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Oz endorsement puts Trump, and celebrity, to the test

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Dr. Mehmet Oz
Dr. Mehmet Oz campaigns for U.S. Senate at the Elk's Lodge in Carlisle, Pa, on March 10, 2022.Mark Pynes / The Patriot-News via AP

WASHINGTON — If it’s Monday… Ukraine’s foreign minister says “another battle is coming” for Donbas. ... President Biden meets virtually with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. ... Biden announces new actions to combat gun crime. ... Former prosecutor Steve Dettelbach will be nominated to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. ... and $43.1 million has already been spent on ads in Pennsylvania Senate.

But first: Former President Donald Trump shook up the Pennsylvania Senate race over the weekend by backing celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz. And it’s no secret that Oz’s television career helped him nab the coveted endorsement.

“When you're in television for 18 years, that's like a poll. That means people like you,” Trump said of his decision to endorse Oz during a Saturday night rally in North Carolina (where the focus was supposed to be on a different Senate candidate, GOP Rep. Ted Budd).

Trump and Oz have that in common, both jumping into politics after stints on TV. Oz isn’t the only celebrity Trump has backed in the midterms. Trump also endorsed former football player Herschel Walker, and a “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant, in Georgia’s Senate race.

But, unlike his TV show, Trump doesn’t get to eliminate the other candidates one by one. His endorsement hasn’t cleared the field in several key primaries, putting his power among GOP voters to the test.

Oz may be one of the riskiest bets, thanks to a crowded field that features other wealthy candidates willing to spend their own money on the race. Oz’s chief rival is former hedge fund manager David McCormick, whose wife, Dina Powell, served as Trump’s deputy national security adviser.

Trump’s endorsement doesn’t mean Oz is the instant frontrunner. Even Trump’s supporters were divided over the decision. Army veteran Sean Parnell, Trump’s first pick in the Senate race who dropped out after losing a custody battle and has backed McCormick, tweeted that Oz is “the farthest thing from America First.”

For his part, Oz has the support of Fox News personality Sean Hannity and one other key ally — Trump’s wife Melania, who told the former president that she preferred Oz, NBC’s Marc Caputo and Henry J. Gomez reported back in March.

In one of the most competitive and consequential elections for control of the U.S. Senate, Trump is putting a lot on the line for Oz with just five weeks to go.

Data Download: The number of the day is … $43 million

That’s how much money has been spent on ads in the race for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, per AdImpact, with five weeks left until the state’s primary election.

Over $36 million of that money has been spent just on the Republican side. The top spender is Mehmet Oz, who has spent more than any other candidate or outside group. The $9.6 million he’s spent to put his ads has focused on the pandemic, immigration, inflation and a plethora of other topics.

Close behind him, however, is Honor Pennsylvania, an anti-Oz group that has spent over $9.5 million so far. His top opponent, former hedge fund manager David McCormick has spent almost $7.5 million.

The top spending candidate in the Democratic primary for the same seat is Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who’s spent over $3.3 million.

Other numbers to know:

28.1 percent: The portion of votes French President Emmanuel Macron won in France’s presidential election Sunday. He heads to a runoff against Marie Le Pen, a far-right nationalist who took just over 23 percent of the vote.

72: The number of attendees of the high end Gridiron Dinner who tested positive for Covid following the event, as of 4 p.m. on Sunday.

4.5 million: The number of Ukrainian refugees who have fled the country since the start of the country’s war with Russia, according to the Washington Post.

$2.9 million: The amount of money Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., raised for her re-election campaign in the first three months of 2022, according to Politico.

80,577,613: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials.

990,460: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far.

Tweet of the day

Midterm roundup: Trump’s best Budd

Trump talked about Oz on Saturday night, but he was actually in North Carolina to support another one of his preferred Senate candidates: GOP Rep. Ted Budd.

Budd told the Associated Press that Trump’s endorsement has been “the single biggest factor to help advance and get attention on this campaign.” But he still has a tough primary ahead against former Gov. Pat McCrory, with former GOP Rep. Mark Walker also competing in the May 17 contest.

And Trump’s endorsement isn’t everything. Just ask GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who spoke at Trump’s Saturday rally. It was just two years ago that he burst onto the political scene after beating the Trump-backed candidate in a primary.

Colorado Senate: Delegates at the Colorado GOP’s assembly voted to put state Rep. Ron Hanks, a 2020 election denier, on the primary ballot to face Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. Businessman Joe O’Dea, who circulated petitions to get a spot on the ballot, will face Hanks in the primary, per the AP.

Iowa Senate: A judge ruled last night that former Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, cannot appear on the Senate primary ballot after failing to gather the required number of petition signatures. The Des Moines Register reports the decision “is likely to be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.”

Ohio Senate: On Friday an outside group called Ohio Leads reserved $470,000 in airtime for its first TV expenditure tracked by AdImpact. The group is running ads supporting former state GOP chairwoman Jane Timken.

Pennsylvania Senate: Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., endorsed McCormick in the GOP Senate primary, per Axios.

California 22: Democrat Lourin Hubbard won the second spot in a June runoff against Republican Connie Conway in the race to replace former GOP Rep. Devin Nunes. He left Congress to run Trump’s social media company.

Illinois 05: Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., launched a new campaign committee that could precede a run for Chicago Mayor, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Ad watch: A hog-wild race for governor

The feud between Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidates Charles Herbster and Jim Pillen continued late last week and over the weekend as Herbster, a businessman, started running a new attack ad against agribusiness owner Pillen.

The ad accuses Pillen of polluting water in the state. “Time and time again, Pillen illegally released feces, waste filled with pathogens, heavy metals and bacteria into our water supply,” the ad’s narrator says.

The ad cites a 2004 Department of Fish and Wildlife report about the environmental impact of hog waste from swine farms on local water systems, though Pillen and his swine operation are not specifically mentioned in the paper as a farm contributing waste.

Herbster and Pillen are two of the leading three candidates in the Republican primary election for governor, which is just a month away. The two, plus state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, have already spent $8 million on ads in the contest.

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world

President Biden is expected to name former federal prosecutor Steven M. Dettelbach to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., believes the commission investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol has enough evidence to refer former President Donald Trump for criminal charges.

Politico investigates how dark money groups are getting a head start in the 2024 presidential election.

Idaho’s Supreme Court blocked the state’s new abortion ban, while Maryland lawmakers voted to expand abortion access.

The New York Times examines the Biden administration’s attitude toward immigration reform.