Former president Donald Trump on Wednesday moved to baselessly discredit the too-close-to-call Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania, urging his endorsed candidate, Mehmet Oz, to “declare victory” over opponent David McCormick before all the votes are counted in a contest with far-reaching implications.
Trump’s comments set off alarm among some Republicans and Democrats in the state. His words echoed his conduct after the 2020 election, but this time he was lashing out in an intraparty competition. In 2020, he falsely claimed victory in Pennsylvania and sought to stop mail-in ballots from being recounted. His efforts were unsuccessful, and Joe Biden’s victory was certified.
“It’s very reminiscent of what we saw in 2020,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican who served as a city commissioner in Philadelphia and whose family endured death threats after Trump tweeted at him in 2020. Schmidt, who oversaw the city’s elections, added: “It’s an indication that he’s not confident that his candidate is going to win. When it looks like you’re losing, you want to flip the board game over — you’re clearly afraid of the outcome.”
Trump’s interjection came as both campaigns braced for a potentially protracted and contentious process, in a battleground state both parties see as key to their efforts to control the Senate next year. The winner of the Republican primary in Pennsylvania will face Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who won the Democratic nomination by a wide margin. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) is retiring at the end of this term, and his decision triggered the open race.
Thousands of mail-in ballots still need to be counted. Pennsylvania law mandates an automatic recount if a candidate’s margin of victory is 0.5 percentage points or less. Under state procedures, if a recount is triggered, a final result will be submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of State on June 8.
Pennsylvania was one of five states that held primaries Tuesday, offering indicators of the direction both parties are headed in the run-up to November. Other closely watched contests remained unsettled Wednesday, including in Oregon’s 5th District, where Rep. Kurt Schrader (D) was facing off with a liberal challenger, school board member Jamie McLeod-Skinner.
In another test for Democrats, Summer Lee, a favorite of national liberal leaders such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), was in a tight race in Pennsylvania’s 12th District with Steve Irwin, who was supported by a centrist super PAC.
But much of the focus for both parties was on Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary. The costly and grueling campaign leading up to Tuesday’s vote carved deep divisions into the Trump movement. The Oz and McCormick campaigns both expressed confidence Wednesday about prevailing.
The Associated Press had yet to project a winner. But Trump sought to declare on his social media site, Truth Social, that Oz, a TV personality and heart surgeon, had won. He derided the mail-in ballots, posting: “Here we go again! In Pennsylvania they are unable to count the Mail-in Ballots. It is a BIG MESS. Our Country should go to paper ballots, with same day voting.”
He later urged Oz to “declare victory.”
“It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they ‘just happened to find,’” Trump said, providing no evidence.
Oz’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump’s statements.
As of Wednesday morning, Oz, who won Trump’s endorsement in April, held a razor-thin lead over McCormick, who sought Trump’s support and was backed by many Trump allies. With 97 percent of votes counted, Oz was at 31.2 percent and McCormick was at 31.1 percent.
Part of the delay in the Republican race results stemmed from a printing error that made thousands of ballots unreadable in Lancaster County, the sixth-most-populous county in the state. Those ballots needed to be redone by hand and then scanned.
At the beginning of the day on Wednesday, Oz led by around 2,500 votes. By the evening, his lead had shrunk to about 1,700.
A Republican strategist associated with the McCormick campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the race said the campaign spent around $1 million targeting absentee voters.
On the Democratic side, Fetterman was recovering from a recent stroke that kept him off the campaign trail in the primary’s final days. He hopes to get back out on the trail in a few days, his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, said Wednesday on CNN.
President Biden’s low approval ratings have stoked worries among Democrats about the November midterms in purple states such as Pennsylvania. Republicans have been seeking to rally support from voters over concerns about rising inflation, crime and other issues creating major political head winds for the party in power in Washington.
Fetterman supporters hope his unusual profile and distance from Washington Democrats will help the party overcome those obstacles. He is nearly 6-foot-9, with a shaved head, a goatee and tattoos up both arms. With his oversize hoodies, gym shorts, sneakers and plain-spoken style, he has generated a deep fan base among voters disillusioned by recent politics.
In every state except Pennsylvania that has held midterm primaries this year, turnout has dropped between 41 and 70 percentage points compared with 2020′s primaries — not a surprise, since that was a presidential year. But in Pennsylvania, the turnout drop was only 17 percentage points, evidence of higher enthusiasm among Democratic voters, at least compared with other states that have voted this year, such as neighboring Ohio.
Many Republicans had hoped to move past a bruising GOP primary that created acrimony in the party.
Trump and Oz viciously attacked McCormick, describing the former hedge fund executive and Army veteran as a “liberal Wall Street Republican” who wasn’t truly “MAGA,” the acronym for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan in 2016. McCormick brought in Mike Pompeo, who served as Trump’s secretary of state, to raise questions about Oz’s dual citizenship with Turkey.
The contentious race between Oz and McCormick left an opening for a third candidate, Kathy Barnette, to gain traction in the final weeks of the campaign among voters who were underwhelmed by their top-tier choices. Barnette, who competed for Trump supporters with a far-right platform that embraced many of the former president’s ideas, including his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, was on pace to finish a distant third.
Addressing supporters late Tuesday, Oz thanked Trump and Fox News’s Sean Hannity for helping with his campaign.
“President Trump after he endorsed me continued to lean into this race in Pennsylvania. … God bless you, sir, for putting so much effort into this race. I will make you proud,” Oz said. “I want to thank Sean Hannity. … He understands exactly how to make a difference, and he’s been doing that the entire campaign, much of it behind the scenes.”
The Democratic Senate primary, in which Fetterman defeated Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, was far less personal. High-level Democrats did not endorse any candidate in the race but were swift to offer their support for Fetterman when it became clear shortly after polls closed that he would be the decisive winner. He would garner nearly 60 percent of the vote.
“Democrats are united around John, who is a strong nominee, will run a tough race and can win in November,” Biden said in a statement 90 minutes after the polls closed. He went on to portray the Republican candidates as “extreme.”
Some Democrats responded to Trump’s comments about the Republican primary with concern. Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia-based election lawyer for Democrats, called Trump’s posts “scary.”
“No one knows who won yet,” Bonin said. “We only know what has been counted so far. We have processes here in Pennsylvania. The candidates and their teams have access to observe the whole process. All of the tools are out there for all of the transparency needed. There’s a real chain of custody for all of those ballots.”
“All of this stuff about fake ballots, it’s ludicrous,” Bonin said. “There are too many checks on the process.”
In 2020, Trump and his allies opened several legal fronts in an effort to overturn his loss in Pennsylvania.
One lawsuit sought to invalidate all mail ballots in the election, arguing that the state law enacted the prior year allowing any eligible voter to cast a ballot by mail was unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court dismissed the suit and harshly criticized the plaintiffs for seeking to disenfranchise 6.9 million Pennsylvanians who had voted by mail. A similar suit was filed in 2021 and is on appeal after a lower court ruled the law unconstitutional.
Another suit sought to invalidate any mail ballots that arrived after Election Day, claiming that the secretary of the commonwealth at the time, Kathy Boockvar (D), had improperly changed rules to accept ballots received within three days of the election. Only the legislature holds the power to set election law, the suit argued. That effort became moot when it became clear that Biden had won Pennsylvania even without counting ballots that had arrived after Election Day.
Robert Gleason, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said he thinks Trump is sowing doubt to deflect from the possibility that his preferred candidate may lose.
“You’ve shocked me,” Gleason said, when told about Trump’s comments. “For him to declare any kind of victory before all the votes are counted, he must be in a panic then.”
Amy Gardner, Lenny Bronner, John Wagner and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.