By Dmitriy Shapiro
(JNS) Pennsylvania’s closely watched Senate primary will conclude on Tuesday night, but rather than provide a clearer picture of who will be the eventual nominee for the Republicans as the race enters its final stretch, a surprise surge by a largely unknown candidate, Kathy Barnette, is mixing up the fight to the finish.
Up until last week, it was assumed that the two frontrunners in the GOP primary to replace the moderate outgoing Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) were Dr. Mehmet Oz—host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” a former cardiothoracic surgeon and professor emeritus at Columbia University—against retired hedge-fund manager, Army veteran and former Bush administration official David McCormick. Both candidates competed for the endorsement of former President Donald Trump and who best fits the MAGA mantle. Trump finally weighed in last month, giving Oz the nod and causing a rift among the former president’s supporters.
An African-American Army veteran, author and political commentator, Barnette was seen as an afterthought in the race, which until Trump’s endorsement of Oz was led by McCormick. After the endorsement, Oz’s poll number put him ahead of McCormick, though not by much.
Barnette was polling in fifth place among the seven Republican candidates in the race in early April, but jumped to third in the polls by the middle of the month and began an even more rapid ascent in early May, making it a three-way race for the nomination.
The latest poll, conducted by Emerson College Polling, showed Oz with 32% support among likely Republican primary voters, over Barnette’s 27% and McCormick’s 26% in a poll with a 3% margin of error, but earlier polls in May hint at a significantly narrower race.
‘Israelis are growing grapes in the desert’
In recent days, Barnette has campaigned with Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who is leading in the polls to win the GOP nomination. Yet Barnette has not been able to gain favor with Trump, who is sticking by Oz.
“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the general election against radical left Democrats,” Trump said in a statement on May 12. “She has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted, but if she is able to do so, she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party—and I will be behind her all the way.”
“Dr. Oz is the only one who will be able to easily defeat the crazed, lunatic Democrat in Pennsylvania,” Trump’s statement continued. “A vote for anyone else in the primary is a vote against victory in the fall!”
Barnette’s platform says little about Iran or Israel, but her campaign website features of video of a 2019 interview on Fox News where she praised Israel after a nine-day visit. She also attended a rally in Philadelphia supporting Israel in May 2021, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, tweeting a picture of herself at the rally.
“I stand with Israel! My heart was so encouraged and full of joy to see so many wonderful people who showed up to support Israel’s right to exist and to defend herself from terrorism,” she tweeted. “We are united behind our ally!”
But Barnette’s other tweets over the years have garnered negative attention both from Republicans and Democrats, attacking Islam and the gay community.
Oz, a dual American-Turkish citizen who could become the first Muslim senator in American history, also visited Israel in 2013 on a trip organized by the late Sheldon Adelson, touring Israel and Judea and Samaria with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
Oz said in an interview with JNS that he believes it was important for a prominent Muslim like himself to visit Israel and that its success should serve as an example to other Muslim countries.
“I think Muslims around Israel recognize and respect what it’s been able to accomplish,” he said. “To go to Israel and share the insights that I gained from there with press was an important way for me to say, ‘Guys, enough.’ If the Israelis are growing grapes in the desert, surrounding countries who are not thriving democracies like Israel should be able to copy and benefit.”
Oz opposes the BDS movement against Israel, which he called anti-Semitism.
“How can pension funds be prohibited from investing in companies that are doing business with Israel? This is very extreme behavior. I don’t understand why we tolerate it,” he said. “I think it speaks to a deeper ideological rot that it could occur, and we have to guard against it continually.”
He also said that he supports the Israeli government’s efforts towards peace with Palestinians but does not believe that there are willing partners on the other side.
“The fact that you’ve got the PLO taking money to pay terrorists to kill Americans and Jews, this is heinous and doesn’t get, I don’t think, the attention it deserves,” he said. “I mean, the Taylor Force law is a good one, but a lot of Americans are unaware that this has been taking place.”
Oz has received criticism for not saying that he would renounce his Turkish citizenship if elected because it allows him to travel to Turkey to visit his mother and recently garnered criticism for having voted for the opposition candidate in Turkey’s 2018 election.
