Four months out, both party primaries in the Pennsylvania Senate race are wide open, and the election to replace retiring incumbent Pat Toomey is drawing eyeballs from across the nation.
Dr. Mehmet Oz made a big splash when he jumped into the GOP pool last month, but there’s no indication yet that he’s lapping the competition. A few internal polls released just after Oz got into the race showed him with miniscule leads, while a majority of Republicans remained undecided. On top of that, the left-wing think tank Data for Progress unveiled their own survey showing Oz trailing Democratic front-runner John Fetterman 42% to 44%.
Of course, it was far from a banner opening for the Oz campaign. Most notably, a scathing piece from Olivia Nuzzi of New York Magazine portrayed a clueless and conniving candidate. The highlight (or lowlight, depending on your point of view) of the feature occurred when Oz’s wife, instead of hanging up on Nuzzi, unknowingly connected the reporter to the vehicle’s Bluetooth. As a result, Nuzzi overheard four painful unfiltered minutes of the couple’s conversation.
While Oz was struggling, hedge fund executive David McCormick got into the race and quickly hit the airwaves with several biographical TV ads. McCormick is banking on a plethora of connections to Donald Trump, chief among them his wife Dina Powell, who once served as Trump’s Deputy National Security Advisor. So while McCormick is backed by notable Trump alum like Stephen Miller, Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway, Oz is left to depend on supporters like Sean Hannity and Rudy Giuliani.
In the meantime, the two candidates are taking circumspect shots at each through Super PAC commercials. One anti-Oz spot paints the celebrity doctor as a “Hollywood liberal” while another ad hits financier McCormick for being soft on China. It’s all part of an air war which may exceed $100 million by the time of the May 17th primary.
Despite all appearances of a McCormick-Oz race, however, a series of straw polls suggest some discontent in the grassroots. 2018 Lt. Governor nominee Jeff Bartos won three separate regional surveys over the past weekend. While these contests were nonbinding, the results apparently reached Donald Trump, who was distressed to see Oz doing so poorly.
Altogether, until we get a poll testing the full Republican field, this will be a tough contest to accurately forecast.
On the surface, the Democratic contest is considerably simpler. For instance, all available polling shows Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman far ahead of all his challengers. A bit of probing, however, reveals some significant movement towards two more established candidates.
This past month, Congressman Conor Lamb made a swing through Philadelphia to tout a new round of endorsements, headlined by Mayor Jim Kenney. The Mayor of the City of Brotherly Love wasn’t shy about admitting his practical-minded reasoning.
“I wanna win and I think this is the way to win,” Kenney declared at his City Hall press conference with Lamb. “I don’t wanna be a mercenary about it — all the things I like about him are true — but when I look at the field, as much as I respect everybody else in the Democratic field, he’s the person that can win.”
Kenney’s rationale is strikingly similar to the philosophy that led the Democratic Party to rally around Joe Biden in late February and early March of 2020. In fact, Lamb is a proud discipline of Biden’s and created a deliberately comparable profile.
The Mayor wasn’t the only Philly power broker to throw his support behind Lamb either. The Pittsburgh-area Congressman also scored the backing of the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council.
Meanwhile, yet another challenger is countering with some Philly endorsements of his own, as State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta won the support of PA’s SEIU chapter. In direct response to Kenney’s pronouncement, union President Gabe Morgan made his own case for Kenyatta.
“The question people ask is: Can he win?” Morgan posited. “I guess what I’m curious about is why you think someone who does not represent what most working-class people and Democratic voters in the state want can win?”
It’s worth pointing out that Morgan’s framing of the race is pretty much the same as Fetterman’s. For that matter, perhaps we should ask why the Lt. Governor is not winning the establishment support we’d expect of a front-runner, nor the labor backing we’d expect of a self-styled working-class hero. It appears that Fetterman’s aversion to appealing to the powers that be may be hurting him on this front.
It all comes back to that central question of whether Fetterman’s unconventional style will alienate more voters than it attracts. We’ll begin to find out as the candidate re-introduces himself to the commonwealth over the next few weeks.