PHILADELPHIA — Mehmet Oz’s introduction to GOP grassroots politics is a code-red crisis. In his first three unofficial tests as a candidate in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary, the celebrity physician known as Dr. Oz has been handily rejected by party activists.
It’s a disappointing start for a cash-flush, top-tier candidate in one of the most important Senate races in the country.
A little over a week ago, Oz met with GOP state committee members and answered their questions alongside other Republican Senate candidates at a hotel just outside Harrisburg. Afterward, a straw poll was held. Despite his widespread name ID and deep pockets — he’s spent or booked $5.4 million on TV ads since Nov. 30 — Oz received just one vote out of more than 100 cast.
This past weekend, Oz had a chance to prove it was a fluke. Two different groups of state committee members — one in the Allentown area and one in northeastern Pennsylvania — again peppered Senate hopefuls with questions at party events. But he underperformed expectations again: He finished third in one straw poll and fourth in another.
“I think he has to do a lot more reaching out, at least to the political class. They haven’t had personal contact with him,” said Blake Marles, chair of the Northeast Central Republican Alliance, one of the caucuses that voted on Saturday. “In the three weeks or so that he’s been around, there hasn’t been much opportunity to get responses to questions.”
The straw poll results in the Senate race are not binding, and they’re not surveys of the actual electorate. Many political operatives expect that the state Republican Party ultimately will decline to endorse in the primary this year — giving state committee members much less power than they would otherwise have. But the fact that Oz has stumbled out of the gate in this first test among GOP activists has exposed vulnerabilities in his past record and raised questions about whether rank-and-file voters will also turn their backs on him once they learn more about him.
“There’s obviously a disconnect between the TV ads and the grassroots, and that’s what Dr. Oz is getting caught up in,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant who is not working for a candidate in the Senate primary.
It might not matter, though. Oz is seeking to run as a Trump-style gate-crasher who can attract hordes of ordinary Republican voters, not necessarily party officials, to campaign events. According to two separate gubernatorial campaigns in the state, Oz is leading in their internal polling of the GOP Senate primary.
“Dr. Oz is a conservative outsider, drawing large crowds of grassroots supporters everywhere he goes, including over 250 people in Old Forge just last week,” said Brittany Yanick, Oz’s communications director. “While he respects the process for the state party, his major focus is on spending time in our communities to hear how he can best serve Pennsylvanians. Dr. Oz is consistently speaking directly with voters and will continue to travel across the commonwealth to share his solutions to problems we are facing as a country.”
It is still early in the race, however, and Oz’s opponents and allied super PACs are expected to spend tens of millions of dollars on TV spots attempting to tear him down. Former President Donald Trump, whose endorsement is critical in GOP primaries, heard of Oz’s poor showing at the first caucus meeting, where he received a single vote: He was “taken aback” and “expected him to do better because of the celebrity,” a Trump-world adviser said.
GOP activists and political consultants said Oz is struggling among state committee members partly because his past comments on critical policies are coming back to haunt him. He previously voiced support for abortion rights and “red flag” gun laws. A recent ad by Pennsylvania Patriots PAC also points out that he once starred in a commercial trumpeting former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Another super PAC that is backing former hedge fund CEO David McCormick in the primary, Honor Pennsylvania, is also blasting Oz in spots as a “Hollywood liberal.” Rob Collins, chair of the group, said it is planning to raise and spend $50 million in the primary.
Ray Zaborney, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist who is not involved in the Senate race, said: “I think Oz has had some challenges because in the last few weeks, you’ve seen questions about his issue positions. And despite going to meet with state committee people and engaging them, what they’ve learned about him over the last couple weeks has been he did ads for Obamacare. There are questions about where he is on life. And those are fundamental questions for activists.”