During the interview, Oz said that he strongly opposed the Biden administration’s efforts to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, believing that it would send the wrong message to American allies.
“It’s a horrible idea! You’re telling our allies—a thriving democracy, who’s been incredibly loyal and is a beacon of light of what democracy represents, Israel—that we’re not actually with you,” said Oz. “That we’re going to be having the Russians, who should not be trusted, negotiating with the Iranians, who should not be trusted, so that they can maybe give us some dirty oil. And in the meantime, they’ll get access to money, enriched uranium, to hurt Israel.”
McCormick’s platform doesn’t mention Israel but lists Iran as an enemy along with China and Russia. He is critical of Biden’s foreign policy, saying that the Biden administration’s failed withdrawal from Afghanistan is one of the reasons he entered the race and said that Biden’s general foreign-policy weakness has allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine.
While focusing more on domestic rather than foreign policy, McCormick has been endorsed by pro-Israel politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a fellow West Point graduate.
According to J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Professor Larry Sabato’s “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, the race is unique because the Republican party frontrunners don’t have particularly strong connections to the state they’re running to represent. Until recently, Oz lived in New Jersey and McCormick lived in Connecticut. Barnette has called both candidates “carpetbaggers,” despite questions still remaining of how long she herself has lived in the state.
While Oz’s mainstream name recognition has no doubt helped his race, he has also had to defend himself against attacks associating him with “Hollywood liberals” in the career that made him a household name.
“I think there may be some suspicion of Dr. Oz just being from the media,” said Coleman. “You have a decent chunk of the Republican electorate that is suspicious of anything that has to do with the mainstream media, and for better or worse, that’s been Dr. Oz for most of his career.”
Meanwhile, Oz has attacked McCormick for his ties to Chinese companies and accuses him of being funded by Wall Street.
More about style than substance
Coleman said that the seat has been unlucky for Democrats during recent cycles, with Toomey having narrowly defeated his Democratic challengers. This year—being a midterm election during a Democratic administration—is also expected to be tough for Democrats in a swing state where U.S. President Joe Biden narrowly defeated Trump in the 2020 election.
On the Democratic side, current Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is leading the polls over Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) and Philadelphia-area State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. While polls of the Democrats have been sparse, with small sample sizes and large margins of error, the few public polls show Fetterman with a wide lead.
The most recent poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., conducted between April 20 to May 1, indicated that Fetterman led the race among 53% of registered voters to Lamb’s 14% and Kenyatta’s 4%, with a 6.6% margin of error.
The choice in the Democratic primary will be more about style than substance—with all three running on largely the same, traditional Democratic platform.
Lamb’s record in Congress has been supportive of Israel, including voting for additional Iron Dome interceptors and military aid to Israel without preconditions.
An attorney and Marine Corps veteran representing Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District, he has been called Trump’s “white whale” after winning the seat over two Republicans Trump had endorsed and campaigned for in a district that could swing to either side.
Because of his success in running against popular Republicans in swing districts, Lamb supporters feel that he’s the best choice to take on the eventual Republican nominee.
His polished persona contrasts sharply with Fetterman. At 6 foot 8 inches—and bald, sporting a goatee, with tattoos and more comfortable wearing black work shirts, a hoodie and shorts than a suit—Fetterman looks more like a bouncer or a car mechanic than a politician. The former longtime mayor of Braddock, Pa.—a struggling steel town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh—Fetterman is running his campaign as a populist who appeals to blue-collar Americans rather than the far-left ideological populism seen among progressive Democrats.
Over the weekend, it was reported that he had a small stroke, was hospitalized but released and is back on the campaign trail.
Despite supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 presidential primaries, Fetterman avoids being labeled as a progressive. When a campaign event attendee recently joked that Fetterman will be the tallest member of “The Squad,” Fetterman responded that he “won’t be a ‘Squad’ member, but I will be your next United States senator,” according to The New York Times.
Still, according to Coleman, some are worried if his persona will play well with the moderate voters in Pennsylvania.
