Erie, Pennsylvania (CNN)In the Pennsylvania Senate race, one candidate is accusing a rival of having “dual loyalties” to the US and a foreign country. In turn, that rival is charging his opponent with being too cozy with China.
But these aren’t candidates from opposing parties. They are hedge-fund executive David McCormick and TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, two of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination.
With months to go until Pennsylvania’s scheduled May 17 primary, Keystone State Republicans are girding themselves for a long and bruising fight for the Senate nomination to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. That will come ahead of what is likely to be a competitive general election — the seat is one of the top targets for national Democrats, and the November outcome could determine which party controls the Senate next year.
Without a clear primary preference from either Trump or Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, the Oz and McCormick teams are preparing to engage in a war of attrition.
Both candidates have flooded the airwaves with television ads in the first weeks of their campaigns, spending a combined more than $10 million to overwhelm primary voters with their messages. Super PACs supporting Republican candidates have chipped in an additional $3 million total. And another Republican candidate, former US ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands, has also spent more than $2 million on ads so far.
The ads, particularly from the super PACs, are hitting the rival candidates hard on everything from McCormick’s hedge fund investment in China to a PSA from Oz touting the benefits of Obamacare. Pro-Sands ads, meanwhile, aren’t yet engaging in the slugfest.
Rob Kania, a Pittsburgh-area Republican donor who is not yet aligned in the race, says the ads from the candidates and PACs are all over TV. “You’d think the election was in two weeks,” said Kania.
And hanging over the whole primary is the contest over who can appeal most to the pro-Trump Republican voters. That’s forced candidates to try to align — or in some cases, realign — themselves with the GOP base on issues like the validity of the 2020 election and being tough on China.
Pointed attacks over personal ties
Both Oz and McCormick are emphasizing their Pennsylvania roots while trying to undermine their opponents, as they seek to sway pro-Trump, Republican primary voter.
One Oz ad features the candidate pointing to the dormant smokestacks of the Bethlehem Steel plant and lamenting the loss of “Pennsylvania jobs.” Oz was born in Ohio and grew up in Delaware but attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. His wife, author Lisa Oz, is from Philadelphia.
“I can’t be bought,” says Oz in one of his ads, a line he frequently uses on the campaign trail that echoes Trump’s own claim during 2016 to be above corruption.
For his part, McCormick was born near Pittsburgh and grew up in Bloomsburg, southwest of Wilkes-Barre. His high school gym is featured in one ad, and two of his friends and hunting buddies from the area are featured in another.
“America’s under attack from the woke left, Big Tech, and dumb government,” says McCormick in his latest spot.
But the more negative ads indicate where the primary is headed. Groups supporting McCormick have already hit Oz with claims he is a “Hollywood liberal” who supported Obamacare, while the Oz campaign aired an ad warning voters about McCormick’s financial investments in China to the sound of a banging gong.
“McCormick: China’s friend, not ours,” said the ad’s narrator.
Asked to respond to the ad, a spokeswoman for McCormick’s campaign called into question his opponent’s own loyalties.
“Mehmet Oz – citizen of Turkey, creature of Hollywood – has spent the last 20 years making his fortune from syndicating his show in China, enriching itself through censorship and CCP propaganda,” said Jess Szymanski, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. “While Mehmet has been silent on China until he needed to knock down Dave’s credentials, Dave was serving our country and standing up to the CCP.”
Syzmanski continued, “How can he claim to be America First when he has dual loyalties?”
Brittany Yanick, Oz’s spokeswoman, called that a “disgusting attack.”
“He maintains his dual citizenship to oversee the care of mother, who has Alzheimer’s,” Yanick said. “McCormick knows this and the attack on a son standing with his mother has no place in public discourse. McCormick should be ashamed of himself.”
Looking to benefit from the crossfire are the other Republicans running — including Sands and Jeff Bartos, the party’s 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor. Bartos has made his background—and Oz and McCormick’s recent moves back to the state from the greater New York City area, where Oz produced his TV show and McCormick ran his hedge fund—a primary issue, helping him win some straw polls of party activists.
Bartos told CNN that his “grassroots army” will help him defeat his deep pocket opponents, whom he calls “political tourists” compared to himself, “the only lifelong Pennsylvanian in the race.”
“They’re running around the state. They’re taking Instagram photos and little videos. They’re almost, if you will, collecting a scrapbook of where they’re visiting,” said Bartos. “I’ve been traveling the state for five years. I’ve been actually on Main Street, sleeves rolled up, trying to save small businesses.”
