After rallying with Trump, Mehmet Oz is pivoting toward the suburbs that have abandoned the GOP

Jonathan Tamari and Julia Terruso
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — In his U.S. Senate primary campaign, Republican Mehmet Oz clung close to former President Donald Trump, wielding his endorsement to help sway Republican voters.The surrogates, and locations, point to a political reality that Oz and nearly every Pennsylvania Republican faces: Trump’s voter base, on its own, almost certainly isn’t enough to win statewide.

But after rallying again with Trump Saturday in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Oz this week has featured a different brand of allies. In Philadelphia Tuesday, he was joined by Sen. Pat Toomey, a fiscal conservative who broke with Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. In Delaware County Thursday, he brought in Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. And this Saturday, he’ll rally in Bucks County with help from Sen. John Kennedy, a wise-cracking Louisianan.

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Instead, Republicans hoping to overcome Democrats’ shrinking — but still notable — voter registration edge need to hold a substantial portion of Trump voters while also showing some strength in the moderate, suburban areas that have swung hard against the GOP since his 2016 election.

“I think (Oz is) trying to show people he can attract both sides of the party,” said Josh Novotney, a Republican consultant who has advised Toomey.

Improving in the suburbs, though, will require reversing a long-standing Republican decline — which could be even more challenging after the Supreme Court’s decision to throw out the constitutional right to abortion. Suburban women were already a driving force in the collar counties’ swing toward Democrats, and there’s substantial evidence they’ve been energized by the threat to abortion rights.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate nominee, noted Thursday that Haley had once signed a ban on abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The South Carolina law included penalties for doctors of up to $10,000 in fines and three years in prison.

“We appreciate that Dr. Oz is doing our job for us,” said Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello. Appearing with Haley “is just highlighting how out of step (Oz) is with Pennsylvanians when it comes to reproductive freedom.”

Abortion is a rare issue that drives liberals to vote more, and attracts swing voters in the suburbs, said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic consultant from Philadelphia who has worked on suburban races. And now the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court ruling has elevated the issue.

“There is a deep, ingrained, pro-choice sentiment that has been a driver (for Democrats), that has been a real wedge for the Republican Party for decades in the suburbs,” Balaban said, “and the Dobbs decisions exacerbates that tension.”

Mehmet Oz, PA senate candidate, on left, speaking alongside Former president Donald Trump, on right, at the Save America rally at the Mohegan Sun Casey Arena in Wilkes-Barre, P.A. on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

Democrats are also pointing out that Oz has called abortion “murder” and says he supports banning the procedure except in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother’s life, saying those positions are toxic in the suburbs.

Fetterman plans to emphasize abortion rights with his own event Sunday in Montgomery County, rallying with the head of Planned Parenthood’s political arm, as well as several of the region’s female Democratic officials, including U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean and Mary Gay Scanlon, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, and state House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton.

Republicans at Haley’s event Thursday, though, argued that issues such as inflation, crime, and education — and President Joe Biden’s poor approval ratings — weigh in their favor with suburban voters this year.

“They’re gonna vote their pocketbook. They’re gonna vote based on what’s happening over in Philadelphia and in the world and our position in the world,” said Tom McGarrigle, Delaware County’s GOP chair. “People feel nervous.”

And some argued that Oz, after his longtime career on daytime television, can appeal to suburban women who have fled the GOP. Haley aimed to help.

In a basement banquet hall in Springfield Township, she spoke at length about rising crime and illegal immigration, and argued for putting parents back in control of children’s education.

”We’ve gotta snap out of it. Republicans have been too nice for too long,” she said to applause.

Abortion didn’t come up during her speech or Oz’s, though part of her introduction described him as a “pro-family, pro-child, pro-parent, pro-education, pro-business freedom fighter.”

Andy Reilly, Pennsylvania’s Republican national committeeman and former chair of the Delaware County GOP, said Haley would resonate because of her “common sense, inclusive, conservative principles.”

Two of the three questions Oz took from supporters in Springfield were about crime in Philadelphia. On that issue and others, he struck a more moderate tone than he sometimes does.

“We need to give (people) the tough love that’s required, but I’m not talking about penalizing people, throwing them in jail and throwing away the key,” Oz said.

His connection to Trump, however, could weigh on him. “He introduced himself to voters by defining himself as Donald Trump’s guy,” Balaban said.

And the former president and GOP candidates who tried to mimic him suffered increasingly heavy losses in the areas just outside Philadelphia.

Consider: When Trump and Toomey were on the ballot in 2016, Trump lost Chester County by 9.5 percentage points. Toomey won it by two.

Overall in Philadelphia’s four collar counties, Toomey lost by 60,557 votes. Trump’s deficit was 188,353.

Trump-backed Senate nominee Lou Barletta then lost the collar counties by nearly 290,000 in 2018. Trump lost the four counties by even more in his reelection bid. In just four years, his deficit in the Philly suburbs grew by 56%.

Trump was able to overcome his suburban rout in 2016 with a wave of support in deep-red areas and once-Democratic regions where white, blue-collar workers swung to the GOP. But that path to victory has worked exactly once in Pennsylvania. No one, not even Trump in 2020, has been able to replicate it.

”Trumpism doesn’t scale for anybody but 45,” said Chris Nicholas, a GOP consultant based in Harrisburg.

Personality and style have had a lot to do with the suburban swing. While Toomey is deeply conservative and aligned with Trump on most policy issues, he has a mild temperament, and focused mostly on fiscal concerns instead of culture wars.

As Trump slashed his way to the presidency in 2016, Toomey appealed to suburban voters, and won some Democratic endorsements, by emphasizing his support for background checks for gun purchases. He brought in Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, seen as one of the Senate’s most centrist members, for a “Women for Toomey” event in Villanova. He also kept his distance from Trump, refusing to say that he would vote for the GOP nominee until hours before polls closed.

“The Republican Party, we need to figure out a way to get everyone back under the tent. It’s not an easy task because President Trump — his policies were outstanding, but his delivery was not always accepted that well with people,” said McGarrigle, the county GOP chair. “But you can’t just throw out the Trump supporters, either. You need Trump supporters to get across the finish line.”

Republicans don’t necessarily have to win the suburbs to win statewide, but they do need to narrow their losses.

Some Republicans still see hope in an area where, not long ago, they often won. Auditor General Timothy DeFoor lost the collar counties in 2020 by about 152,000, around half of Trump’s deficit, on his way to statewide victory. It was a similar story for Treasurer Stacy Garrity.

Both were in low-profile races, meaning most voters probably knew little about either. But their vote totals suggest some suburban voters who reject Trump are still open to other Republicans.

At Oz’s event Thursday, Jane Galli a former Radnor committeewoman and retired math teacher, said she’s been a Republican for years but is flexible on issues like gun control and abortion.

She was skeptical of Oz at first but has grown to like him, calling him “reasonable.”

”He has a warm personality, a good bedside manner,” she said, adding that she could see him winning over all types of GOP voters. ”I think he can bring together the crazies and the non-crazies.”