Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate race is hitting reset.
Just three months after he looked like the GOP front-runner, Sean Parnell’s rapid collapse — sealed Monday by a judge’s decision against him in his bitter custody battle — leaves a wide open field in a nationally watched race. It also means that former President Donald Trump, who elevated Parnell by endorsing him, is again a wild card in next spring’s primary.
None of the remaining contenders has stood out — or mounted a strong enough campaign to scare off new rivals. So while candidates like Jeff Bartos and Carla Sands see new opportunity with Parnell’s decision to end his campaign, his struggles also brought new hopefuls closer to entering the fray.
Amid weeks of speculation over his interest in the race, Connecticut hedge fund manager David McCormick is expected to begin visiting with some top GOP insiders next week, according to three Republican sources. An Army veteran and Pennsylvania native, McCormick has been calling political leaders and donors throughout the state, according to one person familiar with McCormick’s outreach.
McCormick’s final plans remain unclear, but Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor who made his name as an Oprah guest, is said to be close to entering the contest and has been hiring high-level staff, according to multiple sources. Last December, he registered to vote in Pennsylvania, at his in-laws’ home in Montgomery County, despite long living in New Jersey.
Also exploring a bid is former U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, a Western Pennsylvania Republican who had supported Parnell, according to a person who has spoken with him. With Parnell out, Rothfus could attract GOP support in the Pittsburgh area.
All of those moves come after Parnell, a decorated Army veteran who in August won Trump’s endorsement, dropped out on Monday after a custody battle that publicly aired his estranged wife’s allegations of physical and verbal abuse. Parnell denied the accusations, but the judge in the case concluded his wife was “more credible.”
Parnell had been the race’s only major GOP candidate from the Pittsburgh area.
“It’s a big opening geographically, and also somebody looking to hoist that Trump-y banner,” said Chris Nicholas, a Republican consultant from the Harrisburg area.
For some in the party, the search for a new candidate illustrates concerns about the strength of the existing field, none of whom have won elected office. Pennsylvania’s race could decide control of the Senate, and with President Joe Biden’s poll numbers falling and this month’s elections pointing to Republican strength, the GOP should be in position to make gains in 2022 — but some worry about blowing it.
“There’s a lot of unease,” among GOP leaders said Josh Novotney, a Republican lobbyist from Philadelphia who has previously worked for the party’s Senate campaign arm. “They are looking for a more complete candidate, in their eyes a more top-tier candidate.”
Other GOP insiders see the competition as a positive. “The wind is in the Republican sails,” said C. Arnold McClure, chairman of the GOP in Huntingdon County.
Trump could weigh in yet again. Even as Parnell dropped out, a Trump spokesman tweeted Monday that the Senate race “remains a top priority for Pres. Trump & the ‘22 MAGA Map — rallying our movement behind the best America 1st candidate remains critical.”
Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark, had hoped to win his endorsement when she joined the race, and now may have a second chance. She’s spending heavily on television, with two $1 million ad buys, including spots prominently showing her and the former president in the Oval Office.
“Carla is the only true America First candidate in this race,” a spokesman said. “Carla deeply believes in the values and policies President Trump fought for in the White House.”
Her campaign also pointed to an upcoming fund-raiser with Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Meanwhile, Bartos, a Montgomery County real estate developer, has touted his fund-raising — both for his campaign and for an aligned Super PAC that has been boosted by more than $1 million committed by the party’s former gubernatorial nominee, Scott Wagner. Bartos, who was Wagner’s running mate in 2018, has been busily touring the state, and took heart from Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia, portraying himself as a candidate who can similarly appeal to Trump voters while also winning back suburban moderates.
“He’s the only candidate that’s put together the money, grassroots organization, and most importantly, message, to keep this seat in Republican hands,” said Bartos campaign spokesman Conor McGuinness.
Some Republicans, however, say that while Bartos helped stop Parnell by calling for scrutiny of Parnell’s conduct in his marriage, he also damaged himself among GOP voters angry at seeing Trump’s pick go down.
While some might be concerned about the current field, other Republicans said Oz and McCormick still have a lot to do to introduce themselves to the party.
“Those two guys, I don’t know,” said McClure, the Huntingdon County GOP chair.
Bartos and Carla Sands, he said, have “made a lot of friends.”
A major question among GOP insiders is whether McCormick wants to run.
He has been recruited and discussed as a potential candidate before, according to GOP insiders, who say operatives have been drawn by his resume: He grew up in Bloomsburg, went to West Point, and served in the Gulf War as an Army Ranger, was a CEO in Pittsburgh and now leads the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates. He served in the George W. Bush administration and his wife, Dina Powell McCormick, was a Trump national security adviser.
But there’s been talk about him joining the race for months, without any decision. And while some people believe he’s close to jumping in, others are just as sure he won’t. To some insiders, the McCormick recruitment is more a creation — and hope — of his supporters.
A campaign would mean moving from Connecticut, and opponents are already showing the kind of rough scrutiny he’d face in a primary. A New York Post story Monday hammered him over 50 layoffs in Pittsburgh in 2003 by a firm he led, and hinted at even tougher questions that might come over his hedge fund’s significant investments in China.
It’s also an open question whether a wealthy executive who served in the Bush administration could win GOP voters in their current, populist mindset.
Oz seems more committed but is also more of a mystery. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school but has lived for years in Cliffside Park, N.J., overlooking Manhattan. His political views are unclear and he’s already faced sharp public questions about the soundness of his medical advice.
Sands, like Oz and McCormick, also could face questions about her Pennsylvania ties: While she grew up in the Harrisburg area, she has spent much of her adult life in Southern California.
Democrats, of course, face their own potentially fractious primary featuring several high-profile candidates from different ends of the political spectrum — including Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a self-described populist; progressive State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta; Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh; and moderate U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb — and the party faces the headwinds that buffeted it in elections this month.
GOP insiders forecast the potential for their own long, drawn-out primary fight because so many of their candidates could be well-funded. McCormick and Oz each appear capable of pouring in significant sums of their own money. Sands has given her campaign $3 million.
Bartos has contributed his own money as well, and his Super PAC is flush. Now it’s free to turn its attention away from Parnell as a new phase of the race begins.