The battle for control of the Senate is tightening, and one race is causing more concern than any other for Republicans.
It’s the contest in Pennsylvania where Mehmet Oz, better known as TV’s “Dr. Oz,” hopes to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R).
If Democrats were able to pick up a seat in the Keystone State, it would make the Republican quest to retake control of the upper chamber much more complicated.
But that’s exactly what polls are predicting right now.
The latest major survey, from Fox News, put Democratic candidate John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, up by a startling 11 points over Oz. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, Fetterman leads by almost 9 points.
The situation is all the more striking given that Fetterman has been off the campaign trail since suffering a stroke in mid-May.
Fetterman’s campaign of late has largely consisted of trolling Oz on social media, including by advocating that the doctor, who resided in New Jersey for decades, be inducted into the Garden State’s Hall of Fame.
Deepening Republican consternation, Fetterman has been outpacing Oz in fundraising as well.
In the second quarter, the Democrat raised roughly $11 million while the Republican raised about $3.8 million — “more than half of it money he loaned his campaign,” as The Philadelphia Inquirer noted.
The gulf was even wider when it came to small-dollar donations, which are often seen as a proxy for grassroots enthusiasm.
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis found that between April 28 and June 30, Fetterman raised $5.1 million from people giving less than $200. During the same period, Oz received just $153,000 in the same way.
All in all, it seems a long way from last November, when Oz entered the race amid a welter of publicity, billing himself as a “Conservative Republican to cure what’s wrong with Washington.”
Right now, the bigger question is what’s ailing the TV doctor.
Experts in the state point first and foremost to the bruising GOP primary Oz endured.
Oz only just rebuffed his main rival, businessman David McCormick, in a race so close that the result remained in doubt for more than two weeks. Both Oz and McCormick also had to contend with a stronger than expected challenge from Kathy Barnette, a conservative commentator.
In the end, Oz was crowned the GOP nominee after a primary in which he received fewer than one-third of the votes cast — despite winning the endorsement of former President Trump.
That’s still a problem, according to observers of the race.
One former Pennsylvania congressman gave a pithy explanation of the roots of Oz’s current trouble: “He had north of $20 million in negative advertising dumped on his head.”
Jim Lee, CEO and founder of the Republican-leaning Susquehanna Polling and Research, said that he had been particularly struck by the way Oz appeared to be underperforming with Republican voters in the recent Fox News poll.
“That is a function of the bitter primary,” Lee said. “I just don’t think Oz has solidified the GOP base yet.”
Lee said that he expected most of those voters to return to the fold in the end, however — especially if Oz’s campaign puts a more penetrating spotlight on Fetterman.
A more recent point of contention concerns Oz’s commitment, or otherwise, to the hard graft of campaigning.
Reported vacations in Palm Beach and Ireland have raised the hackles of discontented Republicans who argue that Oz should have made more of the period during which Fetterman has been forced off the campaign trail.
Oz “has just been AWOL on the campaign. It has been a huge strategic mistake,” said one Pennsylvania GOP strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s been him completely dropping the ball.”
The Oz campaign has pushed back against similar charges when they have been made in the recent past. An Oz spokesperson told Politico last week that such charges were “ridiculous” given that the candidate had “done over 115 campaign events across Pennsylvania over the last two months.”
Still, the doubters are out in force.
On Monday, Jim Geraghty of the conservative National Review wrote that Oz “just looks like a lemon of a candidate.”
Comparing the TV doctor to his most famous backer, Geraghty added, “Oz offers all of Trump’s weaknesses (inexperienced celebrity dilettante, limited roots in the state) without any of Trump’s strengths; the typical Trump voter isn’t impressed by Oz being Oprah’s favorite doctor.”
Meanwhile, on Monday, Fetterman hit Oz with a new online ad in which the celebrity was seen in old footage boasting about his expensive suits and contending that there was not much difference in people’s happiness whether they were making $50,000 or $50 million.
Republicans in the state don’t think all is lost, by a long shot.
They contend that Fetterman’s record — including past support for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as president — could disqualify him in the minds of centrist voters.
They also note that the prevailing national political winds strongly favor the GOP.
But virtually nobody disputes that Oz is behind right now.
It’s an unexpectedly bad spot with the election fewer than 100 days away.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.