How much does Donald Trump’s endorsement matter these days? Judging from the most recent poll out of the Pennsylvania G.O.P. Senate race, it’s certainly not negligible: after Mehmet Oz received Trump’s backing on April 9th, he vaulted several points above his rival David “Dave” McCormick, whom he now leads 22.7 to 19.7 percent, just outside the poll’s margin of error. It’s certainly a positive sign for Team Oz, but they’re not breathing easy just yet. McCormick had been the frontrunner for months and, according to recent financial disclosures, his campaign has way, way more money to burn ($27.1 million between self-financing, fundraising, and allied super PACs) than Team Oz ($16.7 million between the same types of groups) in these final weeks of the race. The primary is May 17th—less than one month away. If you’re a media buyer in Pennsylvania, you’ll have your work cut out for you.
Even more interesting to me, however, is what the conservative backlash to Trump’s endorsement reveals about the future of MAGAdom as a political bloc. It apparently isn’t as simple as Trump anointing new brand ambassadors, as evidenced by the intense vitriol directed against Oz by America First nativists and culture warriors. Generally speaking, these fringe-ish groups have attacked Oz on a number of levels: Oz is too Turkish, too Hamptons-y, and in his previous life as a daytime television star, too sympathetic towards trans children and abortion-seekers (though he’s now publicly anti-abortion and does not believe trans men should participate in women’s sports). These attacks are indications of a long-simmering, but largely undercovered, split in the populist movement. I’ve detected it ever since Steve Bannon tried to flex his influence in the party in 2017 to some success. Indeed, there are nationalist-populists, and then there are Trump fans. The potential that Oz does pull ahead in Pennsylvania suggests that split might be alive and well in 2022. And Oz just secured the Trump fans.
Which means McCormick has a steep uphill climb if he wants to put together a coalition of Chamber of Commerce Republicans, conservatives, and those remaining non-Trump MAGAheads (early in the race, Breitbart anointed him “Full MAGA”). He hired Trump’s campaign staffers (Hope Hicks and Cliff Sims), he secured an army of endorsements from state Republican power brokers while doing the V.F.W. circuit, and, again, he has the cash to burn. There’s a possibility that McCormick can overcome the biggest problems facing him—his former remarks about China, his lack of name recognition, his lack of a Trump endorsement—but the harsh reality is that he only has four weeks to do this. “McCormick has enough personal money to win by blanketing the airwaves with ads,” a former Trump advisor involved with neither campaign told me. “But there are only a few more weeks left in the primary and that might be the ultimate indicator if he wins or loses. If the primary date was later in the summer, he’d have an even greater shot.”