Fetterman first ran for Senate and lost in 2016 but parlayed the statewide name recognition to a successful run for lieutenant governor, giving him an edge in a statewide election, compared to Lamb’s regional name recognition.
‘It’s going to be a heavily watched race’
Jill Zipin, chairwoman of Democratic Jewish Outreach of Pennsylvania (DJOP), said all three candidates are very similar on the issues with the exception of marijuana legalization—all of them want to get rid of the Senate’s filibuster, are pro-choice and for gun reform.
“All three of them support a safe, strong and secure Israel; they support a two-state solution; they support the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU); they support the Iron Dome; … they’re all opposed to anti-Semitism in all its forms,” said Zipin. “I think some people are supporting one candidate over the other based maybe on things that are not policy-related, more [on] personality.”
All of the candidates support Biden’s position on Ukraine.
Mid-April, DJOP and the Jewish Democratic Council of America held a forum for the candidates, where many issues concerning Jewish voters were addressed. Neither organization is planning to endorse a candidate until after the primary.
Lamb said he opposed conditions on aid to Israel and even supported aid beyond the amount outlined in the MOU.
“I think conditions impose special rules on Israel that other allies of ours are not subject to. We have generally applicable laws for all government foreign aid that could be used inconsistently with our values and Israel is our trusted ally, friend and partner. So I think we want them to use the aid as effectively as possible for them without extra sort of red tape,” said Lamb.
Fetterman said he found the vote against additional funding for Iron Dome deeply disturbing.
“Israel must be allowed the ability to defend itself against random rocket attacks and … I don’t support or would ever support the BDS boycott movement,” he said. “And furthermore, at every juncture, I’m going to come down on the side of Israel to unilaterally defend itself, facing the level of aggression, say thousands of random rockets being targeted at citizens.”
While all the candidates supported nuclear negotiations with Iran, Lamb and Fetterman did not commit to supporting any deal that comes out of the current phase of negotiations.
Lamb said too little known information has been made public about the specifics of the current deal to express a real opinion.
“The situation has changed from 2015—Iran has more nuclear material now, they have a different, more hardline leadership now—and so you would want to go into this decision with a little bit of healthy skepticism about what their intentions really are and whether it’s possible to bind them to an agreement that is in our interest,” he said.
Fetterman said that a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable option because of its danger not only to Israel but to world peace. He called Iran a rogue nation that will never operate in true good faith to enhance the region’s stability.
“They’re terrible, and they promote terrorism at every juncture,” he said.
While he said he absolutely supported the Biden administration’s efforts at renegotiating the deal, he supported a longer and stronger deal.
“I think Fetterman talks about trying to maybe get the voter who hasn’t voted, maybe voted for Trump in the past—the ignored man or woman so to speak,” said Lipin. “And Conor has talked about being able to win in a Trump district. His district was very Trumpy twice, and he won both times. In some ways, they’re talking about the same thing.”
She noted that Fetterman’s style appears to appeal more to the anti-establishment type while Lamb’s is more traditional in terms of the way he dresses and speaks.
“I think all three candidates are far superior to any candidate on the Republican side of the aisle, and they’re all bright men and all would make excellent nominees,” she said.
“None of them would raise the concerns that some have around a candidate like [Michigan Rep.] Rashida Tlaib or [Minnesota Rep.] Ilhan Omar, understanding that those candidates are specific to their districts,” she added.
Zipin said that with Pennsylvania being a purple state and still having more registered Democrats than Republicans, she expects it to be a tight race in the general election. “There’s going to be a lot of money poured in here, I believe, by outside groups on both sides,” she said. “It’s going to be a heavily watched race.”
She also pointed to the popularity of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish, saying that the coattail effect of his candidacy could have an impact on the race.
“It’s the only race that we have rated as a toss-up right now that doesn’t feature a Democratic incumbent. So it’s sort of a rare [contest] in that it’s an open seat in a state that Biden very narrowly carried,” said Coleman. “If the Democrats can flip Pennsylvania, then I think they probably have a decent chance to hold the Senate.”