Other party members said it’s Oz’s tenuous connection to Pennsylvania, a famously parochial state, that is hurting him. Oz was a longtime resident of New Jersey, and voted there as recently as 2020. He has said he is now renting a home owned by his in-laws in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Dick Stewart, co-chair of the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s Central Caucus, which voted over a week ago, said that meeting was “probably the first time people met [Oz], and he got some heavy questioning on, ‘How come you don’t own property here and are you associating with all these Hollywood liberals?’”
Yet Oz is only one of a handful of candidates in the Senate primary who have recently lived elsewhere. McCormick, who was raised in Pennsylvania and long owned a family farm in Bloomsburg, was a Connecticut resident until recently. Carla Sands, an ambassador to Denmark under Trump, grew up in Pennsylvania before spending decades in California. Still, some GOP insiders said Oz is perceived as having the thinnest ties to the state.
“I think McCormick got a lot more votes than Oz did because he has pretty strong connections to the community,” Stewart added. “He’s got a lot of support among, I would say, the movers and shakers in the party.”
Regardless, Stewart said Oz “acquitted himself well,” including on a tough question about whether he would renounce his Turkish citizenship. Oz is a dual citizen of that country and the United States.
“He basically said he’s a conservator for a relative over there and if he gave it up, he couldn’t really help that relative,” Stewart said. “I think he handled himself really well. He’s a pro. He’s very good at speaking.”
Gloria Lee Snover, chair of the Northampton Republican Party, said earlier this month that she was “not at all” considering supporting Oz. Her county is included in the Northeast Central Republican Alliance, which cast ballots this past weekend.
“He’s just not serious in my mind,” she said at the time. “He was huge pro-choice. I have all kinds of videos of him. And now he’s pro-life. Of all the candidates, I think he is the real carpetbagger and opportunist.”
After meeting Oz, she said, she appreciated that he “admitted he didn’t know the party structure or tradition, he’s just catching on to that.” Though she is not predicting he’ll win as Trump did the first time he ran in Pennsylvania, she said they do have something in common: “I have never heard such bad stuff about a candidate in my life. I get messages, memes, texts: ‘[Oz is] not pro-life, he’s for red-flag laws, he did this on his show. … We don’t like his morals.’ … Guess who they said all of that about?”
McCormick finished in second place in the two caucus votes over the weekend, and third in the vote the previous weekend by the state party’s Central Caucus, which represents the largest number of counties of those who have met so far. Kathy Barnette, a political commentator, performed particularly well at the Central Caucus, while Sands has done poorly at these events.
In an upset, Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer, placed first in each straw poll. He previously ran for lieutenant governor on the GOP ticket, and has spent years making connections with state committee members.
“I guess a lot of people don’t watch TV in the Central Caucus. And they’re not as wowed as maybe other people are by [Oz] entering the race,” said Lou Capozzi, chair of the Cumberland County Republican Party. “But he got in relatively recently … there have been people who have been running for Senate quite a long time, and announced eight or nine months ago, and they have a little bit of a head start on him.”
Together, the caucuses that have voted represent 37 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Three additional regional caucuses will meet in the upcoming days before the state committee ultimately decides whether to endorse a candidate in February.
Many in the party think it’s unlikely they will: At their recent caucus meetings, state committee members took a temperature check on whether they should endorse, and the majority opted against the idea.
Marles, the regional party leader, said Bartos won the support of party activists because he has studied the ins and outs of Pennsylvania.
“When you see somebody who has really made a deliberate effort to see the difference between Forest County and Lehigh County, it makes a difference to people,” he said. “Because he recognizes the needs are different.”
Bartos, who is positioning himself as the real Pennsylvanian in the race, tagged his opponents as “political tourists” in an interview.
“In each of the three caucuses, the questions that keep coming up from our state committee members to the candidates are, ‘When the pandemic struck, where were you … and what did you do to help Pennsylvanians?’” he said. “I was on Main Street doing everything I could to help save mom-and-pop small businesses … the voters know that several of these other candidates, especially the ones running slick TV ads, they were living elsewhere.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.