Oz’s Perfect Storm & MAGA’s Ye Problem

Republican Pennsylvania Senate nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Republican Pennsylvania Senate nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
October 26, 2022

From the beginning, Mehmet Oz faced an uphill battle in the Pennsylvania Senate race, carrying so much baggage that even a gold-plated endorsement from Donald Trump did not guarantee a victory in the primary. The MAGA faithful were suspicious of his Hollywood background, his equivocation on culture war issues, and his reputation—not entirely undeserved—as a wealthy New Jersey carpetbagger. And for once, these were all things that moderates worried about, too. What self-respecting Pennsylvanian mixes up Redner’s and Wegmans, or misspells the name of the town he allegedly lives in, or forgets how many houses he owns out of state? 

But over the past several weeks, and after some constructive criticism from at-their-wits-end G.O.P. powerbrokers, Oz has slowly closed the gap between himself and John Fetterman, his hulking, shorts-wearing, over-the-top authentically Pennsylvanian Democratic rival, to the point where he now trails Fetterman by only 2.3 percentage points, per FiveThirtyEight—solidly within the margin for a likely mini-red-wave election cycle where conservative candidates are expecting a rally to the upside. Republicans who were beginning to write off Oz have since rediscovered their faith. The Senate Leadership Fund, the Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC, and associated groups have been redirecting millions of dollars from New Hampshire into Pennsylvania in the final days of the campaign, funding a tidal wave of ads pummeling Fetterman as soft on crime.

On Tuesday night, of course, Oz caught his biggest break of all when he faced off with Fetterman for their first and only debate. Oz, a well-coiffed daytime television veteran, is a smooth talker even when his political instincts fall flat. But Oz, despite landing a handful of pre-baked performative talking points designed to neutralize Democratic attacks, didn’t need to win the debate so much as simply allow Fetterman to lose. 

Fetterman, after all, had only tentatively rejoined the campaign trail in recent weeks after a stroke in May put him in the hospital. Prior to the debate, the Fetterman team tried to lower expectations, releasing a memo noting that “Oz the Fraud” had significantly more television experience than Fetterman, and preparing reporters to expect “awkward pauses, missing some words, and mushing other words together” while he read off a closed-captioning service.  And while Fetterman obtained a note from his doctor declaring him fit for public service, Fetterman clearly struggled at times with auditory issues and fumbled his words repeatedly. Substantively, he inadequately explained his flip-flop from vehemently opposing fracking in 2018 to supporting it now, and, crucially, refused to release the medical records concerning his stroke.

Oz did himself no favors by suggesting that abortion should be left up to “women, doctors, [and] local political leaders”, a sound clip that the Fetterman campaign seized upon to raise $1 million that very night. But he maintained a coherent line of attack against Fetterman’s record as mayor of Braddock, as well as a few talking points about the economy and crime. “I think that Oz had enough moments of inspiration in that debate—taking people to a better place—to improve his favorables,” a seasoned Pennsylvania political observer told me afterward. “He also pushed back on some things that Fetterman has said that have contributed to his unfavorables. That helped him, and he stuck with policy… And you combine that with Fetterman’s performance, when voters did not understand how bad [his health] was—it’s a perfect storm that benefits Oz.”

The media coverage afterwards was virtually universal—Fetterman, by any objective standards, did not perform well—though reactions were split between those urging sympathy for his health problems and those questioning whether he should have continued running at all after his stroke. “I watched it with a bunch of people in a bar, almost all Democrats,” the observer continued, “and the fact that they were so stunned to see how bad Fetterman was is an indictment [on] the Democratic Party for being so secretive about how bad his condition is.”

At the same time, given the intense polarization of these times, it’s unclear whether the debate will end up moving the needle in any significant way. “Voters will see in it what they want. Is it any different than Herschel Walker and paying for an abortion while being adamantly opposed to abortion?” Larry Ceisler, a Philly-based political consultant and a Democrat, told me, adding that Oz still had high unfavorables that didn’t seem to go away after last night. “These guys are just button pushers, we are experiencing a parliamentary election, so voters just vote [by] party and not necessarily [for] individuals.”

