Pennsylvania Becomes the Land of Oz

The TV doctor’s primary victory owes far more to Donald Trump than a well-timed endorsement.

An sketch illustration of Mehmet Oz
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

Pennsylvania Republicans have rallied behind a celebrity former TV host and political neophyte, choosing a charismatic convert to conservatism over a rival who espoused a purer form of the party’s modern doctrine.

The above sentence could have been written in 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Senator Ted Cruz in Pennsylvania’s presidential primary on his way to receiving the GOP nomination. But tonight it’s a description of Mehmet Oz, America’s favorite living-room M.D., who has finally won the Keystone State’s Republican nomination for Senate with help from the former president. Oz narrowly topped the financier David McCormick after McCormick unexpectedly conceded in the middle of a statewide recount.

Oz now faces John Fetterman, the progressive lieutenant governor who defeated Representative Conor Lamb for the Democratic nomination despite suffering a stroke four days before the May 17 primary. Trump was two-for-two in his Republican endorsements in Pennsylvania, as arch-conservative State Senator Doug Mastriano easily secured the GOP nomination for governor. Oz’s victory in one of the nation’s most expensive Senate primaries was much tighter—so tight, in fact, that it took two and a half weeks for the race to be decided.

The heart surgeon turned TV host led by fewer than 1,000 votes—a margin of less than 0.1 percent out of more than 1.3 million votes cast—after the initial ballot canvass, triggering an automatic recount. The Oz and McCormick campaigns wound up in court, adding an extra legal layer to the Trump proxy battle. Needing absentee ballots to close the gap, McCormick found himself in the awkward position of asking judges to require election officials to count undated ballots, the kind that Trump and Republicans went to great lengths to protest in 2020. Though it stayed neutral in the primary, the Republican National Committee backed Oz in the legal dispute. A state court ruled in McCormick’s favor, but this evening he determined that the disputed ballots would not be enough to put him over the top. “It is now clear to me,” he said in a brief livestreamed statement, “that with the recount largely complete, that we have a nominee.” McCormick said he called Oz to congratulate him and pledged to help him defeat Fetterman in the fall.

The activist Kathy Barnette, whose deeply personal opposition to abortion and commitment to Trump’s election lie captured many of the MAGA faithful, finished in third place with nearly 25 percent of the vote, a slight surprise after late polls showed her overtaking McCormick for second. The conservative Club for Growth bucked Trump to endorse Barnette, while Oz’s backers attacked her brief support for Black Lives Matter protests and praise of former President Barack Obama. Oz initially resisted Trump’s call for him to declare victory soon after the polls closed, but he eventually proclaimed himself the “presumptive nominee” before the recount began in late May. The delay might have put Oz at a disadvantage against Fetterman in the general election, but Fetterman mostly used the three-week head start to recuperate from his stroke. Hours before McCormick conceded today, Fetterman issued a statement saying he still needed “a little more time” before he could return to the campaign trail.

Oz is the latest Republican to benefit from Trump’s endorsement this primary season, but his candidacy owes far more to the former president than a well-timed gesture of verbal support. Oz is, in many ways, the most Trumplike figure to emerge since 2016: an ideologically malleable celebrity who parlayed his personal brand, his wealth, and an outsider’s message into a narrow victory over a crowded primary field. Whereas Trump built his persona on the front pages of New York’s tabloids and then on The Apprentice, Oz started as Oprah’s go-to doctor before landing his own show to dispense (often questionable) medical advice. He lacks Trump’s bombastic style, but like the developer turned politician, Oz ditched his previously liberal views on issues including abortion and gun control in a bid to win over the GOP-primary electorate. (He also adopted Trump’s penchant for exaggeration, at one point tweeting that he had treated “hundreds of thousands of patients” in his career.)

Trump’s endorsement of Oz in April came as a shock to many of the former president’s conservative allies who had already embraced McCormick, a hedge-funder married to the former Trump aide Dina Powell. Other top Trump aides, including Stephen Miller and Hope Hicks, backed McCormick as well. But they shouldn’t have been surprised by their former boss’s decision. “He has lived with us through the screen and has always been popular, respected, and smart,” Trump said of Oz in his endorsement, offering a concise list of the qualities he admires most—besides loyalty to him—in a politician.

Trump has never placed a high priority on ideological purity. In recent years, neither have Republican-primary voters. Before Trump took over the party in 2016, the GOP nominated Mitt Romney and John McCain, two candidates whose flip-flops and apostasies had angered conservative stalwarts, but not the majority of the party’s voters.

If there’s an ideological test in today’s Republican Party, it is based on loyalty to Trump and his causes—principally his lies about the “rigged” and “stolen” 2020 election. Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary offered the first hints that, going forward, loyalty to Trump and to his cause might not be the same thing. Barnette, who lost a congressional race two years ago, catapulted into the top tier of candidates in part because of a moving video in which she describes how her opposition to abortion in all cases stems from the fact that she is the by-product of a rape that occurred when her mother was 11 years old. But she has also promoted Trump’s election falsehoods more aggressively than her rivals and was spotted protesting alongside Proud Boys outside the Capitol during the January 6 riots.

Barnette’s rise had a bit of the feel of a revolution turning on its leader, and Trump was clearly flummoxed by it. He issued a statement saying that she “will never be able to win the general election” and alluding to her past comments denigrating Muslims and gay people. It was a rich piece of hand-wringing from a man who launched his presidential candidacy with a racist diatribe against Mexicans and later called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, only to prove wrong the many political prognosticators who said he was unelectable. As if anticipating that very retort, Trump in the same statement said that if Barnette could explain herself adequately, “she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party.”

To Trump, Barnette’s only crime was to threaten the candidate he had anointed. Despite her third-place finish, she nearly toppled Oz by siphoning away some of his support and allowing McCormick to come within 1,000 votes of victory. Oz’s defeat would have undermined Trump’s dominance of the GOP, suggesting both that his endorsement had lost some of its golden luster and that he had lost control of the movement he created. Oz relied on Trump as a model and as a validator. That proved to be enough, but only barely.