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Trump’s smackdown of David McCormick shows the risks for Republicans trying a MAGA makeover

If McCormick falls short in the Republican primary, he could become a cautionary tale about what happens to establishment figures who supplicate themselves before Trump.

Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate David McCormick campaigns on April 28 at an American Legion hall in Hanover.
Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate David McCormick campaigns on April 28 at an American Legion hall in Hanover.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

HANOVER TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Standing before a wall-sized American flag at an American Legion hall here in Northeastern Pennsylvania, David McCormick talked up his background in the Army, called himself a “happy warrior,” and ticked through the reasons he wants to be Pennsylvania’s next senator:

Inflation, the border, the “humiliation” of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“What about election integrity?” a woman interrupted from the back. “And CRT!” a man yelled, referring to “critical race theory,” a GOP culture-war hobgoblin.

Suddenly off balance, the cheery McCormick, stocky and with thick, wavy hair, said he’d support voter ID laws and is concerned “parents aren’t involved” in school decisions. But he quickly turned back to the economy and national defense.

The moment late last month illustrated the challenge for Republicans trying to straddle the remnants of the traditional GOP and the attitudes driving the party today, especially for someone like McCormick.

A West Point graduate who earned a Bronze Star in the first Gulf War, got a doctorate from Princeton, held a jet-setting Treasury job in the George W. Bush administration and, until recently, led the world’s largest hedge fund, McCormick has a brilliant political resume — at least for the version of the party that nominated Mitt Romney for president a decade ago.

» READ MORE: Get to know the 2022 candidates for Pa. Senate and governor

But his Senate campaign is testing how someone who has long traveled with the political and financial elite fits into a populist GOP electorate remade by former President Donald Trump.

McCormick has spent four months and at least $11 million of his own money advertising himself as an “America First” conservative. He aggressively sought Trump’s endorsement, courting the former president’s allies and hiring Trump aides to vaguely defined positions.

Trump didn’t buy it.

Instead he endorsed McCormick’s chief GOP rival, celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz, and lacerated McCormick at a rally Friday in Southwestern Pennsylvania, undercutting the candidate’s core message less than two weeks before the crucial May 17 primary.

“Dr. Oz is running against the liberal Wall Street Republican named David McCormick,” Trump told the crowd in Greensburg. “He may be a nice guy, but he’s not MAGA.”

Lumping in McCormick with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.), Trump called him, “absolutely the candidate of special interests and globalists and the Washington establishment.”

Trump’s rejection crystallized the eye rolls from McCormick’s rivals, who for months have scoffed at a makeover driven by an army of consultants and more than $33 million in spending by McCormick and his wealthy allies. Beneath it all, they argue, has been a campaign grown in a political lab and grafted onto an impressive resume and huge bank account.

“You have not spent the last 20 years pushing America First,” GOP rival Kathy Barnette said at a debate last month.

Now McCormick enters the final days of a close race carrying the anvil Trump just dropped on him, unable to break away from the pack despite vastly outspending his opponents.

His allies point out that whatever criticism McCormick has absorbed, he’s still in a position to win, running toward the front of the pack with Oz and Barnette, a conservative commentator.

Even after Trump’s smackdown, McCormick lauded the president and claimed to be the champion of his priorities.

“I’m running on President Trump’s great America First agenda,” McCormick said Monday on Fox Business. “President Trump did a great job for Pennsylvania, and I’m running as the person who’s battle tested and Pennsylvania true and can actually win this primary, win this race.”

And he launched an ad featuring an abbreviated, undated, and grainy video of Trump, apparently on speaker phone in the Oval Office, saying: “Dave, I want to congratulate you, you’ve served our country well in so many different ways.”

But if McCormick falls short, he could become a cautionary tale about what happens to establishment figures who supplicate themselves before Trump, leaving their campaign identity in the hands of a mercurial leader.

Betting big on Trump

In Hanover Township, McCormick brought a room of 150 to a hush.

He had arrived at the centerpiece of his stump speech, a story about a mother he met on the campaign trail and her son, Michael. Michael had enlisted after 9/11 and served in Afghanistan, but felt adrift when he returned home. He died by suicide. As McCormick tells the story, he reaches into a pocket of his khakis and produces a gold star coin the mother gave him. It inevitably draws gasps, or tears.

McCormick says he wants to go to the Senate to ensure other families like Michael’s “aren’t left behind.”

“America First means to me that there’s all sorts of people across Pennsylvania that have been forgotten,” he said in Hanover.

The story shows both McCormick’s way of tapping into the frustrations Trump identified, and what supporters see as some of McCormick’s best qualities. Despite living for more than a decade in Connecticut, he grew up in Central Pennsylvania — he was a well-known high school wrestler in Bloomsburg — and is usually a smiling presence who appears more comfortable with heartfelt messages about service than cultural grievances.

