McCormick’s Last Stand

Dave McCormick
Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
May 4, 2022

While David “Dave” McCormick continues his dogged march through Pennsylvania’s seemingly infinite V.F.W. halls and Bucks County diners, Mehmet Oz is gearing up for a Friday rally with his most valuable supporter Donald Trump, whose recent endorsement in the Ohio G.O.P. Senate primary just propelled late MAGA convert J.D. Vance from a meager third place to a resounding victory. Vance, of course, was previously unpopular with diehard Trumpists—whose idol he once called “noxious” and “an idiot”—and remains quietly disliked by the Republican establishment in Washington. But a Trump nod (plus the approval of Tucker Carlson) hides a multitude of sins.

Indeed, Vance jumped at least 15 points in the RCP polling average between April 14, when it was first rumored that Trump was about to endorse him, and the primary election last night, when Vance clobbered runner-up Josh Mandel, the fist-throwing Ohio state treasurer, by a whopping 9.5 point margin. It didn’t hurt that Vance received $15 million from his longtime mentor-patron, Peter Thiel, the largest single Senate campaign donation on record, which allowed Vance (and Thiel, via a Super PAC) to blanket the state with TV ads highlighting his Trump seal of approval. Of course, money like that is table stakes in the Pennsylvania race, considering that both McCormick and Oz are self-made centimillionaires who’ve personally donated millions to their own campaigns; both are supported by super PACs juiced up by equally rich allies. All other things being equal, the Dina Powell-Jeff Roe-Hope Hicks brain trust has got to be worried about what just went down in Ohio.

But the Pennsylvania race, insiders say, is not over. As an Oz ally put it to me, the Ohio race was more of a gladiator match—every candidate had massive negatives and had to vie for Trump’s endorsement to break out of an equally disliked pack. Pennsylvania Republicans are blessed, on the other hand, with two top-tier pro-Trump candidates, either of whom would be perfectly palatable as a G.O.P. senator. (At the very least, they aren’t picking physical fights with each other.) A Trump endorsement certainly helps Oz, but it may not be conclusive as it was for Vance. “Trump endorsing Vance was like the sky falling down,” the Oz ally explained. “Trump endorsing Oz was not a giant surprise.” 

The most recent Monmouth polling illustrates the state of play: Oz, a former daytime television star, is well-known (92 percent name recognition), but has higher unfavorability rating (37 percent) than McCormick (15 percent), likely due to past positions on abortion and trans rights—issues that are far less forgivable to the MAGA base than, say, previously disliking Trump. (The moment that the Roe v. Wade ruling was leaked, McCormick immediately ran an ad campaign whacking Oz.) McCormick, on the other hand, has a high favorability rating (51 percent) compared to Oz, 80 percent of voters recognize him (not bad), and his resume is practically bulletproof. 

If McCormick loses on May 17th, I’m hearing a heap of blame will likely descend on his senior adviser, Jeff Roe, the longtime G.O.P. political consultant whose MAGA-lite campaign strategy helped put Glenn Youngkin (another vest-wearing finance guy) in the Virginia governor’s mansion. Youngkin’s victory was heralded in the press, and in more moderate Republican circles, as representing a new era of Trump-adjacent G.O.P. politics. But Pennsylvania (Biden +1.17 percent) is not Virginia (Biden +10.11). Perhaps, given the state’s more aggressively blue-collar, election integrity-skeptical electorate, McCormick should have done more—a “Let’s Go Brandon” rap video?—to truly go “Full MAGA.”

Roe already appears to be in full C.Y.A. mode, reportedly calling Trump last night to congratulate him for getting Vance over the finish line. (“Vance was dead without you.”) There’s already one Politico story describing the Pennsylvania race, as well as the Vance-Mandel face-off, as a proxy war between Trump and longtime Roe ally Ted Cruz; there’s allegedly another story in the works at NBC. 

Ron DeSantis’s Mouse Hunt

I’ve been chewing over the implications of Disney’s Bob Chapek dismissing Geoff Morrell, the company’s top spokesperson and government relations official, due to his bungled handling of the company’s inadvertent turn in the culture war barrel, which stemmed from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s threat to strip the company’s age-old protected tax status over its stance on the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. (Morrell may say he stepped down, but let’s be real here.) Morrell’s crumbling is surprising given his experience in the dark arts of scorched Earth crisis comms. Prior to Disney, Morell was a Republican operative, whose career included stints at the Pentagon as a spokesman for Robert Gates, where he defended the increasingly-unpopular Iraq War; and at Brunswick, the very British crisis firm, where he successfully managed BP’s reputation after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from his Louisiana bunker-slash-panic room. 

