Dr. Oz is in.
Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz launched his campaign for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, bringing a splash of star power, wealth, and political-outsider status to the unsettled Republican primary — much the way former President Donald Trump once did.
Oz’s entry jolted one of the country’s most critical campaigns, adding a nationally known figure to an unsettled Republican primary that just lost its apparent front-runner. Both parties see Pennsylvania’s Senate race as vital to control of the chamber, but the GOP has struggled to find a standout candidate to try to replace Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican who isn’t seeking reelection.
Now Oz enters the fray a week after the candidate endorsed by Trump, Army veteran Sean Parnell, dropped out of the contest after facing abuse accusations from his estranged wife. Oz joins a crowded field in which he’s likely to face questions about his ties to Pennsylvania, commitment to conservative beliefs, and his frequently controversial on-screen medical advice.
The 61-year-old doctor has long lived in New Jersey and rose to fame on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. In his campaign announcement Tuesday he rhetorically nodded toward Trump, whose endorsement could still carry major weight.
“Pennsylvania needs a conservative who will put America first, one who can reignite our divine spark, bravely fight for freedom, and tell it like it is,” Oz said in an opening campaign video that an aide said will be broadcast throughout Pennsylvania as part of a multimillion-dollar ad buy.
In the one-minute video, staged much like one of his TV appearances, Oz touted his work as a heart surgeon while echoing anger at coronavirus restrictions that many conservatives have chafed against. He made only passing reference to Pennsylvania itself.
“COVID has shown us that our system is broken,” Oz said in the video. “We lost too many lives, too many jobs, and too many opportunities because Washington, D.C., got it wrong. It took away our freedom without making us safer and tried to kill our spirit and our dignity.”
A longtime North Jersey resident in Cliffside Park, overlooking Manhattan, Oz grew up in Wilmington and earned his medical and business degrees at the University of Pennsylvania after graduating from Harvard University. He registered to vote last December in Bryn Athyn, Montgomery County. He is living there while renting his in-laws’ home, according to a campaign aide.
“There’s carpetbagging, then there is this guy trying to buy a U.S. Senate seat in a state he doesn’t live in, doesn’t know, and can’t fight for effectively,” said a spokesperson for a Super PAC supporting another GOP candidate, Montgomery County developer Jeff Bartos. “Oz doesn’t know the first thing about conservative Pennsylvania values, and primary voters are about to find out how out of touch he is.”
While new to elective politics, Oz has interviewed Trump and was named to the former president’s council of sports, fitness, and nutrition. He has hired a team of political veterans that include the agency that created the former president’s television ads and on Tuesday night appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. He repeated his campaign themes, pledging to focus on public safety — citing Sunday’s fatal shooting of a 21-year-old Temple University student — and endorsed giving parents more say in school curricula and values.
Oz could bring not only his own personal wealth to the contest but potentially that of his wife’s family, which founded the Asplundh Tree Expert Co., based in Willow Grove. The international company has 33,000 employees in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Despite his lofty degrees, influence, nearly 4 million Twitter followers, and wealth, Oz’s campaign website bristles with frustration at “elites” who he says misled the country during the pandemic, signaling the early tone of his campaign.
“The arrogant, closed-minded people in charge closed our schools, shut down our businesses and took away our freedom,” Oz wrote.
Oz has been praised as an accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon — he practices at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and is director of the Integrative Medicine Center at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center. He has touted the effectiveness of vaccines in fighting the coronavirus pandemic — a position at odds with some GOP primary voters.
But he’s also been long criticized for promoting questionable diet pills and other medical advice that other doctors have blasted as inaccurate and unscientific.
Last year, Oz promoted the antimalaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a way to treat the coronavirus, reportedly catching Trump’s attention in his TV appearances, despite serious questions about its effectiveness.
In 2015, a group of 10 doctors publicly questioned his appointment at Columbia, writing that Oz “has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine” and “has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.”
(Among the signatories was Stanford University radiologist Scott Atlas, who would later go on to become Trump’s controversial coronavirus adviser.)
In response to the letter, Oz released a statement saying: “I bring the public information that will help them on their path to be their best selves.”
Oz’s rise has been marked by TV charm, medical talent, a string of accomplishments, and the power of Oprah. He played on Harvard’s football and water polo teams and was class chairman at Penn.
» READ MORE: The wizardry of Dr. Oz
He spent part of his childhood in Turkey, where his parents are from, and has maintained dual citizenship. He’s aiming to become the first Muslim to serve in the U.S. Senate.
To do so he’ll have to first navigate a primary in which some of his party’s prominent figures have been suspicious, or outright hostile, toward Muslims. Operatives working for Senate opponents have already pointed to the fact that Oz served in the Turkish army and, according to photos tweeted by the Turkish Embassy, has met with the country’s strongman leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The great thing about America is that you can hold on to whatever heritage you come from,” Oz told SJ Magazine, based in South Jersey, in 2011. “We celebrate the different cultures, so I had the privilege, as the son of immigrant parents, to grow up American while staying deeply in touch with my Turkish roots.”
He told the magazine that serving in the military was compulsory for maintaining his dual citizenship.
Oz was active in the early 2000s in local Republican politics in Bergen County, where he has lived in North Jersey, donating to the local GOP there as well as to national figures. He gave $25,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2004 and donated to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Public records show that was his last contribution to a presidential candidate.
Earlier he had also given smaller amounts to Democrats, including $1,000 to then-Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) and $250 to the political committee led by then-Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, both in 2001.
Oz is the second — but perhaps not the last — major GOP candidate to enter the race despite only recently establishing or reestablishing residency in the state, while also bringing sizable wealth to bear.
Carla Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark, moved back to the Harrisburg area, where she grew up, after years living in Southern California, and has committed at least $3 million of her own money to the race. Some Pennsylvania Republicans are also courting David McCormick, head of the world’s largest hedge fund. He lives in Connecticut, though he grew up in Bloomsburg and previously led a business in Pittsburgh.
Other Republicans in the race include Bartos, who has also committed some of his own money to the contest, and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette. Both live in Montgomery County, where Oz is now registered.
Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.