By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
In American politics today, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world. And the Pennsylvania primary election has been the most crazed exhibition of all.
While Lt. Governor John Fetterman walked away with the Democrats’ Senate nomination with 59 percent of the vote, the Republican Senate primary appears to be a never-ending nail-biter. As of the time this story was posted today (May 19), with 97 percent of the vote in, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Donald Trump’s favored candidate, had only 31.2 percent of the vote as opposed to business mogul David McCormick’s 31.1 percent. Kathy Barnette, a far right-wing true believer who came up fast in the polls during the last week of the race, remains a distant third, with 24.7 percent. Oz and McCormick remain neck and neck as the vote tally continues.
In statewide races, Pennsylvania law provides for an automatic recount when the margin between the candidates is less than or equal to 0.5 percent of the final vote. Candidates can also ask the court for a recount.
None of that seemed to matter to Donald Trump, of course. "Dr. Oz should declare victory,” Trump declared on Truth Social, his Internet platform, before all of the votes were even counted. “It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they ‘just happened to find." Sound familiar? Straight from the former President’s playbook.
A Wild Ride with Many Wild Cards
Dr. Oz had been thought to have an edge in the race because of his name recognition and the Trump endorsement. But while Oz and McCormick chipped away at each other with highly financed ad campaigns (reportedly over $50 million all told), Barnette, in the last stretch, suddenly came up from behind, threatening to overtake them. She caught up monetarily as well—the Club for Growth booking $42 million worth of TV ads supporting her—more than 10 times the amount her campaign had spent on TV up to that time.
When Trump appeared with Oz at a May 6 rally in Greensburg, Pa., the MAGA crowd, who had clearly come to see Trump, booed his endorsement of Oz. And when Dr. Oz spoke, some in the crowd even turned their backs on him.
Meanwhile, Barnette, a former military reservist, emerged as the super-MAGA candidate—the real thing. Accept no substitutes. And no wonder. While Oz was a latecomer to the Trump script, Barnette was singing Trump’s tune as long as a dozen years ago. In 2010, she decried what she termed the homosexual agenda to dominate the country, and in tweets from 2014 to 2017, attacked Islam.
Barnette supported Trump’s bogus claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, and claimed her own 19-point loss against Rep. Madeleine Dean that year in a strongly Democratic district was the result of voter fraud as well. Barnette also organized buses to go to Trump’s January 6, 2021, rally and marched on the Capitol alongside the Proud Boys. Despite the photos of Barnette marching that day at the Capitol that quickly surfaced, the candidate claimed she did not enter the building and did not know that the marchers who flanked her were the Proud Boys.
And then, just after the leak of Supreme Court Justice Alito’s draft evisceration of Roe v. Wade, Barnette dramatically revealed that she was the product of her mother’s rape at age 11, and put out an extremely effective sob story video, presenting the “worth” of her life as an argument against abortion even in the case of rape.
In addition, Trump, while purportedly dismissing Barnette, undercut his own endorsement of Oz. Trump charged that “Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats. Dr. Oz is the only one who will be able to easily defeat the Crazed, Lunatic Democrat in Pennsylvania.” Moreover, Trump said, without elaboration, that parts of Barnette’s record were not “properly explained or vetted.” But he also opportunistically added: Barnette “will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party—and I will be behind her all the way”—which sounded almost like a Barnette endorsement.
It is possible that Barnette’s rise—and perhaps Trump’s hedge—may have cut into the votes for Dr. Oz, causing the race between Oz and McCormick to become so tight. And it is possible that Barnette being Black and a woman may ultimately have hampered her chances. (If Barnette had become the candidate and won the general election, she would have been Pennsylvania’s first Black female senator.)
However, the Democratic fates were not to be outdone by the Republican hoopla. On Friday, a mere five days before the primary, Democratic frontrunner Fetterman had a stroke, leaving some to wonder whether, despite his strong lead, uncertainty about Fetterman’s health and his inability to campaign at the end of the race would harm his chances. Clearly, given his 59 percent win, they did not. Fetterman’s wife recognized the early signs and got him to go to a hospital. His prognosis, according to his campaign, is good: the stroke was caused by atrial fibrillation, and he now has a pacemaker that will regulate the problem of an irregular heartbeat.
What’s at Stake
Put aside all the adrenaline-producing excitement of the political horserace leading up to this primary. What’s important is the significance of the primary outcome to the 2022 election and to the country’s future.
Though the Pennsylvania race has, in large part, been portrayed as a test of whether Trump’s influence is lasting or waning, Kathy Barnette’s reaction to Trump’s endorsement of Dr. Oz laid bare the real danger facing our country.
Barnette said MAGA "does not belong to President Trump. MAGA, although he coined the word, MAGA actually belongs to the people." And in a recent debate, Barnette was even more specific: “MAGA does not belong to President Trump. Our values never, never shifted to President Trump’s values. It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”
In other words, MAGA extremism has metastasized. Though Trump may or may not still have influence, Trumpism is rampant, expanding beyond Trump and his endorsements. That is his cancerous legacy. And though Barnette is the purest of the MAGAs, both Oz and McCormick adopted MAGA positions as their own. If either of them wins in a general election, which of them it is won’t make a dime’s worth of difference.
Dr. Oz is a charlatan who has changed his on-the-record positions at the drop of a hat when it served his ambitions.
Originally a respected cardiothoracic surgeon at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in Manhattan, Oz parlayed his celebrity as a regular guest on the Oprah Winfrey show into a long stint on a show of his own. He used that platform to hawk questionable weight-loss aids and so-called miracle cures. During the Covid pandemic, Oz promoted hydroxychloroquine, the same malaria drug touted by Trump, to fight the coronavirus, despite the warnings by researchers at the time that the drug was unproven.
According to Politifact in 2019, addressing abortion, Oz “spoke in favor of general access to the procedure, citing patient safety and saying, ‘I don’t want to interfere with everyone else’s stuff.’” But in his current run for the Republican Senate nomination, he suddenly changed his tune, campaigning as “100% pro-life,” and said that he supports overturning Roe v. Wade.
David McCormick’s resume hardly screamed “MAGA” either. The CEO of a hedge fund, graduate of West Point, and former Army Ranger served in senior posts in former President George W. Bush’s Administration at the Commerce Department, the Treasury Department, and the White House.
But McCormick now supports Trump’s border wall, supports enacting voter ID requirements, and opposes vaccine mandates. His wife, Dina Power, was Trump’s deputy national security adviser.
In this Senate race, McCormick was actively promoted by Donald Trump’s Director of the CIA and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who both supported the January 6 insurrection. And Trump’s notorious senior advisor and speechwriter Stephen Miller, the architect of immigrant internment camps and separation of child immigrants from their parents, worked for McCormick’s campaign. Enough said.
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice found herself deciding which of two creatures was least evil. Was it the Walrus who pretended to feel sorry for the oysters he had tricked and was in the process of eating--hiding the shells of those he’d swallowed behind a handkerchief? Or was it the Carpenter, who did not eat as many as the Walrus but “ate as many as he could get?” Alice finally judged them both “very unpleasant characters.” Based on the hypocrisies and abhorrent goals of Oz and McCormick, the same can be said them.
Whether the Republican candidate in Pennsylvania turns out to be Oz or McCormick, for the sake of saving democracy, the nation better hope that the Democratic candidate John Fetterman recovers quickly and fully, and beats the pants off his opponent in the general election in November.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.