Tulsi’s Army

I’ve been watching with fascination the evolution of the former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard: It takes quite a lot of gumption to switch from a Joe Biden-endorsing Democrat, to a party apostate accusing the “elitist cabal” of embracing “wokeness,” “anti-white racism” and antagonizing Russia into “nuclear war.” On the one hand, of course, the world underwent a drastic transformation between 2019 and 2022, driven by the pandemic, the rise of Black Lives Matter, the insurrection, and the invasion of Ukraine—events that have successfully radicalized vast swaths of the American voting populace, if not shaped Gabbard’s current world view. But on the other hand, looking at her record (and string of Fox News appearances), it’s hardly shocking that Gabbard, a former member of an anti-gay cult and novelty of the American libertarian movement, would find new allies among national conservatives

In the months leading up to her desertion, Gabbard courted the libertarian activist wing of the G.O.P., speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February and the Young Americans for Liberty conference in August. Matt Welch, the editor-at-large at the libertarian Reason, noted that Gabbard had always positioned herself as an iconoclast more than a Democrat, gaining her a fanclub on the right. “Different strains of libertarianism enjoy the type of people who say stuff like, ‘the Democratic Party is completely controlled by an elite cabal of war mongers,’” he joked. More concretely, Gabbard has always, consistently been against the Iraq War—now practically a tenet of NatCon ideology. Sure, she advocated for Medicare for All and a $15 federal minimum wage during her short-lived presidential campaign, but the usual left-right political compass basically stopped working in 2015, when Trump lurched onto the scene with a swiftly-abandoned campaign promise to end America’s wars and deliver universal healthcare. “Tucker [Carlson] is open not just to anti-interventionism, but also to people with Liz Warren style economics,” Welch observed, giving an example of a fellow “bi-curious” traveler. “And Tulsi has never been a centrist about that stuff.” 

At the moment, Gabbard has not said whether she’s formally joining the Republican Party, much less whether she would support Trump. On the contrary, she seems to be tapping into her libertarian fanbase, recently hosting Ron Paul on her new podcast, campaigning for MAGA congressional candidates, and appearing at an anti-trans youth rally with the Daily Wire. Her motivations, presumably, are more personal than political, to say nothing of any lingering presidential aspirations. Welch, a longtime observer of the libertarian world, predicted that Tulsi would be as successful running as a libertarian as she was as a Democrat—which is to say, not very successful at all. “When people from the more marginal or nascent ideological and partisan groupings suddenly get a Democrat who agrees with them on something, that’s really exciting for a moment,” he noted. “It’s more that [rather] than having this ready-to-go Tulsi army.” 

Wake Up Mr. West

Being dropped by Adidas, CAA, Balenciaga, and the law firm representing him in his divorce from Kim Kardashian hasn’t stopped Kanye West (aka Ye) from his recent, weekslong spate of anti-Semitic commentary and conspiracy theories. It’s nigh impossible to understand Ye’s intentions and interests, and it would be foolish to even try reading his mind—this afternoon, after all, he showed up unannounced outside of Sketchers’ HQ to try and sell them Yeezys. Even Fox News has avoided turning him into a free speech martyr. Indeed, as of now, the only prominent pseudo-mainstream right-wing pundit protesting that Ye has been “canceled” is his pal Candace Owens, the popular Daily Wire firebrand who built her career trying to convince Black voters to leave the Democratic Party.

“Black people [who] are ‘associated’ with Ye: NOT APPROVED,” she tweeted on Tuesday, referring to criticism she’d received for maintaining her friendship with the rapper, followed by a tweet suggesting that “corporations can disassociate from Ye but they can not steal from him.” (Adidas holds the branding and designs from the Yeezy collection.) Owens, notably, has a personal stake in ensuring Ye keeps his money: her husband, George Farmer, is in the process of selling Parler, the pro-MAGA social media platform, to Ye for an undisclosed, presumably multimillion-dollar sum. According to Forbes, the loss of the Adidas deal cost Ye hundreds of millions of dollars, and ultimately, his status as a billionaire. (As of today, he’s worth $400 million, per Forbes.) 

It’s not clear whether Ye can back out of the Parler deal, or if he even wants to do so—again, this is Ye we are talking about—but should he go through with it, Parler faces some truly existential problems. Ye, for one, has demonstrated a willingness to freely spout hate speech, and it’s not a leap of the imagination to presume that the rules of his social media platform, not to mention the users and posted content, would reflect his worldview. I cannot imagine that advertisers would want to sell ads next to Ye’s anti-Semitic ramblings, much less those of the Neo-Nazi fans who have applauded his statements. (Even Truth Social, the platform owned by Donald Trump, has rules against this sort of speech in its terms of service.)  And of course, as of next week, Elon Musk will own Twitter—an exponentially bigger platform, with a far more diverse set of users on it—and has promised to turn it into the free-speech Valhalla that Parler initially promised when it launched in 2018. My bold prediction: when he realizes that he owns a website overrun by non-monetizable white supremacist users with a smaller audience than he’s used to, Ye will eventually go back to Twitter… assuming Elon will have him.