Bedford, Pennsylvania (United States of America)
When Mehmet Oz was running for the GOP Senate nomination in Pennsylvania, his argument was simple: He could do better in the general election than any other Republican in the populous, politically moderate counties around Philadelphia.
The argument — along with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement — helped him win the primary. But as a candidate, Oz faces a new dilemma: motivating the commonwealth’s most conservative voters.
In conservative rural areas of Pennsylvania, areas that voted for Trump in 2020, Oz is something of an afterthought. Many conservative voters in some of those rural counties told CNN they plan to vote for the famous doctor. But the main reason why few are revving up Oz’s campaign and intending to support him is the Democratic candidate against Gov. John Fetterman.
It’s a problem Oz faced in the primaries when he was challenged by commentator Kathy Barnette and others on the right, and keeping the conservative base motivated will be crucial to his chances in the general election.
“Oz was Trump’s candidate, he’s not our candidate,” said Ned Frear, a voter in Bedford County, which the former president won with about 83 percent of the vote in 2020.
Frear is part of a group of retired veterans who meet at the same Route 220 diner every week to drink coffee and talk politics. Oz stopped at dinner in February, and narrowly won the country in the May primaries. However, Frear and others are largely unmotivated GOP candidates.
“The people of Bedford County will probably hold their noses and vote for him,” Frear said, “because Fetterman is lost as a candidate.”
Clay Buckingham, another retired veteran, agreed: “That’s how I feel about Oz. I’m sorry I’ll have to vote for him, but I’d rather see him as a senator than Fetterman.’
“I voted for Kathy Barnett in the primary,” added Doug Braendel, another veteran member of the group. “He was my favorite candidate, but so be it. This is the candidate, so I have to go with him.’
For many of these voters, the reason they voted for Oz is Fetterman, a candidate they see as antithetical to their conservative views.
The Democratic candidate has tried to make inroads with farm voters. In the past month, he has held events in counties such as Indiana and Venango, both of which Trump won about 70% of the vote in 2020. And he paid an April visit to Bedfordwhere he pushed the need to raise the minimum wage and insisted that rural counties ignore it.
“It’s about reaching out to voters today and letting them know they’re not taken for granted or they’re not saying, ‘It’s a red county, why do we care?'” Fetterman said about a month before his stroke. that sidelined the campaign for two months and has loomed large for much of the race against Oz.
Fetterman’s campaign believes the path to victory involves keeping Republican margins down in counties like Bedford while boosting urban and suburban vote numbers.
And the lack of enthusiasm for Oz from the GOP base could help Democrats in that effort. A recent CBS News/YouGov Battleground Tracker poll found Oz supporters far less enthusiastic about his campaign than Fetterman supporters about the Democratic effort.
Only 36% of Oz voters said they were “very keen” to vote for the Republican, while 64% of registered Republicans said they wished someone else had been nominated, the poll found. In contrast, 63 percent of Fetterman’s likely voters said they were “very enthusiastic” about backing him, and 77 percent of registered Democrats said they were “happy to be nominated.”
In counties like Bedford and nearby Somerset, however, the country’s polarization is more palpable than ever: antipathy toward Fetterman, and being a Democrat drives Republicans out of Oz.
“Obviously, he’s the candidate we’ve chosen now, so we have to support him because red is better than blue,” said Terri Mitchell, a voter in Somerset County, where Oz lost to former hedge fund executive Dave McCormick in the Republican primary.
Guy Berkebile, chairman of the Somerset County Republican Party, acknowledged the same: “For some, it took a while,” he said of Republicans who had fears about Oz. “But they’re realizing that my best option is to vote for Dr. Oz.”
Berkebil took Oz into his company, Guy Chemical, earlier this year. He said there were many local voters who had doubts about the TV doctor.
“We are a very Christian-based, conservative county. At first there were some doubts about Dr. Oz. They weren’t sold on his Second Amendment position, a lot of pro-lifers here, weren’t sold on whether he was pro-life or not,” Berkebil said, before adding, “A vote for Fetterman is not an option.”
Brittany Yanick, a spokeswoman for the Oz campaign, said the campaign was confident of holding on to the state’s reddest counties because many of those areas “rely on our energy sector as an economic driver,” and criticized Fetterman’s stance on fracking.
“Pennsylvania needs a strong leader who will stand up for American values and help heal this country, not make it worse,” Yanick said.
Fetterman ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2016 expressed support For a moratorium on fracking in Pennsylvania “until we get an extraction tax, and the strictest environmental regulations in this country.” He currently does not support a fracking ban and has taken a more nuanced view of the clean energy transition.
Oz could get some help in his effort to shore up the Republican base from GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, the far-right state senator who upset more establishment candidates in the primary. Mastriano has been a leading voice advancing false claims about Trump’s 2020 election fraud, and leading Republicans have expressed doubts about his ability to win the general election.
Polls have consistently shown Mastriano trailing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, including a CBS News/YouGov poll that gave Shapiro a double-digit lead.
But people like Gary Smith, chairman of the Constitutional Republicans of Western Pennsylvania, believe that Mastriano’s supporters are so loyal that they will undoubtedly go to the polls in November, and while they’re there, they’ll likely hold their noses and vote for Oz.
“Mastriano is so strong that he’s going to take Oz on his coattails,” said Smith, a group made up of some of the most conservative voters in the Jefferson County area, which Trump won with 79 percent of the vote in 2020.
Many in Smith’s party supported Barnette in the primary, and Jefferson was one of the few counties he won in May. But Oz visited the area after his first win, and Smith said the GOP candidate met with the group and “cleared up some concerns” and “gave us some assurances about pro-life, the Second Amendment and things of that nature.”
Smith said that while some in his group still have concerns about Oz, they will “suck it up and put on their big girl and big boy pants” and vote in November.
“Our philosophy is that while Oz was liberal compared to us, he’s ultra-conservative compared to Fetterman,” Smith said. “So I think in a way, politics is relative.”