Charlie Dent, the former Pennsylvania congressman and a CNN contributor, said the “big battle” between the three “self-funders”—McCormick, Oz and Sands—”might make it easier for Bartos to break through a little bit.”
Navigating the ‘big lie’
One dividing line in GOP primaries across the country is whether the candidates embrace Trump’s false claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election through widespread fraud. Trump has endorsed candidates from local offices to the US Senate who have undermined faith in Biden’s victory.
While all the Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidates run on what they perceive as Biden’s failed record on nearly everything, they haven’t all firmly acknowledged his election was valid. Bartos told CNN, “I believe Joe Biden won Pennsylvania and won the presidency.”
But Oz and McCormick have so far dodged the question, saying that Biden is president without explicitly stating that he was legitimately elected.
“Joe Biden is unfortunately the President and he has been a disaster,” Oz told CNN.
When asked about McCormick’s view, his campaign pointed to what he told an NBC affiliate in January. “There were a number of election irregularities in Pennsylvania,” he said. “Listen, Joe Biden is the President, and we need to look forward and elect a great senator in 2022 and a great president in 2024.”
A spokeswoman for Trump did not respond to questions about whether the former President, who endorsed Sean Parnell before Parnell dropped out of the race in November, is expected to make another endorsement in the Pennsylvania GOP primary.
China connections under scrutiny
Like disputing 2020 election, toughness on China has emerged as another litmus test for Republican candidates. McCormick seems to recognize his potential vulnerability on China even before he joined the field.
In December, as he was considering a campaign, McCormick told his colleagues at his hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, that he disagreed with co-chairman and founder Ray Dalio’s defenses of China, according to a report from Bloomberg. And he published an op-ed at Fox Business on January 13, the day he entered the Senate race, calling China “the greatest economic and national security threat to the United States.”
But McCormick was still CEO of Bridgewater when the company raised $1.3 billion for a new private fund in China. And he has spoken in the past few years about how there won’t be global progress on some issues, including on climate change, without cooperation between the two countries.
McCormick also spoke favorably of China as a top Treasury Department official in the George W. Bush administration, during a time when Washington broadly sought to engage with China and hoped to encourage it on a mutually beneficial path towards economic liberalization.
“When China succeeds, the United States succeeds,” said McCormick in a 2007 speech on the US-China economic relationship at Peking University in Beijing.
Asked what the biggest policy difference was in the Senate campaign, Oz told CNN it was “honesty” before attacking McCormick on China.
“He is choosing not to be honest with Pennsylvanians about his business dealings and coziness with China,” Oz said in a statement.
David Urban, a former Trump campaign adviser, Pennsylvania native, and fellow West Point graduate, defended his friend McCormick, saying his comments on China during the Bush era was “the conventional wisdom of the time.”
“The world view on China has changed,” said Urban. “It has evolved. Not just David McCormick’s, but everyone’s world views have evolved. I don’t think David McCormick is out of step one bit with the rest of the pack here.”
GOP Rep. Dan Meuser told CNN that he supported McCormick because of his expertise grappling with China.
“I’m proud to support Dave for the US Senate and know with his battle-tested experience he will stand up to our adversaries, like China, revive our economy, and put America First from day one,” said Meuser.
Past praise for Obamacare
Oz, meanwhile, is contending with claims from McCormick allies that he previously praised aspects of the Affordable Care Act. One ad from a group called Pennsylvania Patriots uses a 2010 clip of Oz from a public-service announcement in California touting the benefits of the newly-passed Obamacare law.
“The new health care law has so much in it that can help Californians get better and more affordable health care,” Oz said at the time.
CNN asked Oz at a campaign event in Erie about the ad’s claim that he “promoted” Obamacare.
“I made a public service announcement around the law that was designed to give more people coverage. That’s not the problem with Obamacare. The problem is that it didn’t deal with the important issue of costs,” Oz said.
He later told CNN over email that “Obamacare and its rising costs have destroyed our healthcare system.”
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Pennsylvania Republican who has endorsed Oz, likened the scrutiny for Oz’s past activities to the questions that other Republicans from the entertainment industry, like Trump and Ronald Reagan, were able to brush off.
“Dr. Oz will overcome this as his policy positions become more clear to the Pennsylvania voter,” Reschenthaler said. “But I can tell you that I would not have endorsed Dr. Oz if I had any question on where he was on the Second Amendment, issues of life, issues for the working men and women of Pennsylvania.”
The back-and-forth between Oz and McCormick and their allies is only the beginning of what’s to come in Pennsylvania over the next few months, said Dent, a CNN contributor.
“These ads will be about as subtle as a crowbar across the bridge of the nose,” said Dent.