PHILADELPHIA — Mehmet Oz is trailing in polls. A key Republican has yet to endorse him since the celebrity doctor won the GOP nomination for Pennsylvania Senate more than a month ago. And Oz has gone dark on the airwaves since May 21 — even as his Democratic rival John Fetterman burnishes his brand on TV as a political outsider, and paints Oz as a carpetbagger from New Jersey.
This is not the general election kickoff in a pivotal Senate race that Republicans were hoping for.
The shaky start to Oz’s general election campaign, coming off a hard-fought primary that took a recount to resolve, is prompting finger-pointing in Pennsylvania’s GOP circles. Some Republicans are arguing that Oz should do more to unite the party, reach deeper into his pockets to fund his campaign, and attack Fetterman more aggressively.
The Democratic hopeful has been setting the pace of the campaign despite not setting foot on the trail since he suffered a stroke in mid-May.
“I don’t have much confidence in their campaign,” said Arnie McClure, chair of the Huntingdon County Republican Party. He said he’s been in contact with Oz’s team but hasn’t received answers to multiple queries.
“[Oz] came in a distant third in my county, so I called them up and said, ‘You need to talk to our people to change their mind and our mind and I’ll help you do that.’ And I don’t even hear back. What the hell?”
Some GOP donors have urged Oz, a multimillionaire, to contribute more of his own money to jump-start his general election campaign, according to two people familiar with their conversations. Oz loaned himself more than $12 million in the primary, according to the most recent campaign finance filings.
Oz’s team has responded to donors that “we’re going to spend what we need to spend,” one source said.
Despite an imperfect beginning to the Senate race, most Republicans in Pennsylvania still believe that the headwinds are in their favor. A Suffolk University/USA Today Network poll in early June found that 54 percent of likely voters in the state disapprove of Joe Biden’s job performance, a weight that will be a challenge for Fetterman to shake off. Fetterman also hasn’t announced when he will return to the trail, and it is not yet clear how robustly he will be able to campaign once he does.
But some in the GOP are worried that Oz is wasting time that he should be spending making a positive case for himself on the airwaves, especially after a bruising primary in which his opponents spent tens of millions of dollars in commercials going after him. Oz’s unfavorable rating is 50 percent, while 28 percent view him favorably, according to the Suffolk poll. Fetterman’s favorable-unfavorable rating, by contrast, is 45-27. The same survey showed Fetterman ahead of Oz in a head-to-head race by nine points.
“A lot of people in the GOP — both the establishment and local Pennsylvania GOP — underestimate Fetterman,” said Sean Parnell, a former Republican Senate candidate who dropped out of the 2022 race amid a child custody battle in which his estranged wife alleged abuse. “This is a guy that has on the left what Donald Trump has on the right. He’s got a very strong populist appeal that doesn’t just appeal to base Democrats.”
Two other polls conducted in mid-June showed Fetterman ahead by 6 and 4 points, respectively.
A Pennsylvania Republican operative who requested anonymity to speak frankly argued that Oz should be on television now: “It’s not complicated. … Drive up Fetterman’s negatives and bolster your positives.”
Oz’s campaign declined to share details about its TV plans and did not respond to a question about whether Oz planned to spend more of his own money on the campaign. But his team expressed confidence it will have the funds it needs to tell his story.
“We’re raising a lot of money. … It’s a very clear ask if you don’t want John Fetterman to be a senator,” said Casey Contres, Oz’s campaign manager. “Fetterman is spending money right now because he knows he has a lot of issues.”
A source close to the campaign added that Oz was on TV as early as November: “I don’t think anyone expected them to be up for 12 months straight.”
In the meantime, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s independent expenditure has been providing air cover for Oz since June, labeling Fetterman as a far-left ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders and highlighting high gas prices on television. It has not put out any positive commercials about Oz, however.
Oz’s campaign also argues that Fetterman has never been hit with sustained negative advertising. They say the Democrat has serious vulnerabilities that will resonate with different voters, from his support for Medicare for All to a 2013 incident in which he pulled a shotgun on an unarmed Black jogger while he was mayor of Braddock. Fetterman has said he thought he was possibly running from a shooting, and did not know the race of the man at the time.
Republicans and Democrats in Pennsylvania said Oz is behind Fetterman in the polls partly because he has problems with his own base. In the primary, Oz’s opponents attacked him as insufficiently conservative on critical issues such as abortion, gun rights and trans children. He won with 31 percent of the vote, beating out former hedge fund CEO David McCormick by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Oz has taken several steps to unite the party. He has spoken to McCormick several times after the primary, and McCormick has donated the maximum allowed under law to Oz, according to a person familiar with the contribution. The two are expected to appear at an event together soon. Oz also made real estate developer Jeff Bartos, another former opponent, his campaign co-chair. Carla Sands, yet another ex-candidate who ran against Oz, spoke at a recent event.
The Oz campaign has an upcoming fundraiser hosted by former Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), who previously supported McCormick. Oz also recently held a meet-and-greet in Washington with Sens. Rick Scott, Deb Fischer and others, where he raised money.
“The best way to unite the Republican Party is to have your opponent be John Fetterman,” said Contres. “John Fetterman endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, has advocated for some radical policies on crime, has said he supports the Green New Deal, and supports government-run health care.”
But Oz hasn’t yet won over all of his former opponents. Kathy Barnette, a conservative commentator who came in third in the GOP primary after a late surge, has not yet endorsed Oz.
“Oz has some hurdles to overcome, and my desire as a Republican is to see the Republican Party strong,” she told POLITICO. “But I think there are reasons why over 70 percent of those in Pennsylvania did not vote for Oz, and I believe he needs to work and figure that out.”
She said the nastiness of the primary “left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths on our side of the aisle.” She did not rule out throwing her weight behind Oz in the future, though, saying that he should stay focused “on the issues that matter.”
Even Democrats believe that the race will tighten in the perennial battleground state, and that the vast majority of GOP voters will come back home. In the last two presidential elections in Pennsylvania, both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump won by fewer than 2 percentage points.
Josh Novotney, a Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant, downplayed the recent surveys showing Oz behind Fetterman.
“There’s time here. It was a bruising primary. Fetterman didn’t have a bruising primary,” he said. “This is not what the polls are going to look like in September and October.”