If you live in Pennsylvania, there’s a good chance you’ve been seeing Mehmet Oz on your television — and not as you used to.
The celebrity surgeon and former talk show host known as “Dr. Oz” is pouring millions of dollars into campaign ads as he runs for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, buying up slots during Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, morning news shows, and Fox News staples as he tries to grab an early advantage in a sprawling GOP primary.
Oz has already booked nearly $5 million of ad time from his Nov. 30 campaign launch through early February, drawing some comparisons to Gov. Tom Wolf’s big splash in the 2014 Democratic primary. Wolf, a millionaire businessman with almost no political profile, ran a barrage of early ads about himself and his Jeep, and sprinted to the forefront before his rivals even got off the starting line. He never looked back.
“It was a great example of the power of early communication,” said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic messaging strategist from Philadelphia.
But unlike Wolf, Oz has rivals who can compete with his financial firepower.
Two other ultra-wealthy Republican candidates, David McCormick and Carla Sands, are also spending big on television, preventing Oz from having the airwaves, and messaging, to himself.
The blasts of cash — four months before the primary — show the impact of the Republican candidates’ immense personal wealth, and signal an extraordinarily expensive and drawn-out campaign, one that could saturate (and maybe overwhelm) viewers with competing information. It could also potentially squeeze candidates in both parties with less to spend. In a state as large as Pennsylvania, covered by more than a half-dozen media markets, television advertising is crucial for reaching a mass of voters, though it isn’t always decisive.
“This level of spending, the pace of spending, and the placement of the ads reminds me more of three weeks out from Election Day, and not four months out,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican strategist based in Harrisburg.
The race carries national weight: With incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey retiring, it’s one of the most competitive Senate contests in the country, and could determine control of the chamber.
None of the Republican candidates, including developer Jeff Bartos, conservative commentator Kathy Barnette and lawyer George Bochetto, has ever held elected office, so the TV spending comes as they all try to define themselves to voters for the first time. Oz, while famous as a TV personality, has tried to reintroduce himself politically as a “conservative outsider,” echoing the appeal once used by Donald Trump. McCormick, an Army veteran, calls himself “battle-tested,” while Sands, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark under Trump, has tried to carry the former president’s ideological banner. Her latest ad attacks President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, vowing to fight “amnesty.”
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McCormick, who most recently lived in Connecticut and until this month led the world’s largest hedge fund, formally announced his campaign only on Thursday, but had already been on the air. He’s spent $3 million since late December, according to AdImpact, which tracks political advertising. His campaign launch included two new ads, including one aiming to ground him as a down-to-earth Pennsylvanian who grew up in Bloomsburg and hunts and clears hay bales.
Sands was the first candidate on the air, in October, but has since spent less than her rivals, about $2 million overall, according to AdImpact. She was previously CEO of Vintage Capital, an investment management firm founded by her late husband, Fred Sands.
And a super PAC supporting Bartos has its own $2 million ad purchase starting next week, Fox News reported Friday.
But Oz has led the way.
Since entering the race in late November, he’s already spent more on television alone than the 2016 Democratic nominee, Katie McGinty, spent on her entire primary campaign during a competitive contest (though she also had significant support on the air from allied campaign groups). Oz’s first financial disclosure report, which will show even more spending on other parts of his campaign, is due at the end of the month.
Oz’s most recent spots, released Thursday, feature him speaking with people at the Pennsylvania Farm Show and on a factory floor pledging, “I can’t be bought.”
He’s even running a significant share of his ads in the Philadelphia media market, one many candidates shy away from early on because it’s so expensive and inefficient (the area is heavily Democratic and includes many viewers in New Jersey and Delaware who can’t vote in Pennsylvania). It still accounts, though, for about 30% of the vote in Republican primaries, according to Nicholas.
McCormick’s and Sands’ ads have been more concentrated in other, less pricey areas that tilt more Republican, such as the Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre markets, as well as the Pittsburgh area.
Oz’s rivals argue that he’s advertising so heavily to get ahead of his vulnerabilities and lingering distaste from some of his controversial medical advice. But both Balaban and Nicholas said his image is still malleable when it comes to the Senate race.
“He’s not known in a political context,” Balaban said. “There’s a whole swath of voters who have heard his name and may have seen him on TV but have no opinion of him as a U.S. senator.”
The big money from the three Republicans isn’t likely to slow down. Once campaigns go on the air, they tend to stay on, because if not, the messages fade fast from voters’ memories, Balaban said.
“At least three candidates think they have enough money to do this until Election Day because you never start TV advertising and then slow it way down,” Nicholas said.
Republican rivals have accused the trio of trying to buy the race, particularly when none of them showed up to a Senate candidate forum Wednesday hosted by Republicans in Lawrence County, a small county northwest of Pittsburgh, on the Ohio border.
“They think they’re going to phone in this election from their penthouses,” Barnette said at the event. “They have no intentions of really spending time with you.”
Bartos, also a multimillionaire, emphasized his work to build support by traveling the state and meeting with grassroots party activists.
“You cannot help save Main Street in this commonwealth if you cannot find Main Street,” he said during the forum. “It’s a shame that many people didn’t show up here tonight.”
Money and television exposure alone, of course, aren’t enough to win. Several operatives pointed to the example of billionaire Michael Bloomberg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, who spent big and crashed quickly because he was out of sync with his party’s voters. Tom Knox spent heavily on the 2007 Philadelphia mayoral primary, only to lose to Michael Nutter.
“You have to do more than just buy TV ads,” Nicholas said.
The airwaves could quickly get crowded. Along with the candidate spending, super PACs supporting Oz, Bartos and Bochetto are also lurking. (Such groups can’t formally coordinate with the candidates, but can accept donations without the normal federal limits.)
The Democratic Senate race doesn’t have as much personal wealth, but Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has emerged as a grassroots fund-raising powerhouse, building up a $5.3 million war chest.
U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb has said he had $3 million at the end of December, though as of Friday morning neither Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh nor State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta had released latest fund-raising figures, due at the end of January. Both have trailed in raising money.
That race has yet to ramp up on television, but surely will in the coming months.
When it comes to TV spending, “just because you’re first, doesn’t mean you’re best,” Balaban said. But other things being equal, he added, you’d rather be the campaign that can do it, than not.