“You replied earlier that life begins at conception. I just want to clarify that.”
“At what point in your life did you realize that you had conservative values? … When you get to Washington, how do I know that you’re going to keep those values?”
“The advertisement against you where you are on your show, you’re asking a child, ‘What did it feel like when your parents thought you were a boy?’ That’s very disturbing.”
Attempting to assuage the attentive crowd of 400 at a town hall in Bucks County, Oz began to answer the final query, telling them something you don’t usually hear at political events of this kind.
“These are not pep rallies,” Oz said, absorbing the series of questions. “I want you coming in here skeptical.”
And skeptical Pennsylvania GOP voters are as they attempt to determine whether Oz is who he says he is and should be their nominee for the Senate in November amid a brutal battle over the airwaves between him and David McCormick, the rival whom he beat out earlier this month for the endorsement of former President Trump.
Speaking with The Hill prior to the event, Oz tried to explain his political evolution, a premise with which he did not take issue.
“A lot of things that you hear about are Trojan horses for some groups. You’ll say, ‘You know, that makes common sense.’ And then you’ll learn, because you’ve got to get smart about topics. You’ve got to study them. … I’d study them and I’d say, ‘Actually, although it sounds smart, here’s how it could be used against people in ways you wouldn’t want.’”
However, there’s a good chance all the intraparty concerns will be a moot point come May 17 after Oz nabbed Trump’s endorsement, putting him in the driver’s seat with three weeks to go. Oz said the push for the endorsement came over the course of three meetings with Trump since announcing his bid in December.
“It was not a hard sell. I didn’t even ask for the endorsement in the first meeting,” Oz said, adding that he made the official endorsement request during their third get together.
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Trump’s blessing also gives Oz something he desperately needs at this point: cover. Only six years ago, Trump, who had a lengthy track record of donating to Democratic politicians holding pro-abortion rights and other liberal views, became the first GOP presidential candidate to win the Keystone State in nearly three decades.
“He’s been pretty accessible. Not only does he have the celebrity factor, but he’s out with the people,” one Pennsylvania-based political operative who is unaffiliated with the race told The Hill. “There’s a lesson from Trump in ’16: They’ll forgive you for a lot if you’re willing to stand in front of them and talk to them about it. Our base isn’t, ‘Oh this guy was pro-choice 10 years ago.’ They just want someone who is on their side. They don’t care how he got there anymore.”
According to the most recent polls, that sentiment is mostly ringing true. In the Trafalger Group’s latest poll taken after Trump announced his endorsement, Oz holds a 3-point advantage over McCormick, though the survey was taken well before the endorsement had sunk in with the voting electorate. In addition, polling from sources involved in the race shows Oz with a slight lead following Trump’s endorsement, but within the margin of error. While he is seen as slightly more conservative than he was before, he is still viewed unfavorably by nearly half of the primary electorate.
“President Trump’s impact on the race has been clear. In addition to bigger crowds, and higher digital fundraising numbers, Dr. Oz’s lead has widened in our internal polling,” Oz campaign manager Casey Contres told The Hill.
Although the McCormick side has a virtually bottomless pit of cash to carpet-bomb Oz’s campaign in the coming weeks with accusations that he’s a “Hollywood liberal,” there are concerns that Oz’s unique way of connecting with voters — one that kept him on the air for 13 years — could be a deciding factor when all is said and done as Oz continues to attract crowds across the state.
To that point, Oz (along with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who said the attacks calling into Oz’s conservative stances are a “bunch of crap”) stayed afterward to grip, grin and talk with supporters for roughly an hour following the town hall.
“His celebrity status would worry me the most, that he’s just so well-known and he’s really good on television,” said Rob Gleason, the Republican Party of Pennsylvania chairman from 2006 until 2017, including Trump’s 2016 win. Gleason has endorsed McCormick and has criticized Oz for only recently moving to the commonwealth.
“But remember, primary voters are hardcore Republicans, and they are pretty conservative,” he continued. “Primary voters know what they’re doing and they are very conservative. It’s the same group that elected [Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin], we have those people living out here, so that’s what I think is going to rule the day. … It’s not that they’re angry or anything with Dr. Oz, but it’s just that he’s not the conservative you need.”
However, the Trump aspect cannot be overstated. One questioner at the event told Oz that they were there simply because the former president had endorsed him.
“I will forgive him for all of his leftist past. He was a celebrity. Trump had the same issues,” said Vanessa Fiori, a candidate for the GOP’s state committee from Bucks County, after the event.
However, the battle between Oz and McCormick has one group of people excited: D.C. Republicans. Almost universally, GOP operatives are convinced that either candidate will win in November if Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman holds on for the Democratic nod. In fact, Republicans in Washington had lost confidence in Sean Parnell, the original Trump-endorsed candidate before he dropped out amid a custody dispute, to the point that they were unlikely to get involved in the race if he were the nominee, according to one GOP strategist.
“I would take either one of them in a second,” a second GOP operative said.
The Oz-McCormick fight will also take on a new shape tonight, as the two are set to take part in their first debate together at 8 p.m. hosted by Nexstar Media.
Despite the optimism, there is one concern Pennsylvania Republicans harbor: that state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R), a leader in the push to overturn the 2020 election results, could nab the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination and drag the entire ticket down in November, including the Senate race. According to one source familiar, at a recent Mar-a-Lago fundraiser for former Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), Trump spent time addressing the attendees by panning Bill McSwain (whom he recently assailed as a “coward” for not backing his voter fraud claims), speaking highly of Barletta and talking up Mastriano.