Election 2020 Politics

Dr. Oz’s Trump-infused Senate run is coming down to the wire

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GREENSBURG, Pa. — Dr. Mehmet Oz wooed millions of viewers by remaining mostly politically neutral. You don’t dominate daytime television for more than a decade by offending half the audience. But on this long night of punishing rain and boot-enveloping mud last Friday, Oz is fired up, a Republican warrior running for the U.S. Senate, delivering a fusillade of hits from the Trump playbook: America first, gun rights, “keeping our borders clean,” fighting China, fighting Washington, fighting “far-left, liberal-woke ideology” and firing the nation’s other most-famed physician, Anthony Fauci.

At age 61, Oz is a national brand who has enjoyed three distinct acts: eminent cardiothoracic surgeon and inventor of lifesaving devices; best-selling author, television celebrity, promoter of alternative health remedies and controversial get-fit-fast supplements; and now neophyte political candidate. Oz is the only individual to be endorsed by Oprah Winfrey as “America’s doctor” for television audiences and Trump for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

What, precisely, is he doing in Pennsylvania, touring diners, attending ice-fishing dinners, toting rifles and getting drenched at a county fairground? Depending on whom you speak to, Oz is a wealthy carpetbagger, another recovering moderate who made a Trumpian deal to win a Senate seat (like Ohio’s J.D. Vance who is also here tonight), the future of the Republican Party — or all of the above.

Oz is the focal point of Tuesday’s doozy of a Republican primary. The campaign has been nasty and costly, crowned among the most expensive in the nation. It’s also been the least likely of Pennsylvania races: national in tone, dominated by multi-millionaires who until recently lived elsewhere, and featuring a national celebrity. This state tends to elect workhorses, not candidates who have discussed healthy urine on air with Jennifer Lopez. But this is the modern state of politics.

″He didn’t need this,” Trump says from the fairgrounds stage. “Just like I didn’t have to be here tonight in this horrible rainstorm.” Yet here he is in Pennsylvania, the battleground state that ultimately put President Biden over the top in the 2020 election.

The rally is a whole lot of Trump with a dash of Oz. The former president spends as much time trashing the un-MAGAness of exiting Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Oz’s chief rival, former hedge fund CEO David McCormick (“liberal Wall Street Republican”), as he does praising his pick. It takes him 45 minutes to get around the task at hand.

“He’s in the bedrooms of all those women telling them good and bad — and they love him,” Trump says. When he attended an event with Oz, the women “started going crazy.” Oz is fit, tall, trim, telegenic. Trump sees in him a kindred television celebrity wading into Republican politics. He likens Oz’s talk-show longevity to electability. “That’s like a poll, that means people like you,” Trump said in his April endorsement at a North Carolina rally.

“The parallels are uncanny. People are suspicious of anyone who comes from entertainment,” says Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) of Oz and Trump. Still, “Dr. Oz is an expert communicator. If we have someone as talented as him as our candidate, I think a lot of voters are going to switch parties.”

Oz is heckled repeatedly last Friday. When he first appears onstage, two rows of Trump supporters turn their backs to the candidate and point their thumbs downward toward the muck.

Despite the incessant barrage of political ads in the state, interviews with a dozen rally attendees found them unsure of who would win their vote. They are here for Trump, and their loathing of Biden (many sporting apparel that suggests an unprintable act). The Senate race is the undercard.

A Fox News poll released Tuesday shows Oz at 22 percent with McCormick at 20 and former political commentator Kathy Barnette at 19, and 18 percent of voters undecided. Barnette is a Black woman running in the most populous state to never elect a female U.S. senator or governor, and has landed zingers at her opponents during debates. “When these carpetbaggers lose, you will never see them again,” Barnette said. “And if they should win, you will never see them again.” This week, the pro-business Club for Growth endorsed her and committed $2 million in ads during the final days of the primary.

Barnette’s surprising surge prompted Trump to release a statement Thursday, claiming that she “will never be able to win the General Election” and that Oz “is the only one who will be able to easily defeat the Crazed, Lunatic Democrat in Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania’s GOP politics were long genteel and respectful, more country club than WWE. Some residents remain incredulous. Says a Republican party insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to remain publicly neutral in the primary, “When I heard Oz was running, I thought it was a joke.”

Most of the GOP race’s lucre has been spent by Oz and McCormick, two immensely wealthy individuals. McCormick, who was raised in Pennsylvania, hadn’t lived here for some years prior to his run. Until recently, they both resided in the more Democratic environs of New Jersey and Connecticut, respectively. Neither has a U.S. Senate seat being vacated, so they’re in Pennsylvania fracking for votes.

According to his financial disclosure report, Oz is worth more than $100 million and as much as $422 million, the range due to minimum and maximum investment valuations. These includes sizable stock holdings in “big pharma” and “big tech,” which he rails about going “to war against” in speeches. For two decades, Oz’s primary residence was a six-bedroom North Jersey home with an indoor basketball half court. The house offers spectacular views of Manhattan, where Oz long practiced medicine and preached health on television. In late 2020, Oz and his wife moved into a house owned by his wealthy in-laws in suburban Philadelphia, which he is renting while a nearby $3.1 million home they purchased earlier this year undergoes renovations.

“I began seriously considering politics after witnessing the inadequate response of our public health leaders and government to covid,” Oz wrote in an email shared by his spokeswoman. That’s not about Trump: “The Far Left’s mandates and lockdowns took away our freedom and cost us too many lives, jobs, and opportunities.” He wants to fight censorship and “refocus American health care on empowering patients” and lowering costs, and proposes “an Operation Warp Speed for domestic energy production.” The campaign suggested friends and colleagues to interview but did not make the candidate available in person or by phone.

