PHILADELPHIA — Just how much power does Donald Trump’s endorsement have in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race?
The former president, who backed celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz late Saturday in the Republican primary, is undoubtedly the most popular figure in GOP politics. But there’s debate about how much his word sways Republican voters, and if the benefits are worth the baggage in the general election — since he’s still toxic to many swing voters.
Still, it’s clear that both Oz and top rival David McCormick thought it would be important to have Trump’s support.
Both leading Republican candidates lobbied heavily for it, including with personal visits to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. McCormick’s wife, ex-Trump aide Dina Powell McCormick, was reportedly relentless in pressing the former president for support, and McCormick hired a bevy of former Trump advisers.
None of seven Republican insiders interviewed Monday said the endorsement suddenly makes the race a slam dunk, but it does add a significant new factor that resets the terms of the debate. McCormick and Oz, widely known as “Dr. Oz,” have been running a tight race, with recent momentum seemingly in McCormick’s favor.
The new dynamic in one of the country’s most crucial Senate races gives Oz a shield against attacks that he’s a “Republican in Name Only” and potentially raises questions about McCormick’s claims to be the “America First” candidate. Even a few-percentage-points bump for Oz could make the difference in a crowded field.
“The dynamics of this campaign was that [McCormick] was the MAGA guy and Oz was the RINO,” said Josh Novotney, a Republican lobbyist unaligned with any Senate candidate. Now, “It’s really tough to push that narrative.”
Here are three thoughts on what it all means, and what questions the endorsement raises.
OZ GETS A RINO REBUTTAL
Oz still has his share of liabilities in a primary, including a long list of comments that cut against conservative orthodoxy on issues like guns, abortion, and fracking.
But now he has one big eraser to respond to all of them: His views are good enough for Trump. It might be harder to call him a RINO when the most popular Republican says he’s not.
“It will give a bunch of Republican primary voters a reason to give Oz a second look,” said Chris Nicholas, a Harrisburg-based GOP strategist unaligned with a candidate.
But it won’t undo tens of millions of dollars of TV spending so far, much of it used to hammer Oz as a “Hollywood liberal.”
The endorsement “will have less impact now than it would have had perhaps in January or February,” Nicholas said. “You’ve got some people now with fairly set opinions of both of these folks.”
But while McCormick isn’t going to let up, the ultra-wealthy Oz has all the money he could need to promote the endorsement. That’s a potentially powerful combination. One neutral Pennsylvania Republican predicted a rise in Oz’s support as the endorsement sinks in with voters.
That could help against McCormick, and it might peel off Trump-aligned voters who are backing other candidates, Nicholas said, especially supporters of Carla Sands and Kathy Barnette, who have forcefully linked themselves to the former president.
WHAT’S TRUMP’S REAL POWER?
Polling shows Trump is undoubtedly popular with GOP voters. But can he convince them to change their minds?
In North Carolina’s Senate race, a Trump-backed candidate has surged ahead in the GOP primary, according to several polls. But one of those surveys also found an even split among Republicans about whether they favor someone endorsed by Trump, or someone who embraces the same policies but has a different tone and style.
That race hasn’t seen the kind of big TV spending that can define candidates early. Some Pennsylvania strategists said Trump’s endorsements have faded in power, and that the dynamics of the Pennsylvania campaign have been set by the ads that already flooded the airwaves.
McCormick’s camp says it has already made Oz unpalatable to many Republicans.
“The fundamental problem Dr. Oz has is his actual issue record is really bad,” said one strategist aligned with McCormick. Like others interviewed for this story, he spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. “I don’t believe there’s a magic wand to fix that problem.”
A pro-McCormick super PAC recently publicized its own polling that showed almost half of primary voters with a negative view of Oz. And McCormick’s campaign keeps hammering the message: A new ad Monday accused Oz of being “pro Clinton… anti-gun,” and “a complete and total fraud.”
Some prominent conservative influencers took to Twitter after the endorsement to denounce Oz and argue Trump made a mistake.
The direction the race takes now will give us a measure of Trump’s lasting influence with Republican voters.
WHAT NOW FOR MCCORMICK?
As big a win as this is for Oz, it’s also a significant loss for McCormick.
The Army veteran, hedge fund manager, and former George W. Bush administration official could have taken any number of paths for his campaign. Some thought he’d try to carefully straddle the line between Trump’s populism and traditional GOP voters.
Instead, he tried to squeeze himself into a MAGA profile.
Now the other guy has the Trump seal of approval. Maybe he can pivot, but for a candidate who already faced questions about his authenticity, a new message just weeks before the primary comes with its own risks.
“If [the endorsement] wasn’t important ... McCormick wouldn’t have hired everyone he could find in Trump world and pretended for four months that he was a Trump supporter,” said a strategist aligned with Oz’s campaign.
But several Republicans said McCormick can still argue he’s the better candidate to win the general election and carry Trump’s policies to Washington.
“I don’t think it ends the debate about anyone’s qualifications for the job,” Nicholas said. “There’s a difference between Trump and Trump-ism.”
McCormick’s team also pointed to endorsements from high-profile conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Hours after the Trump endorsement, McCormick rolled out support from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
It was a consolation prize.