When Mehmet Oz was vying for the GOP Senate nomination in Pennsylvania, his argument was simple: He could do better than any other Republican in the populous, politically moderate counties around Philadelphia in a general election.
The argument – along with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement – helped him narrowly win the primary. But as a candidate, Oz faces a new dilemma: motivating the Commonwealth’s most conservative voters.
In rural, conservative Pennsylvania, areas that overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2020, Oz is a bit of an afterthought. Many conservative voters in some of those rural counties told CNN they plan to vote for the famed doctor. But few have been energized by the Oz campaign, and the main reason they consider supporting him is their opposition to Democratic nominee Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman.
It’s a problem Oz faced in the primary when he was challenged to the right by commentator Kathy Barnette and others, and keeping the conservative base motivated will be crucial to his chances in the general election.
“Oz was Trump’s nominee, he’s not our nominee,” said Ned Frear, a voter in Bedford County, which the former president won with about 83% of the vote in 2020.
Frear is a member of a group of retired veterans who meet at the same restaurant on Route 220 to drink coffee and talk politics every week. Oz stopped by the restaurant in February – and narrowly won the country in the primary in May. Still, Frear and others are largely demotivated by the GOP nominee.
“People in Bedford County are probably going to hold their noses and vote for him,” Frear said, “because Fetterman is a dead loss as a candidate.”
Clay Buckingham, another retired veteran, agreed: “That’s my feeling about Oz. I’m sorry to have to vote for him, but I’d rather see him as a senator than see Fetterman.
“I voted for Kathy Barnette in the primary,” added Doug Braendel, another member of the veterans group. “She was my favorite candidate, but too bad. He’s the candidate, so I have to go with him.
For many of those voters, the reason to vote for Oz is Fetterman, a candidate they see as contrary to their conservative views.
The Democratic candidate tried to break through with rural voters. He has held events over the past month in counties such as Indiana and Venango, both of which Trump won with around 70% of the vote in 2020. And he made an April visit to Bedfordwhere he stressed the need to raise the minimum wage and urged not to ignore rural counties.
“Today is about connecting with voters and letting them know that they’re not just being taken for granted or just being like, ‘This is a red county, why are we do we care?'” Fetterman said about a month before he had a stroke. which kept him out of the campaign trail for two months and hovered over much of his run against Oz.
Fetterman’s campaign believes his path to victory lies in maintaining Republican margins in counties like Bedford, while increasing his vote tally in urban and suburban areas.
And the Democrat might be helped in that effort by the lack of enthusiasm for Oz from the GOP base. A recent CBS News/YouGov Battleground Tracker survey found that Oz supporters were far less enthusiastic about his campaign than Fetterman supporters were about the Democrat’s efforts.
According to the poll, only 36% of likely voters in Oz said they were “very excited” about voting Republican, while 64% of registered Republicans said they wished someone had voted for Republican. another be named. By contrast, 63% of Fetterman’s likely voters said they were “very excited” to support him, while 77% of registered Democrats said they were “glad he was nominated.”
In counties like Bedford and neighboring Somerset, however, the country’s polarization is felt more clearly than ever – it’s antipathy for Fetterman, and the fact that he’s a Democrat, that drives Republicans out for Oz.
“Obviously he’s our go-to candidate now so we have to back him because red is better than blue,” said Terri Mitchell, a voter in Somerset County, who Oz lost to former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick during the Republican primary.
Guy Berkebile, the chairman of the Somerset County Republican Party, acknowledged the same: “Some of them, it took a little while,” he said of Republicans harboring apprehensions about About Oz. “But they realize my best option is to vote for Dr. Oz.”
Berkebile welcomed Oz to his company, Guy Chemical, earlier this year. He said there were plenty of local voters who had doubts about the TV doctor at the time.
“We are a very Christian and conservative county. They were somewhat hesitant about Dr. Oz at first. They weren’t sold on his Second Amendment stance, a lot of pro-life here, they weren’t sold on whether he was pro-life or not,” Berkebile said, before adding, “Vote for Fetterman is not an option. ”
Brittany Yanick, spokeswoman for the Oz campaign, said the campaign is confident of owning the redest counties in the state because many of those areas “rely on our energy sector as economic engine”, while criticizing Fetterman’s past position on hydraulic fracturing.
“Pennsylvania needs a strong leader who will uphold American values and help heal this country, not make it worse,” Yanick said.
During his unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 2016, Fetterman expressed support for a moratorium on fracking in Pennsylvania “until we get an extraction tax and the toughest environmental regulations in this country.” He currently does not support a ban on fracking and has taken a more nuanced approach to the transition to clean energy.
Oz could get help in his bid to shore up the Republican base of GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a far-right state senator who has upset more establishment candidates in the primary. Mastriano has been a prominent voice pushing forward Trump’s bogus allegations of 2020 voter fraud, and mainstream Republicans have expressed doubts about his ability to win the general election.
Polls have consistently shown Mastriano trailing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, including the recent CBS News/YouGov poll that gave Shapiro a double-digit lead.
But the likes of Gary Smith, the chairman of the Western Pennsylvania Constitutional Republicans, think Mastriano’s supporters are so loyal to him that they will no doubt go to the polls in November and, while there, likely hold their noses and will vote for Oz.
“Mastriano is so strong he’s going to take Oz with him,” said Smith, whose group is made up of some of the most conservative voters in Jefferson County, which Trump won with 79% of the vote in 2020.
Many members of Smith’s group backed Barnette in the primary – and Jefferson was one of the few counties she won in May. But Oz traveled to the area after his main win, and Smith said the GOP candidate met with the group and “allayed some concerns” and “gave us some reassurances about pro-life, the Second Amendment, things of this nature”.
Smith said that while some members of his group still harbor concerns about Oz, “they’ll suck it up and put on their big girl and big boy pants” and vote for it in November.
“Our philosophy is that while Oz was liberal compared to us, he’s ultra-conservative compared to Fetterman,” Smith said. “So I guess in some ways politics is relative.”