PHILADELPHIA — The latest polling in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate race shows Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity television doctor who received Donald Trump’s backing, could win.
But so could Kathy Barnette, the conservative commentator whose sudden rise from single-digit support to top contender has stunned state and national Republicans. Or maybe Dave McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO with his own strong ties to Trump world.
One day before one of the highest-profile primaries of the midterms, the winner could easily be any one of three — and it’s made the final hours before voters go to the polls Tuesday a wild ride where seemingly anything could happen.
Virtually every poll in recent weeks has shown Oz clinging to a tiny advantage within the margin of error. And an internal survey from the pro-McCormick super PAC Honor Pennsylvania shows that Barnette saw a significant jump from the beginning to end of last week, leaving the three candidates locked in a dead heat: McCormick at 25 percent, and Oz and Barnette tied at 24 percent.
In Ohio’s contentious Republican Senate primary earlier this month, the candidates quickly conceded on election night and pledged to support Trump’s pick J.D. Vance, who won by 7 points. The Pennsylvania contest appears unlikely to end with similar GOP unity. Barnette said in a radio interview Monday she has “no intentions” of supporting Oz or McCormick if either is the nominee, referring to the men as “globalists.”
Several campaigns in the seven-candidate primary told POLITICO they were prepared for a recount.
“It’s always possible,” said Bob Gillies, Barnette’s campaign manager, of a potential recount. “We want to make sure we’re able to fight back if there is something like that.”
As the bitter primary came to a close, the candidates and their allies remained on the attack in interviews, while operatives continued to push last-minute opposition research. Most notably, Trump made a direct appeal to Pennsylvania GOP voters on Monday afternoon, recording a robocall bashing McCormick and Barnette and urging Republicans to turn out for Oz on Tuesday.
“People love him, otherwise he wouldn’t have been on air for 18 years,” Trump said, referring to the yearslong run of Oz’s daytime television show. “I’ve just spent a lot of time with him. I did endorse him, and the reason is he’s tough, he’s smart and he really loves our country and he wants to do a great job for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Despite calling McCormick “a good person,” Trump described the former hedge fund CEO as “an insider who absolutely sold us out to China.”
“Can’t have that,” Trump continued.
Trump mentioned what constitutes an unforgivable sin to the Republican base: Barnette’s support in 2020 for building a statue of the Obama family in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park. She suggested at the time it should go next to a monument that depicts Abraham Lincoln standing over an emancipated slave.
“That’s no good,” Trump said of Barnette’s idea. “These are not candidates who put America first, and that’s what we need.”
Oz’s campaign said it did not pay for the Trump robocalls. A person working for Trump’s political arm did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump was also scheduled to participate in a live tele-town hall with Oz on Monday evening — which the Oz campaign did fund — and the two have spoken several times in the last week.
According to a person familiar with the calls, the former president has urged Oz to “keep fighting,” while Oz continued to express his gratitude to Trump for the support — an endorsement that changed Oz’s fortunes in the race. Immediately prior to Trump’s early-April endorsement of Oz, polling showed McCormick with a slight advantage over the physician, whose unfavorable ratings are much higher than the other candidates in the race.
Barnette’s unexpected rise occurred as Oz and McCormick poured tens of millions of dollars into television advertisements and as outside spending groups supporting the two candidates spent heavily on attack ads. Through Tuesday, spending on TV, digital and radio advertisements in the primary totaled more than $57 million, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact.
Less than $200,000 of that was from Barnette’s campaign. But the Club for Growth, which announced last week its super PAC was endorsing Barnette, just spent over $2 million on a last-minute advertisement on her behalf.
McCormick and Oz’s campaigns have nearly matched each other in spending on ads, though the pro-McCormick super PAC has drastically outspent the two pro-Oz groups.
In the last week, however, four super PACs have pivoted to attacking Barnette on television. The pro-Oz American Leadership Action appears to have sent at least four anti-Barnette texts to voters, pushing out messages like “BLM Radical Kathy Barnette believes that ‘on every street corner there’s a police officer there ready and waiting to shoot a black man.’” The texts linked to CrazyKathy.com, which redirects to American Leadership Action’s site.
Claims about Barnette’s views on Black Lives Matter have been misleading, according to independent fact checks.
In another text, the super PAC said “Donald Trump and Sean Hannity know Kathy Barnette is lying,” before accusing her of lying about aspects of her military experience and “almost everything in her past.” Barnette, who in recent days declined to answer some questions about her time in the military, maintains she has been truthful about biographical information she has provided.
Barnette over the weekend faced a flurry of news stories — including from conservative media outlets — calling into question aspects of her resume, her voting record and where she has lived in years past. Until now, Barnette has largely avoided scrutiny from other campaigns or the news media.
McCormick’s camp has aimed to use a similar line of attack against Oz, who has been portrayed as a shady Hollywood liberal.
“You are seeing people move to McCormick because he is a trustworthy conservative,” said James Schultz, a former Trump White House lawyer who is close to McCormick’s campaign. “We have seen for this entire cycle Mehmet Oz’s struggle with the truth. With Barnette, there have been many questions surrounding her truthfulness as well.”
Messaging from McCormick’s campaign on Monday appeared to concede that he is one of multiple candidates crowded at the front of the pack. The campaign wrote in an election eve press release that McCormick would make the case to Republicans that he is “the only front-runner who grew up in Pennsylvania and shares the same conservative values as PA voters.”
A series of other twists in recent days have added to the sense of volatility ahead of Tuesday’s primary election. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the leading Democratic Senate candidate, remains hospitalized after suffering a stroke over the weekend. And Trump, on Saturday weighed in with a last-minute endorsement in the governor’s race, picking Doug Mastriano, the candidate who is publicly backing and campaigning with Barnette.