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With Republicans already heavily favored (by history and public-opinion trends) to flip the U.S. House in the 2022 midterms and bust up the Democratic governing trifecta, the bigger drama next year may be over the Senate, where the landscape is significantly more favorable to Democrats thanks to the particular class of senators who are up for reelection, as Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor explains:
[Democrats are] defending 14 seats to the 20 Republicans have up this cycle. And the GOP has five open seats — including three we rate as competitive in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio — while Democrats only got their first vacancy earlier this week with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy’s retirement, which isn’t expected to become competitive.
Of the three open Republican seats, the one in Pennsylvania being vacated by Pat Toomey is considered the most vulnerable, since Democrats are on a bit of a mini-streak in statewide races lately (holding the governorship in 2014 and 2018 and carrying the state for Joe Biden in 2020).
So Republicans are really focused on holding that Pennsylvania Senate seat, but have no clear-cut favorite for the nomination. The early front-runner was Afghanistan war hero, frequent Fox News guest, and 2020 House candidate Sean Parnell (who narrowly lost a southwestern Pennsylvania race to Democratic incumbent Conor Lamb). Most importantly, Parnell won an early endorsement from Donald Trump. But Parnell’s candidacy has been all but overshadowed by a noisy and potentially lethal custody battle with his ex-wife, who alleges he physically abused her and their children. A number of other candidates are in the race or considering it — most prominently, 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor Jeff Bartos, who has the wealth to keep himself viable. But these troubled waters have now been roiled further by the rumored imminent candidacy of someone with very few direct connections to either the Republican Party or the Keystone State: celebrity TV physician Mehmet Oz, better known simply as Dr. Oz.
Oz did quietly register to vote in Pennsylvania late last year. But he’s from Ohio, has lived for years in New Jersey, and is arguably really from Hollywood. A cardiothoracic surgeon with excellent credentials, Oz was one of Oprah Winfrey’s most successful protégés, parlaying regular appearances on Oprah’s show into his own syndicated TV show. While originally he was just someone telegenic and articulate who offered standard medical advice, he soon began to focus on topics like weight loss that were of interest to his daytime and largely female audience. Eventually, he was accused of promoting pseudo-medical remedies on his show and in his many books, and became a controversial (albeit still popular) figure.
Oz’s career crossed over conspicuously into politics when he featured Donald Trump as a guest during the 2016 presidential contest and appeared to validate the candidate’s undocumented claims of excellent health. But he really became a figure of political controversy in early 2020, when he promoted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment in multiple appearances on Fox News and apparently influenced Trump’s own passion for the dubious panacea. As the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said in April of 2020: “Of course President Trump is getting advice about the pandemic from Mehmet Oz, and of course Dr. Oz is eager to provide it. They’re a match made in ratings-obsessed heaven.”
Subsequently, Trump appointed Oz as one of 29 members of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. But little is known of the doc’s political views. Back in 2007, he called himself a “moderate Republican,” which is no longer a thing. According to Politico, Pennsylvania Republicans don’t know what to make of the potential candidacy, which was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon but has yet to advance beyond speculation and some rumored private maneuvering. Presumably, Oz could self-finance a pretty robust campaign. Unlike Parnell, from the Pittsburgh area, and Bartos, from the Philadelphia suburbs, the doctor would have no geographical base other than the screen in nearly every living room. There are a lot of questions about his background that opposition research might turn up. From an influential Turkish family, Oz is a dual citizen who appears to have some sort of relationship with the intermittently sinister Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Conservative Evangelicals might be less than thrilled to learn that Oz is a practicing Muslim (albeit one influenced by the Pacific Sufi tradition).
His big assets are near-universal name ID and some maneuverability on issues as a political “outsider.” His main path to a Senate nomination, though, would be a Parnell implosion (entirely possible if he loses his court fight over custody of his kids), followed by a Trump endorsement of his TV buddy.
Beyond the Parnell, Trump, and Oz factors, the trajectory of the Pennsylvania Senate race is hard to predict. Democrats seem headed toward a potentially fractious primary fight between progressive-populist lieutenant governor John Fetterman and centrist representative Conor Lamb (as noted before, Parnell’s conquerer in 2020). If control of the Senate and thus the ability of the Biden administration to get its executive-branch and judicial nominees confirmed comes down to Pennsylvania, don’t bet the farm on any one outcome.