Pennsylvania’s top Republican candidates for the Senate clashed Wednesday morning over who has real conservative credentials and real ties to the Commonwealth, as frontrunners Dave McCormick and Mehmet Oz appeared on a public podium for the first time.
The two spar at a forum in Erie after months of campaigning on TV and pelting each other with millions of dollars in advertisements. They were joined by rivals Kathy Barnette and Jeff Bartos. And while the organizers had put in place rules against personal attacks, the candidates quickly seized the opportunity to dig into Oz, the famed surgeon better known as “Dr. Oz.”
The Pennsylvania Senate race is one of the most pivotal in the country, and the outcome is likely to help determine control of the chamber.
» READ MORE: Who’s running for Pa’s open Senate seat. in 2022?
Here are some of the key takeaways from one of the primary GOP’s first major confrontations:
Oz and McCormick are both front-runners who spend a lot of money, and polls show that McCormick is now in charge overall, but it was the TV star who seemed to be getting genuine enmity from some of his opponents.
“You should all ask yourself, why is everyone attacking me?” said Oz at one point.
“Because he’s a Liberal,” Barnette interrupted, sitting to his right.
At times, the attacks seemed to surprise Oz, as he urged the Manufacturer & Business Association moderator to intervene, noting that the candidates had agreed not to criticize each other.
» READ MORE: Mehmet Oz knows TV. Now his GOP opponents are turning the airwaves in Pennsylvania against him.
But those rules didn’t last long. When all the candidates discussed Pennsylvania’s energy industry and argued for unleashing it with less environmental regulation, McCormick pointed to Oz’s previous comments and written columns raising concerns about health risks surrounding fracking sites, including air and water pollution, respiratory problems to humans. who live in the neighborhood and other problems.
“That’s a lie, and you know it’s a lie,” Oz retorted.
McCormick’s campaign pointed to news reports detailing Oz’s past statements, including medical advice columns with Oz’s name as a co-author. His campaign has said those columns reflected the views of Oz’s co-author, not the candidate. Oz also pointed to his recent endorsement of Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and energy secretary under former President Donald Trump.
The Manufacturer & Business Association invited five GOP candidates who met the criteria, including polling and fundraising thresholds. Carla Sands, the former ambassador to Denmark, declined to attend, and two other GOP candidates on the ballot, Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto and Montgomery County attorney Sean Gale, did not meet the criteria, organizers said.
» READ MORE: David McCormick blasts past Mehmet Oz and other takeaways from a new Dad. Senate race poll
Barnette, a conservative commentator who has run a grassroots campaign and has joined some of the most far-right figures in the state, said she had no choice but to take out the leading candidates on Wednesday, as the ultra-wealthy Oz and McCormick rarely appearing with rivals during the already brutal primary.
“This is not a talk show. This is the reality,” she said. “And we need people who understand what the issues are, who don’t just sit in a room, learn our topics of conversation, and then come back and talk them over.”
A former hedge fund CEO and an Army veteran, McCormick largely escaped direct attack and worked to promote his Pennsylvania roots, explaining how he grew in the state, even though he has recently spent years in Connecticut and only in recent months as he launched his campaign in the Senate.
“Most of my life has been in Pennsylvania. I have a family farm and I feel a deep commitment to what I see happening in our state and what I see happening in our country,” McCormick said.
But if his GOP opponents didn’t beat him, Democrats saw a future opening as he embraced Trump’s tax cuts of 2017. They have used those cuts as a potent weapon against the GOP in the past, viewing wealthy Republicans like McCormick as particularly vulnerable to criticism over a series of breaks that poured into those at the top of the income scale.
» READ MORE: The Super PAC That Hammers Mehmet Oz Like a RINO Gets Money From Longtime Democratic Donors
And his Republican rivals pointed to his and Oz’s recent moves to Pennsylvania ahead of the Senate race.
Bartos, a Montgomery County real estate developer who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, repeatedly promoted his work in support of conservative causes in Pennsylvania, not subtly noting that he’s been doing it for years.
“When we look at our televisions and see people, as I call them, ‘political tourists’ … they come in and spend tens of millions of dollars,” Bartos said, claiming that he and Barnette traveled across the state to to listen to the voters. “For me, this campaign has always been, from day one and always will be, about a deep love and a dedication to our commonwealth.”
Oz, who lived in New Jersey for decades, says he moved to his in-laws’ Montgomery County home in late 2020. That was weeks after it became clear that the Senate seat would be open.
» READ MORE: Does Mehmet Oz Live in Pennsylvania?
Speaking to a largely business-oriented audience in a city that has long been dependent on manufacturing and industry, the candidates largely agreed on policy: They pushed for more natural gas extraction in Pennsylvania, pointing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as proof of the risks of relying on foreign oil. They called for Trump’s tax cuts to be made permanent. (Bartos even praised a rare moment of public praise for incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who wrote much of that bill and isn’t seeking reelection.)
The candidates opposed government spending and the $1,400 relief checks President Joe Biden sent last year, blaming both of them on inflation. McCormick, in a move unusual for a Republican, also called for a better focus on defense spending, rather than increasing it, and said both sides bear some blame for the national deficit. To varying degrees, they all criticized what they called the “awakened” culture on the left.
The contrasts instead came when they laid out their backgrounds to show that they had the best background to carry out those goals.
Oz claimed he “burned the boats” by giving up his TV show to run for the Senate and said his history of fighting the established media and government would make him the strongest advocate for the state.
“Imagine being so compelled, so concerned for your country, that you would give up everything and feel not an ounce of remorse,” Oz said. “I will be able to represent you with a bold, loud voice.”
McCormick argued that he would be ready “on day one” given his experience as a combat veteran, corporate executive and former government official who held senior positions in the George W. Bush administration. “I don’t think we have time for people who need on-the-job training,” he said.
Bartos pointed to his deep ties to the state and his work during the pandemic to provide loans to small businesses. “My campaign is not about me,” he said, joking about his own struggle to promote himself. “Everything I do is about this commonwealth.”
And Barnette, after initiating some of the scraps on stage, vowed to give the GOP a sharper edge to fight against what she believes were Democrats who “put their foot on our throats”.
“Our country is currently on fire,” she said. “And the Republican Party has this crazy idea that we’re only electing the richest person in the room to run for office. How has that served us? … You need a fighter.”