No one in the Republican party, given its current configuration, was entirely surprised when Donald Trump endorsed cardiac surgeon and daytime TV diet pill evangelist Mehmet Oz in the pivotal Pennsylvania Senate G.O.P. primary, on Friday evening, about five weeks in advance of the election. The nod, after all, was based on familiar Trumpian factors: going with the guy he knows best, the one who performs better on television, and who has done more to publicly tickle the erogenous zones of his ego. “He has lived with us through the screen and has always been popular, respected, and smart,” Trump wrote in his endorsement. “He even said that I was in extraordinary health, which made me like him even more.”
But within MAGA world, it was as if a neutron bomb had exploded: How did the perfectly qualified, perfectly handsome, perfectly Republican David McCormick not get the endorsement? Earlier this month, McCormick (or “Dave” as his pals insist upon, just as aides insisted that Bloomberg be called “Mike”) even sought out Trump in person at Mar-a-Lago, twice, including as recently as last Wednesday, according to Mike Allen. Not to mention the fact that “Dave” happens to be married to Dina Powell, the Goldman executive and former Trump Deputy National Security Advisor, who had presumably helped his campaign hire former Trump junior varsity members such as Hope Hicks, Stephen Miller, and Cliff Sims.
Theories abound in G.O.P. operative circles about what transpired to persuade Trump to side with Oz. Perhaps Trump was too easily swayed by Fox host Sean Hannity, who had been publicly cheerleading Oz for months. Perhaps he had some resentment toward Powell, who was always more of a Javanka person anyway. Perhaps Trump’s Nielsen-ratings-obsessed brain was aroused, a possibility that he alluded to during a rally on Saturday, when he brought up Oz’s long television run: “That’s like a poll. That means people like you.”
The real decision-making may be a little more nuanced. I’m told Harold Hamm, a billionaire Oklahoma fracking baron and loyal Trump supporter, was pivotal in swaying Trump to this position, as well as other party insider wealthy backers: Steve Wynn, the hotel magnate and former R.N.C. chair; Wilbur Ross, Trump’s former Commerce Secretary; and Rick Perry, Trump’s former Energy Secretary. And of course, Melania Trump and Hannity were Oz’s biggest advocates.
This cycle’s Pennsylvania primary race has always been bizarre. Neither Oz nor McCormick are really Pennsylvanians, and both saw their electoral paths emerge late in the game, once the Trump-endorsed frontrunner, Sean Parnell, lost custody of his kids after a judge ruled that he had abused his wife. (Parnell is appealing.) Now both sides are likely to hit the mattresses. “Oh, they’ll be vicious,” a senior Republican operative told me. “I don’t see the McCormick campaign lying down.”
“I Guess We’ll Find Out…”
A large contingent of the G.O.P. believes that Trump, who is obsessed with ensuring he only endorses winners, made a risky, potentially embarrassing mistake based on personal feelings. McCormick is, admittedly, a focus group-tested grab bag of Republican identities: a Bush-era economic policy wunderkind and a Connecticut hedge fund centimillionaire who is simultaneously a highly contrived Breitbart-branded “full MAGA” populist in a Gerry’s down jacket ($53 on Walmart.com) who has hired half of the Trump inner circle to consult for him, retained a set of high-profile Trump endorsements (Sarah Sanders, Robert Lighthizer, Mike Pompeo), and, this weekend, scored Sen. Rick Santorum after Trump made his Oz endorsement. (I’m told that Stephen Miller, an unpaid consultant, detached from the McCormick campaign after the Trump endorsement, presumably avoiding a conflict.)
But this is a mix that makes McCormick electorally palatable to a wide range of Republicans, including several G.O.P. state party leaders, such as Christine Toretti, Rob Gleason, and Sam Demarco. To his credit, he’s also deftly avoided criticisms of carpetbagging by diligently courting state party luminaries and lighting it up on the V.F.W. circuit. Powell, who cut her teeth working for Dick Armey, the G.O.P. House majority leader of a bygone era, possesses unteachable political savvy and instincts, which were on display during her years in the Trump White House. Now with the support of said phalanx, the McCormick campaign has the cover to go hard after Oz in the coming weeks, Trump’s endorsement be damned.
Indeed, many of Trump’s most reliable apologists—Roger Stone (“President endorsed this guy?”), Jack Posobiec (“not very conservative, Doc!”), Kurt Schlichter (“disappointed”)—all seem to think he’s lost the plot. Parnell, who endorsed McCormick in January, provided perhaps the most unfiltered look at how the MAGA contingent is processing their betrayal. “You’re not America First,” wrote Parnell in a series of tweets and retweets savaging Oz. “You’re not a conservative. You’re not even from Pennsylvania. Hell no.”
But McCormick, for all his unlikely allies, has his hands full. Within the party, there is a small but meaningful minority, I’ve heard, who believe that running a traditional MAGA-curious Republican candidate, such as McCormick, against presumptive Democratic nominee John Fetterman, would be a mistake. Fetterman, an iconoclastic, six-foot-nine, athletic-shorts-wearing Bernie supporter who currently serves as lieutenant governor, has already achieved an unlikely celebrity in Pennsylvania. And Oz, an actual celebrity, is no traditionalist either. In fact, he has previously argued that trans kids should be supported, and that abortion should be legal in rare cases. (Oz is running on a pro-life platform and, in his latest ad, said that “men shouldn’t play women’s sports.”) He’s also a recognizable household name who polls well among suburban women, lately a difficult demographic for Republicans to win.
The last polling I’ve seen for the primary shows both McCormick and Oz tied around 14 percent, and whoever wins that race will run in a general election in a state that the Cook Political Report currently views as a tossup. While the G.O.P.’s hopes in Pennsylvania reflect their messaging strategy nationwide—essentially: Joe Biden and the Senate Democrats have been awful for America, send them home—it helps to have a good candidate, too. For now, the establishment line is, simply, to wait and see. “I think we’re in a good position to win that race regardless of who the nominee is,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News on Sunday, declining to weigh in on whether he supported Trump’s decision. “[I] guess we will find out in the next few weeks how much his endorsement made a difference.”