How Jeff Roe Won the Pa. Primary

Roe and Youngkin
Roe advises Youngkin ahead of his Virginia gubernatorial win. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
June 1, 2022

If you’re watching the Pennsylvania Senate G.O.P. primary and are prone to nail-biting, you might want to avoid the recount battle taking place during the next few days. While celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz has quietly started branding himself as the “presumptive nominee,” his rival, former hedge fund executive Dave McCormick, has refused to give up. Two weeks into the official recount—required by state law if the margin between the top two contenders is less than 0.5 percent—McCormick has been incrementally closing the gap between himself and Oz. As of Wednesday afternoon, there is a paper-thin 0.02 percent gap between the two in a race in which roughly 1.3 million ballots were cast.

Whatever happens next, there’s no question that McCormick overperformed. “I know nobody probably wants to hear this right now, but it’s pretty impressive he went from zero percent name recognition to almost tied with the guy Trump endorsed and attacked him for,” a source close to the McCormick campaign pointed out. Indeed, despite Trump throwing his weight behind Oz, insulting McCormick and his allies, and holding his fire against Kathy Barnette, the third-place “ultra-MAGA” longshot who nearly stole the race, McCormick masterfully utilized Jeff Roe’s playbook—walking the line between blazing Trumpiness and establishment-friendly country club Republicanism—to come within millimeters of victory. And he may yet win.

Apart from the official recount, McCormick’s team recently requested hand recounts in at least twelve precincts in twelve different counties, demonstrating the Trumpian fanaticism with which they are attempting to eke out a victory. (They have stopped short of alleging election fraud, a move that would take McCormick straight into Rudy Giuliani territory.) A major component of their strategy hinges on whether they can validate a set of rejected mail-in ballots—860 of them, to be exact—despite the ballots lacking the properly written mail-in date.

The dispute could even be shaped by the Supreme Court—yes, the one in our nation’s capital. Apart from their suit to have hand recounts, McCormick’s team is suing the state to make them count undated ballots, arguing that these ballots were valid as long as the people who’d cast them had signed their names and mailed them before the deadline, regardless of whether or not they’d correctly written the date. Could these 860 ballots be enough to tip the balance, should Pennsylvania judges rule them eligible? Possibly, considering McCormick has performed better among voters who mailed in their ballots. “When there’s a race this close, every little thing made the difference so [it’s] hard to make big conclusions, in my opinion,” a Republican observing the race told me. 

If McCormick does prevail in his current challenges, it could create some awkwardness between McCormick and his party: The Republican National Committee has a vested interest in keeping undated ballots out of the official count (see: Trump’s 2020 claims of massive mail-in ballot voter fraud), and has officially sided with Oz in this case. A McCormick victory might also alienate various elements of the base: Nearly a quarter of the Pennsylvania primary electorate rejected both McCormick and Oz in lieu of the far Trumpier Barnette. And McCormick never looked entirely comfortable in the red MAGA gear. “You can’t just put the hat on, you have to be able to talk the language and appeal to voters,” said a source close to Trumpworld. “Did he talk about the electors in Arizona, Michigan, and other states, and how they defrauded the entire nation? Did he talk about Dominion voting machines?”

Ironically, McCormick’s team is now fighting the election results with precisely the sort of blustery, combative spirit that was missing on the campaign trail. Dave hasn’t become an election truther—there’s been no allegation of fraud, beyond the specter of various “abnormalities.” He already lost his opportunity months ago to win Trump’s endorsement (despite flying down to Mar-a-Lago twice). But his campaign manager, Jeff Roe, still has a long political career ahead of him. And he appears to be auditioning for Trump, himself.

As my colleague Tara Palmeri previously reported, it is widely assumed in Trumpworld that Roe wants to manage Trump’s 2024 campaign, and that he has been courting Trump for the job. The two have been working at cross purposes in multiple G.O.P. primaries this season, taking opposing sides, most famously in Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Trump appreciates people who stand up to him, and particularly those whom he perceives to be “winners.” Roe’s recent win-loss record is mixed—his client Josh Mandel lost the Ohio Senate primary, but another client, Jim Pillen, won the Nebraska governor’s primary against the Trump-backed Charles Hebster—but the general impression among those in Trump’s orbit is that Roe, by going all-out for McCormick, looks like a fighter.

“I say this—as someone who isn’t very fond of Roe—he is Trump’s best chance to win in 2024,” a source close to Trumpworld told me, highlighting a few of Roe’s many accomplishments: nearly pulling Ted Cruz over the finish line in 2016, scoring victories in territory unfriendly to Trumpism, occasionally besting Trump endorsees, and, crucially, understanding how to capture Trump’s attention. He also offers the tantalizing (if perhaps naive) possibility of lending Trump an aura of professionalism after a 2020 campaign that was overrun by political amateurs and election conspiracy freaks. “Trump in a Jeff Roe campaign basically isolates him from the rest of Trump World,” this person posited to me. “It gives him somewhat of a clean slate.” 

Given the near constant interpersonal dramas, backstabbing, and circus sideshows that dominated the Trump presidency, perhaps bringing in Roe could provide his campaign a much-needed reboot. Yes, we’ve heard that one before. But Roe, unlike Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Bill Stepien, or Brad Parscale, is a genuine, serious, and thoughtful political strategist. When I last interviewed him, in December, he was careful to articulate a vision of a post-Trump G.O.P. without ever closing the door on Trumpism, or on Trump. 

Still, just as the first year of the Trump administration was riven by factions led by Javanka, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be an inevitable culture clash between Roe and whatever new tribes have assembled on the back patio of Mar-a-Lago. “In a lot of ways, I see the campaigns as Jeff Roe campaigns instead of Candidate X’s campaigns,” the Trumpworld source added. That’s a far cry from Lewandowski’s former mantra of “Let Trump be Trump.”