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How Trump’s Dr. Oz endorsement could cost the GOP in Pennsylvania

Candidates for the Senate seat from Pennsylvania Mehmet Oz and Kathy Barnette attend a forum last week. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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For a while now, valid questions have been raised about whether Republicans’ momentum in the 2022 midterm elections might be thwarted — at least somewhat — by a candidate problem. Specifically, the GOP has a number of inexperienced and baggage-laden front-runners in high-profile Senate races. And it wasn’t long ago that such candidates very likely cost the GOP multiple Senate seats.

Pennsylvania, on the eve of its primary, appears to be a case in point.

The attention in recent days has been focused on Kathy Barnette, the upstart MAGA true-believer with a murky backstory and a history of divisive rhetoric that even Sean Hannity has suggested went too far. But she’s not the only primary candidate who could imperil a GOP pickup opportunity.

Virtually every recent poll has shown Donald Trump’s pick for the nomination, Mehmet Oz, with a very slight lead — almost always with the margin of error. What those polls also show, though, is that he would emerge as a remarkably unpopular nominee, even inside his own party.

A poll this month from Franklin & Marshall College showed Oz at 18 percent and David McCormick at 16 percent. But Republican primary voters actually disliked Oz on net: Four in 10 had a negative opinion, while 3 in 10 had a positive one.

A Fox News poll last week also showed lots of Republicans don’t like Oz. It showed nearly half of Republican primary voters — 46 percent — had an unfavorable opinion of him, while 45 percent had a favorable one. The same poll, though, showed Oz again with a statistically insignificant lead. He had 22 percent to McCormick’s 20 percent and Barnette’s 19 percent.

The lesson: Republicans and Trump voters remain quite suspicious of Oz, even with Trump’s imprimatur.

As remarkably, the question about Oz’s favorable rating came after the pollster asked a separate question about the impact of Trump’s endorsement of Oz (voters generally said it was more a positive than a negative). So when asked for their opinion on Oz, voters would have been primed to know that he was the candidate backed by Trump — favorability split: 80-18 — and still the best Oz could manage was 45-46.

It’s very rare for a politician to be more disliked than liked inside their own party, or even to be near an even split. (A handful of Republicans in recent years have seen their numbers inside the GOP flip upside down, but generally after breaking with Trump in some high-profile way.) And it would of course be even rarer for such a Republican to somehow still win their party’s nomination — which Oz might, by virtue of competing in a crowded field.

Precisely what that would mean for Oz’s general election prospects remains to be seen, in part because we don’t have much general-election polling. Not only do many Republicans dislike him, but plenty hold that opinion “strongly” — 28 percent in the Fox poll and 24 percent in the F&M poll. He would have to win those people over in a closely divided state.

For comparison’s sake, Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance also faced some MAGA resistance even after Trump’s endorsement, and he too faced a crowded and contentious primary earlier this month. And yet, his image in a late Fox News poll was very comfortably above water, 52-23. Only 10 percent had a strongly negative opinion of Vance.

Ironically — and importantly — there is one candidate who has recovered from an even-larger deficit within his party: Donald Trump. When he launched his 2016 campaign in 2015, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed negative GOP views of Trump outpaced positive ones by a full 42 points.

Of course, that was before his campaign really took off, and Trump had much more time to turn things around by the time he was trying to win the nomination and then the general election. Oz has been running for months and has had the backing of a popular (within the GOP) former Republican president for the last month. He’s also less than six months from the general election.

Perhaps we’d be wise not to underestimate a celebrity candidate, who people don’t take seriously, and his chances of ultimately turning that around. You can bet many anti-Oz Republicans would rally to him should he become the nominee. Trump has shown that a record of supporting abortion rights, and other questions about how truly conservative you are, can be overcome over time.

But Barnette clearly isn’t the only potential nominee who might give the GOP heartburn when it comes to winning a very winnable race come November. And if Oz prevails on Tuesday, the party will have Trump to thank for that.

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