During the pandemic, Oz advocated the use of hydroxychloroquine, though its benefits remain unproven. On Fox News, he suggested that reopening schools, based on what he read in a medical journal, “may only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality.” That death rate, he said, “might be a trade-off some folks would consider.” He later apologized and said he “misspoke.”

Before the pandemic, Oz’s promotion of controversial treatments products earned him scorn from medical colleagues, and a complaint to Columbia University’s medical school and health system where he long practiced. In 2014, he was pummeled in a congressional hearing.

Born in Cleveland and raised in Delaware by immigrant parents from Turkey, Oz has long been “tenaciously competitive,” says Billy Campbell, his roommate when they were Harvard undergrads. Later, Oz received his medical degree and MBA at the University of Pennsylvania, the only time he resided in the commonwealth before his Senate bid.

During 13 seasons and 2,231 episodes of “The Dr. Oz Show” through its Jan. 14 finale, two former associates say, he was compassionate, enthusiastic, driven and never once shared his political views off-camera, perhaps because he knew their views might differ. By the end of the program’s run, ratings had plummeted and Oz had curiously pivoted from health to true crime.

His interest in politics dates from long before the pandemic, friends say. “I was more surprised by his foray into Oprah Winfrey and promoting supplements than his foray into politics,” says Dale Janik, his cadaver partner in their Penn anatomy class. Their first day of medical school, Janik recalls, he greeted classmates by saying “Hi, I’m Mehmet Oz, and I want to be your class president.” He won handily and ultimately became president of the entire student body.

“He likes to fix things,” says Campbell, a television executive. He recalls Oz saying of his lengthy television career, first on the Discovery Channel, then five years guesting in blue scrubs on Winfrey’s show and finally with his own syndicated program, “I get to reach a really big audience. And I can effect change.” Politics is an arena where he can do both, Pennsylvania’s Senate seat presenting “a combination of right time, right place,” Campbell says.

“A Teddy Roosevelt Republican” is how Oz described himself in a 2008 interview with a Canadian medical journal, where he praised Hillary Clinton, universal health care and declared “I’m not socially conservative.” In his extended reign of constant media exposure, Oz has left a huge swath of television and radio interviews espousing more temperate positions on abortion and gun control for opponents to harvest.

Ads sponsored by a pro-McCormick super PAC include “The Californians,” with Oz kissing his Hollywood star, and another featuring him dancing with Michelle Obama. The Oz campaign fired back with “China’s Bro Dave McCormick.” Several ads question the Pennsylvania-ness of the other.

The state has elected wealthy, heavily self-funded men before, including Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, but not outsiders.

“This is not New York. We’re not used to carpetbaggers,” says former seven-term GOP Rep. Charlie Dent, now a commentator on CNN. In this race, “There seems to be an air of entitlement, of great wealth and celebrity.”

“Two tourists who’ve moved here to run,” said candidate Jeff Bartos during an April debate in Harrisburg.

Trump’s endorsements in the 2022 Republican primaries

Rather than traditional bread-and-butter issues — inflation, taxes, jobs — the GOP primary has feasted on red-meat ones. “Culture-war knife fights” is one of Oz’s catchphrases, which he repeats in Greensburg, that nourish the Trump base. Transgender athletes competing in women’s sports has been a recurring issue. Since the Nov. 30 announcement of his candidacy, Oz has had 26 weekday appearances on Fox News, 20 of them with his early booster Sean Hannity, according to Media Matters for America.

Last month, Oz told Hannity, “I’ve fought in the biggest stage, as you have — on network and national television.”

Trump’s original pick, Sean Parnell, exited the race in November after domestic abuse allegations surfaced during a custody battle. (Parnell vigorously denied them.) His endorsement of Oz came as a surprise to many, especially McCormick, whose wife, Dina Powell McCormick, served as a deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration. McCormick’s campaign is brimming with Trump acolytes, including Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller. “If anybody was within 200 miles of me, he hired them,” Trump says at the rally.

If elected, Oz would become the first Muslim to serve in the U.S. Senate. (His wife and four grown children are Christian.) To fulfill his dual citizenship in Turkey, Oz served 60 days in the military during a summer when he was in medical school. McCormick used Oz’s service as fodder in an attack ad. “My dual citizenship has become a distraction in this campaign,” he announced in a March statement. He declared that if he were elected, he would forgo his Turkish citizenship. Last week, a photo surfaced of Oz casting a ballot in Turkey’s 2018 presidential election. Former Secretary of State and McCormick supporter Mike Pompeo branded him as a potential national security threat.

A Democrat in gym shorts tries to rally blue votes in Trump country

In many of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, hunting is an article of faith. The opening of deer season the Monday following Thanksgiving is an equally hallowed holiday, with many schools and offices shuttered. Oz, who hosted several shows on gun violence, is running as “a proud gun owner,” appears in a gun rights spot and made an April pilgrimage to Texas to obtain the blessing of firearms evangelist Ted Nugent, appearing on five installments of “The Nightly Nuge” podcast.

With towering Lt. Gov. and folk icon John Fetterman holding a dominating lead among the three Democratic candidates, Pennsylvania is primed to produce something it has rarely enjoyed: a celebrity senator. “Whoever comes out of this one is going to be a national star. The stakes are so high, the money is so huge,” says longtime political observer Larry Ceisler.

“Dr. Oz is the future of the Republican Party,” says Reschenthaler, the Pennsylvania congressman. “Ultimately, he’s going to bring a lot of attention back to the state.”

Annie Linskey contributed to this report.

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