So you’d think that Morrell would have been perfectly suited to defending his employer, given his allies in the G.O.P.—he’s donated to Mitch McConnell, Steve Scalise, and Kevin McCarthy, among others—and his deep familiarity with the party’s tempestuous mood during this highly-charged moment. Or at the very least, you’d assume he could have managed the crisis through the cold-blooded and calculated art of backroom political wrist-bending—Disney is Florida’s largest employer, after all—as his predecessor, Zenia Mucha, herself a former Republican operative, would have done.

But instead, his passive approach to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill gave DeSantis and his populist allies the perfect opportunity to slice through Disney’s reputation, all within four months of Morrell’s start date. (My colleague Matt Belloni’s dissection of Morrell’s downfall is worth reading for the Disney insider goss alone.) Tragically, Morrell initially minimized the bill, then reversed the company’s position when L.G.B.T. employees rebelled, eventually leaving Disney vulnerable to a harmful political caricature that could have material reputational and revenue implications. Many on the right, such as Ben Shapiro, are already plotting how to capitalize on the growing market of parents who fear Disney has gone woke. In short, it never should have gotten here.

The biggest lesson: Just because you hire someone with a staunchly Republican background, doesn’t mean you’ve hired someone who can accurately steer your corporate behemoth through a Culture War crucible with any more adroitness than, say, Ted Sarandos dealing with internal strife over Dave Chappelle at Netflix, or Daniel Ek trying to get a grip on Joe Rogan backlash at Spotify. In fact, it could be a disadvantage, depending on which administration your former Republican operative served. 

Agenda-setting political media on the right isn’t just limited to Fox News these days: there’s at least three other competing TV networks, all with more extreme right wing views, as well as a bevy of MAGA social media platforms, a groundswell of smaller culture war-driving news sites, and an exponentially-multiplying number of MAGA online influencers. (Team DeSantis, I’ve often been told, are voracious consumers of right-wing media.) Combined, this information environment can immediately shape the decisions of right-wing lawmakers to a degree that might be hard for a traditional comms firm to wrap their heads around: lib-owning is no longer an internet trope, but an actual scorched-earth political strategy beyond the bounds of financial sense or country-club solidarity. Did Morrell ever imagine that he’d have to deal with Ted Cruz—a U.S. Senator and former Presidential candidate—alleging that The Walt Disney Company promotes bestiality? It probably wouldn’t have happened in 2018.

Madison Cawthorn’s Lohan Moment

Republicans in Washington were already sick of Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s antics back in early April, when Senator Thom Tilllis declared that Cawthorn needed to leave Congress. But in the three weeks since I last checked in on the party’s 26-year-old problem child—right after he alleged that he’d been invited to a cocaine orgy, had his driver’s license revoked, and called Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug”—Cawthorn has continued to spiral. He was accused of insider trading and participating in a crypto scheme; he tried to carry a loaded gun onto an airplane (for the second time in the past year); and old footage surfaced revealing Cawthorn wearing women’s lingerie (“goofy photos” taken during “a game on a cruise,” he said). Shortly afterward, someone released a video depicting one of Cawthorn’s male staffers appearing to place his hand on Cawthorn’s crotch. (About an hour after I published this column, a third, far more X-rated video was released. You can find it on Twitter if you must.)

Obviously, plenty of Cawthorn’s disapproving peers in Congress want to see him resign, or at least be made unelectable come November. But, from what I hear, his fans among the MAGA crowd are worried, too. Cawthorn’s approval rating has been plummeting in his district over the past several months, though his re-election is still likely thanks to (frankly) a glut of G.O.P. challengers dividing the field. 

If he makes it through this second or third round of scandals (who can keep track?) and manages to get re-elected, he might be one of the movement’s standard-bearers: young, attractive, instinctively attuned to the currents of MAGA theology, and hellbent on lib-owning. But he’ll need to get his shit together, especially inside his Capitol Hill office. “If he gets through this onslaught, he will be stronger than he was when he was first elected,” one MAGA strategist told me. “He can use it as an opportunity to grow up.”