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Trump stays on sidelines in Pennsylvania Senate race — for now

Worried about backing a losing candidate, Trump is apt to hold off until he has a clearer idea of who’s most likely to win, Republicans close to McCormick and Trump said.
Image: Mehmet Oz
Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, speaks during a town hall campaign event at Arcaro and Genell in Old Forge, Pa., on Jan. 19, 2022.Christopher Dolan / The Times-Tribune via AP

Former hedge fund executive David McCormick entered Pennsylvania’s shambolic Republican Senate primary last week with a retinue of Donald Trump allies on his side but a history of mild if inconvenient criticisms of the former president in his past.

Mehmet Oz, the celebrity TV doctor, joined the race weeks earlier with tenuous ties to the state but with Fox News’ Sean Hannity privately talking up his candidacy.

So far, neither candidate has lured Trump off the sidelines after his first choice for the seat, Sean Parnell, dropped out amid scandal. Worried about backing a losing candidate, Trump is apt to withhold another endorsement until he has a clearer idea of who’s most likely to win, more than a half dozen Republicans close to him and McCormick told NBC News.

“Trump has friends on all sides of the race,” said one Republican strategist plugged into the former president’s political orbit. “All signs point to him letting things play out and develop more before seriously considering making an endorsement.”

The race in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, is not seeking another term, is expected to be one of the most competitive of 2022 as both parties fight for control of the Senate. Democrats have a crowded primary of their own.

As of now, Trump is not convinced that McCormick is the right Republican and has voiced misgivings about his ability to make inroads with Pennsylvania’s blue-collar voters, said one person who recently discussed the race with the former president. Oz, meanwhile, has made frequent appearances on Fox News. And Fox News’s Hannity has touted Oz’s candidacy in conversations with Trump, according to two people close to the former president. A spokesperson for Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump is intrigued by Oz’s “national star power” and sees him as the better bet at this stage of the race, said the person who recently discussed the race with him.

But that hasn’t been enough to earn the endorsement. A source close to McCormick’s campaign who also has ties to Trumpworld said that Trump had learned of Oz’s single-vote, last-place finish in a recent GOP straw poll and was surprised by the poor performance.

Inside the McCormick campaign, advisers don’t believe Trump will endorse anyone until he has a clearer picture of who is favored.

The former president has been talking to allies and Republican strategists, sounding them out on the strengths and vulnerabilities of the different candidates. With Trump’s backing, Parnell had been the early front-runner but exited the race late last year after losing a custody battle involving his three children. Were Trump to rush into another endorsement only to see it backfire, he’d risk undercutting his status as a GOP kingmaker.

“My strong sense is he is very likely to stay neutral at least for the time being,” said the person close to the McCormick campaign and Trumpworld. “I don’t think they want to mess up twice. This is an awfully important Senate seat; it’s not one to misfire on.”

Most Republicans interviewed for this story requested anonymity to speak candidly about private discussions involving Trump and those friendly with him and McCormick. Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich would confirm only that Trump has great interest in the race.

“Pennsylvania is a critical part of the MAGA ticket in 2022 and President Donald J. Trump continues to pay careful attention to the race,” he said, using the shorthand for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

A McCormick campaign official acknowledged that a Trump endorsement would be welcome. Oz’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The Republican contest is quickly getting expensive. Oz, who entered a week after Parnell bailed, has already spent $3.9 million on advertising, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact. McCormick is quickly catching up, with $3.2 million spent on ads through Friday. Another GOP hopeful, Carla Sands — an ambassador to Denmark during the Trump administration who emphasizes her own ties to his presidency — has spent $1.8 million. Also running in the primary are real estate developer Jeff Bartos, conservative commentator Kathy Barnette and Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto.

Bartos, who has run on a hyperlocal strategy and is familiar to grassroots activists from his 2018 run for lieutenant governor, finished first in the recent straw poll.

One potential equalizer as they all compete for Trump’s affection is that none of the major candidates have made Trump’s debunked claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him central to their campaigns. Parnell had called for a “forensic audit” of the results in Pennsylvania, where Trump narrowly lost to President Joe Biden.

“We won the state,” Trump falsely asserted in a welcome video that played before a debate last week for GOP Senate candidates in Lawrence County. “It's something that I contest. I'll continue to contest it.”

“Sometimes the vote counter is more important than the candidate,” Trump added, “and we can't let that ever, ever happen again. They have to get tougher and smarter.”

The election issue barely came up during the debate, which McCormick, Oz and Sands skipped.

Pressed during an interview last week with NBC Philadelphia, McCormick said he believes there were “numerous irregularities” in Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results but that “President Biden is the president, and we need to move forward.” He dodged follow-up questions about whether he believed the outcome was fair.

Beyond acknowledging that Biden is the president, McCormick also has said he believes Trump bears some responsibility for the 2021 attack on the Capitol led by pro-Trump rioters trying to block certification of Biden’s victory.

Such remarks could antagonize Trump and his MAGA base, putting any endorsement in jeopardy. McCormick’s hedge fund experience, which involved Chinese investments that he has spent the early days of his candidacy distancing himself from, also cuts against Trump-style economic nationalism and populism.

But McCormick has wheeled out a number of high-level endorsements from Trump’s political network. His wife, Dina Powell, who served as a deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration, has been a visible part of the campaign. Former Trump campaign and White House aides Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller are among McCormick’s advisers. Parnell endorsed him the day he entered the race. Former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, now a candidate for governor in Arkansas, is backing him, too.

None of this swayed Trump to quickly endorse McCormick. Trump’s view of the McCormick campaign, said the person who recently discussed the race with him, is, “I don’t care how many people they hire who they think are my friends.”