The Republican Mess in Pennsylvania


If you think that Democrats are hopelessly divided between progressives and moderates while Republicans are cultishly united behind Donald Trump, the Pennsylvania Senate primary results might prompt you to reconsider your assumptions.

Lieutenant Governor and progressive favorite John Fetterman lapped the Democratic primary field, winning every county from a hospital bed while recovering from a mild stroke. The Republican primary has been a clown car demolition derby with two jalopies still standing, as about 2,500 votes separate the celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and the hedge fund CEO David McCormick. An unknown number of ballots remain uncounted, including approximately 33,000 mail-in ballots, and so far, McCormick has performed better than Oz in mail-in ballots.

Of course, political parties can come together after a bruising primary battle. Still, that won’t be easy for Pennsylvania Republicans fighting for this open seat in a purple state. McCormick, Oz, and the third-place finisher, Kathy Barnette, have savaged each other. McCormick backers called Oz a “secret Hollywood liberal.” Oz’s top surrogate, former President Donald Trump, dubbed McCormick a “liberal Wall Street Republican.” Barnette closed the race by saying she wouldn’t support McCormick or Oz if either won because “I have no intentions of supporting globalists.”

McCormick supporters see Oz as a phony, and vice versa. They’re both right. Oz expressed support for abortion rights, gun control, Obamacare, and Anthony Fauci in the past and then reversed himself once he sought the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Pat Toomey. For his part, McCormick promoted friendly trade relations with China. Soon after the January 6 insurrection, he called it “horrific” and a “dark chapter in American history.” In 2018, he wrote that voters should support “Republican and Democratic [military] veterans” to “increase bipartisanship” and name-checked the Democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath.

Both candidates “lived elsewhere for much of their adult lives and moved back only recently” to run for office, noted The Wall Street Journal. In turn, primary voters had “little prior information to help them judge” what they saw in the blizzard of attack ads. In the final Pennsylvania poll from Emerson College, 32 percent of Republicans held an unfavorable opinion of McCormick, and 48 percent said the same of Oz. Meanwhile, Fetterman’s unfavorable rating among Democrats, according to the final Franklin & Marshall College poll, is a scant 8 percent.

Unlike whoever becomes the Republican nominee, Fetterman has spent most of his life in Pennsylvania, serving as mayor of the majority-Black Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock for 13 years before becoming lieutenant governor in 2014. He is not without critics, including in Braddock. Opponents charge the Harvard Kennedy School graduate—who was propped up by his wealthy dad while getting paid $150 per month as mayor—with using the borough as a “stepping stone.” Nevertheless, a gruff-talking, Carhartt-wearing, tattooed, six-foot-eight behemoth who can point to consistent stances and a record of achievement will be hard to peg as a phony. (When Democrats criticized Fetterman for an incident early in his mayoral tenure in which he mistakenly assumed that a Black jogger was running from a crime and detained him with a shotgun, he leaned on his record of reducing gun violence, and the attacks fell flat.) He is well positioned to frame the general election as the true Pennsylvanian versus the carpetbagger, especially since some Republicans will hold such a negative view of their own nominee, whether it’s McCormick or Oz.

Further threatening GOP unity is Republican suspicion of Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting system, baselessly fomented by Trump. Late-counted mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania clinched the election for Joe Biden. Still, adherents of the “Big Lie” continue to claim that Pennsylvania’s law allowing for such ballots is unconstitutional, and in January, a state judge declared it just that. However, the 2019 statute remains in place while the case is on appeal. Whatever the resolution, the 2020 elections are not at issue, nor is the 2022 primary.

Now the fate of the Republicans’ primary contest rests on late-counted mail-in ballots. If McCormick prevails, some Republican conspiracy-mongers who have spent the past 18 months treating Biden as illegitimate may turn on a fellow Republican. Trump himself has encouraged Oz to “declare victory” now because “it makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots they ‘just happened to find.’”

Republicans may be embroiled in a protracted recount if either candidate refuses to accept the initial results. The margin is so close that an automatic recount under state law appears likely, although the second-place candidate can decline a recount. By May 26, the secretary of state would have to decide that a recount is required. If so, the recounting would begin on June 1 and need to be completed by June 7. That’s three weeks for supporters of Oz and McCormick to stew in their bitterness (and for Barnette to possibly stir the pot). At the same time, Fetterman can get to work persuading swing voters and firing up the Democratic base.

What’s happening to Republicans in Pennsylvania may prove a microcosm of the party nationally. Trump models bad political behavior, encouraging candidates to out-crazy and brutalize each other. If Republicans manage to blow these midterm elections, we may look back at Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate pile-up as a foreshadowing of an opportunity lost.


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