Pennsylvania Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz won the Donald Trump primary by securing the former president’s endorsement over the weekend.
Now, Oz’s Senate campaign says it plans to spend at least $1 million to make sure Pennsylvania Republicans know about it — betting that by bolstering awareness of the endorsement, his poll numbers can be buoyed.
Starting Tuesday, Oz plans to air a new TV ad promoting the endorsement and bashing his chief GOP rival, David McCormick. The planned ad placement, the biggest for Oz’s campaign to date, could hit $1 million; advisers didn't give an exact number.
Whereas endorsements by Trump once decided many Republican primaries, the lesson of 2022 may be that his support can make a difference — if a candidate pays to make sure voters know who his favorite is in a race.
“This endorsement of Dr. Oz is a game-changer in the GOP primary,” said Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is neutral in the Pennsylvania primary. “Every candidate in the race and in races across America want President Trump’s endorsement.”
Recent polling indicates McCormick remains ahead in the seven-candidate Republican primary. And Trump doesn't have the megaphone to push his endorsement after he was removed from Twitter and Facebook, leaving candidates like Oz to ensure that primary voters know whom the de facto leader of their party supports.
About 60 percent of primary voters in Pennsylvania said they were more likely to support a candidate whom Trump backs, according to a recent public poll by Emerson College, which reflects private campaign surveys in the state. Pennsylvania’s primary on May 17 will be won by the candidate with the plurality of the vote, so even a small shift in support could decide the winner.
The Trump endorsement race had been hard-fought.
Lewandowski noted that McCormick last week flew to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, to try to stave off the Oz endorsement or get it himself. McCormick had also hired a bevy of Trump advisers to help his campaign and curry favor with the former president.
But by the time McCormick showed up Wednesday, Trump was already close to endorsing Oz, said two other Trump advisers, who said Trump wasn’t swayed by the arguments of those close to him who were backing McCormick. McCormick’s wife, Dina Powell, was Trump’s deputy national security adviser.
“Donald Trump doesn’t like the idea that if you hire his people, he’ll endorse you. That’s not how he works,” said one of the advisers, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to describe Trump’s thinking.
Oz had also made sure to leave nothing to chance. Even before he announced his campaign, Oz had cleared it with Trump, and Oz and his wife had dined “almost every other week” with Trump and former first lady Melania Trump, one adviser told NBC News, which reported last month that the former first lady liked Oz best. Fox news host Sean Hannity — a Trump adviser himself — also unabashedly supported and endorsed Oz.
A third Trump adviser said the endorsement ultimately came down to whom Trump liked best. And Trump, the former star of “The Apprentice,” just had a better connection with the “Dr. Oz” of TV fame.
“It’s TV,” that adviser said. “Trump knows how this works.”
In his surprise endorsement of Oz on Saturday, Trump noted his long relationship with him, and he tried to quell conservative concerns about Oz’s record, which has come under withering fire from McCormick’s campaign.
“Perhaps most importantly, I believe that Mehmet Oz will be the one most able to win the General Election against a Radical Left Democrat looking to do unthinkable harm to our Country,” Trump said in his statement.
Trump’s endorsement was met with scorn and bewilderment by conservatives and Trump backers, however.
Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Senate candidate for whom Trump recently rescinded his endorsement, trashed the endorsement of Oz on Twitter, saying: “This is happening because Trump’s surrounded himself by staff who are on McConnell’s payroll & hostile to the MAGA agenda. Everybody telling Trump who to endorse in primaries works for The Swamp.”
Brooks’ predicament in Alabama was instructive to Oz’s campaign, which noted that Brooks failed to capitalize on Trump’s backing.
“We’re not Mo Brooks,” said a top adviser to Oz, who did not want to discuss campaign strategy publicly. “I wouldn’t compare Dr. Oz to Mo Brooks. We’ve done 25 town halls, and he has met thousands of people across the state as he does events every day.”
The adviser said the campaign plans to substitute its new Trump endorsement ad for other 30-second spots it had planned to run statewide. The campaign has tentatively budgeted at least $1 million for the ad, but it could spend less on it — especially after the saturation coverage of Trump's support over the weekend.
"Of all the things I'm worried about, one of them is not whether Pennsylvania Republicans know about the Trump endorsement," the adviser said.
In a written statement that reflected the campaign’s advertising, Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick criticized McCormick almost as much as she praised Trump for providing “the biggest endorsement in Republican politics.”
McCormick’s campaign, blindsided by the Oz endorsement, declined to comment but vowed to fight on.