Four leading Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidates clashed over who has genuine conservative credentials and Commonwealth ties at a forum Wednesday morning, as the two frontrunners appeared together on a public stage for the first time.
The event in Erie brought Dave McCormick and Mehmet Oz together at the same public event after months of hammering each other with millions of dollars worth of TV commercials. They were joined by rivals Kathy Barnette and Jeff Bartos. And while they mostly stuck to the rules against personal attacks, several took the opportunity to dig into Oz, the famed surgeon better known as “Dr. Oz.
“You should all be wondering: why is everyone attacking me?” Oz, said at one point.
“Because he’s a liberal,” Barnette interjected, seated directly to his right.
When the Manufacturer & Business Association moderator tried to stop the attack, Barnette, a conservative commentator who ran a grassroots campaign, said she had no choice but to hit the candidates on Wednesday, since the ultra-rich Oz and McCormick have largely campaigned on television and rarely appear with other rivals in an already brutal primary.
“It’s not a talk show. It’s reality,” Barnette said. ‘learn our talking points, then come back and repeat them to us.’
The stakes for both parties’ primaries are high: Pennsylvania’s Senate race is one of the most crucial in the nation, with the outcome likely to help decide control of the chamber and President Joe Biden’s ability to shape policy in the last two years of his term. .
The Manufacturer & Business Association invited five GOP candidates who met their forum’s criteria, including polling and fundraising thresholds, although one of them, Carla Sands, the former ambassador to Denmark , refused to attend. Two other GOP candidates on the ballot, Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto and Montgomery County attorney Sean Gale, did not meet the criteria, organizers said.
Despite polls showing McCormick now leading the race, Oz has absorbed the most shots, directly and indirectly.
READ MORE: David McCormick tops Mehmet Oz and other takeaways in new Pa Senate race poll.
When all the candidates spoke about Pennsylvania’s energy industry and advocating for freeing it up with fewer environmental regulations, McCormick pointed to past comments from Oz raising concerns about health risks around fracking sites, including air and water contamination, respiratory problems for people who live nearby, and other issues.
“It’s a lie, and you know it’s a lie,” Oz shot back, though McCormick’s campaign pointed to news reports detailing Oz’s past statements. Oz also pointed to his recent endorsement of Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and energy secretary under former President Donald Trump.
McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO and military veteran, has largely escaped direct attack and worked to promote his Pennsylvania roots, having grown up in the state, though he recently lived in Connecticut and is not income only in recent months as he launched his Senate campaign. .
“I have a deep commitment to what I see happening in our state,” he said.
But Bartos, a Montgomery County real estate developer who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, did subtle digs at both Oz and McCormick while repeatedly promoting his own work for of Conservative causes over the past five years.
“When we look at our televisions and see people, as I call them, ‘political tourists’…they’ve come in and they’re spending tens of millions of dollars,” Bartos said, while claiming he and Barnette have traveled the state by listening to voters. “For me, this campaign has always been, from day one and always will be, about deep love and commitment to our community.”
Oz, who has lived in New Jersey for decades, moved to his in-laws’ home in Montgomery County in late 2020 after it became clear the Senate seat would be open.
READ MORE: Senate candidate Mehmet Oz says he’s now a resident of Pennsylvania. So why is he still hanging out at his New Jersey mansion?
Addressing a largely business-oriented audience, the candidates broadly agreed on the policy: They called for greater natural gas extraction in Pennsylvania, pointing to Russia’s actions in Ukraine as evidence of the risks of depend on foreign oil. They called for making Trump’s tax cuts permanent. (Bartos even offered a rare moment of public praise to incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who wrote much of this legislation and is not seeking re-election. He did not play an active role in the primary, after having absorbed GOP criticism for voting to convict Trump in the former president’s second impeachment trial.)
The candidates have objected to government spending and the $1,400 relief checks President Joe Biden sent last year, accusing them both of inflation. McCormick, in an unusual move for a Republican, also called for better targeting of current defense spending, rather than increasing it, and said both sides were responsible for the national deficit. To varying degrees, they were all critical of what they called the “woke” culture of the left.
The contrasts, instead, came as each laid out their backgrounds to argue that they would best achieve those goals.
Oz argued that he “burned the boats” by giving up his TV show to run for the Senate and said his history of fighting the media and the government would make him the best fighter in the state.
“Imagine being so obligated, so worried about your country, that you would give up everything and feel no remorse whatsoever,” Oz said.
McCormick argued he would be ready “on day one” given his background as a business leader and former government official who served in high-ranking positions in the George W. Bush administration.
Bartos highlighted his deep ties to the state and his work during the pandemic to provide loans to small businesses, saying he was fighting for Pennsylvanians and not himself, while Barnette promised to provide a benefit sharper in the GOP to fight what she said were Democrats. “putting their foot on our throat.”
“Our country is on fire right now,” she said. “And the Republican Party has this crazy idea that we only choose the richest person in the room who is ready to run for office. How has this served us? …You need a fighter.