateur politician aggravates a looming civil war in the MAGA movement. This has two implications. First, and most importantly, the Former Guy may have lost his grip on effectively using the political style he created. Second, it may be that MAGA politics were nothing but a fragile coalition of shrewd right-wingers, the mega-wealthy, and conspiratorial nut jobs to begin with. Now, without a presidency to cohere around, they are reverting to their natural state of hating each other as much or more than they hate liberals.
The Oz endorsement has also left professional Trump supporters who invested in the nationalist-populist policies that Trump empowered and personified in an awful place. America First influencer, TV pundit, and JD Vance Super PAC director Ryan Girdusky quickly trimmed his sails to unwelcome news that nevertheless has to be accommodated to remain within the MAGA political establishment. “Both candidates were bad; he picked the best of the worst,” Girdusky tweeted when I asked for his thoughts.
Of course, Vance, too, is in an Oz-like position in his bid to replace retiring Republican Senator Rob Portman and would kill for a Trump endorsement. Trump has endorsed no one in that race yet, and Ohioans are now in early voting. Still hoping to overcome anti-Trump statements uttered before his campaign, Vance is duking it out with Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons in another statistical tie. In the absence of a Trump endorsement, though, Vance is simply performing Trumpism, slinging every piece of culture wars horse puckey he can think of, including dog-whistling to racists and homophobes. For example, Vance recently defended Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA-14) for appearing at a white supremacist rally. As Vance told CNN, “She said nothing wrong, and I'm absolutely not going to throw her under the bus or anybody else who's a friend of mine."
But even more than Ohio’s carnival of dunces (whoever wins will probably face Congressman Tim Ryan, and that too is projected to be a tight race, with Mandel emerging as the most likely Republican to win it), the Pennsylvania Senate race is the most critical bellwether for 2024. It ranks as the most expensive in the country, and Republican candidates have already spent over $40 million. In contrast, in a smaller Democratic field, progressive Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who has such a healthy lead in that three-way race that all 17% of undecided voters could flip to a single candidate, and he would still win has spent a paltry $10 million.
Most importantly, the race is also a pivot point for Trump’s bid to retain control of the GOP and force it to his will. Pennsylvania was a crucial element of his 2016 presidential victory and his 2020 loss. So Oz is a surrogate, and for Trump’s Senate candidate to lose in either the 2022 primary (when the most motivated voters go to the polls) or the general election will be a harbinger of whether Trump himself could win Pennsylvania in 2024.
Watch this number in the next eight to twelve weeks: how many Trump-endorsed candidates running as challengers or for open seats can win? There are far more Trump-branded primary candidates than he ever endorsed as a sitting president, and—57 out of 116, or almost half—fit that description.
Those are the races I’ll be watching. How many of them win and how many will lose may determine whether Trump is now ancient history in a political party that he took over and sold for parts.
At The Nation, John Nichols speculates that ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to vote with their party but express confidence in a candidate from the other party, may permit politicians to cast votes across party lines. Maine and Alaska, where Ketanji Brown Jackson got two of her three Republican votes, are two of these states. Needing Democrats and moderate Independents to win, Nichols argues, is a disincentive to supporting the party’s extremist right-wing: significantly, Collins has also already announced that she is unlikely to back Trump for the presidency in 2024. (April 8, 2022)
One outcome of the Trump era is that being good at governing is no longer a qualification for higher office in the Republican party, as Russell Berman concludes in his profile of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. DeWine, who has “notched conservative policy wins and handled Donald Trump deftly,” may not be renominated because of pragmatic public health policies concerning gun violence and Covid-19. He is also under constant attack by Senate candidates in Ohio’s ugly Republican Senate primary hellscape. (April 3, 2022)
Read Jonathan Chait’s profile of Florida Governor Ron DeathSantis, currently the greatest hope (along with the Grim Reaper) for taking the 2024 Republican nomination away from Donald Trump. How? He makes himself into a plastic-fantastic Trump with a brain and a more remarkable dedication to culture wars. Of course, GOP leaders don’t object to Trump the way Democrats do. “What irritates, instead,” Chait writes, “is Trump’s constant disregard for basic political self-preservation. DeSantis offers them the prospect of a party leader who can harness all the right-wing populist energy generated by Trump without the latter’s childlike inability to focus on what his advisers tell him.” (March 29, 2022)
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