“He’s got real roots in the state, is a farmer, is a business owner, and a wrestling champion,” said R.J. Scouton, 39, of Wyoming County, who’s seen McCormick speak several times. “He’s genuine. He’s real. He’s not a TV personality.”

“There’s so much integrity. You can just see it,” said Judith Lapinksi, 71, of Shickshinny, about 25 miles east of Bloomsburg. She delighted in McCormick’s recitation of the small towns, including hers, that he remembered from his high school days. “He has experience in D.C. He’s the whole package.”

Those evident strengths left some who know McCormick even more baffled when he so aggressively tried to contort himself into a Trump-style politician.

» READ MORE: David McCormick’s longtime praise for China and trade could bite his Pa. Senate run

McCormick served Bush, promoting free trade and high-skilled immigration as boons to American businesses. He was an early fund-raiser for Jeb Bush in 2016, traveled to Davos, served on the board of the Aspen Institute, and owns multimillion dollar homes on New York’s Upper East Side and outside Aspen, Colo.

Under his watch, the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates last year raised more than $1 billion for investments in China (McCormick earned $22.5 million from Bridgewater last year; he says those investments in China were just 2% of the firm’s portfolio). After the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, McCormick penned an open letter to the firm calling for “denouncing and eradicating structural bigotry around us.”

And while McCormick had praised Trump for tapping into the disillusionment afflicting many Americans, he also said Trump “had a lot of responsibility” for the divisiveness that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

But as a candidate, McCormick bet big on Trump.

‘Just let Dave be Dave’

On the first day of his campaign, he embraced an endorsement from Sean Parnell, the Trump-backed candidate who dropped out of the race amid accusations of domestic abuse. He flew in former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to wow GOP activists at the state party’s convention.

McCormick’s ads and speeches deride “wokeness.” He backed away from his Jan. 6 criticism and raised concerns about “irregularities” in the 2020 election. And he flew to Mar-a-Lago for an audience with the former president, while his wife, former Trump national security adviser Dina Powell McCormick, was reportedly relentless in seeking Trump’s support.

McCormick touts any connection to Trump, including his stint on a board that advised Pentagon leaders during the former president’s tenure. Unmentioned is that McCormick was later one of several members removed in what was widely seen as a purge of establishment figures.

“I don’t know why they don’t just let Dave be Dave,” said one Pennsylvania Republican insider who knew McCormick’s father and supports a rival candidate.

The attempts to build a Trump image around McCormick have at times left him looking like a supporting actor in his own carefully stage-managed production.

His public events often hinged on bigger names campaigning with him, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who shares one of the same consulting firms. When the campaign went after Oz over his Turkish dual citizenship, it was Pompeo who addressed reporters, not McCormick.

And when McCormick ran a Super Bowl ad featuring the “Let’s Go Brandon!” chant that serves as Republican code for “F— Joe Biden,” it landed him a splashy Fox News headline. But McCormick himself didn’t speak or even appear in the spot.

McCormick’s staff has declined to make him available for interviews with The Inquirer during the campaign, encouraging reporters to talk to friends and supporters — often aligned with Trump — who could vouch for him instead. When reporters attended three of McCormick’s campaign events last week, he was cordial, but wouldn’t answer questions for this story.

» READ MORE: Is Mehmet Oz really a conservative? We looked at the Pa. Senate candidate’s record.

McCormick is surrounded by a vast team, and at early events often showed up with more than a dozen aides in tow.

His advisers include some with ties to Cruz, others who have worked for the fiscally conservative Pennsylvania incumbent Pat Toomey (who isn’t running for reelection), longtime Pennsylvania GOP insiders and lobbyists, and Trump aides — seemingly covering every possible base with his expansive checkbook.

“If anybody was within 200 miles of me, he hired them,” Trump said at Friday’s rally.

Oz has faced his own authenticity questions. He has only loose ties to Pennsylvania, having lived in New Jersey for decades before deciding to run for Senate (he attended medical and business school in Philadelphia, and his wife’s family is from the suburbs). He has a long trail of breaking with conservative orthodoxy on issues like abortion and gun laws, only to take hard-right positions now.

Even as Trump rallied for Oz, some in the crowd booed the doctor.

After the Trump rally, McCormick’s team launched a closing ad arguing that Trump made a mistake in his endorsement.

Some Pennsylvania Republicans unaligned with any candidate say McCormick’s campaign, and the professional advice he has taken on, show a measure of intelligence and humility, by trusting professionals to make him a top contender.

Yet despite spending tens of millions of dollars, McCormick is going down to the wire in a close contest.

He didn’t hide from the razor-thin margins at a recent Saturday event in Delaware County.

Speaking to around 40 people at a restaurant, McCormick described his formative years growing up in Bloomsburg and in the military. He said that time “defines who I am” and taught him “those values of duty, honor, country, and the Christian values that I grew up with.”

McCormick spent close to an hour talking to people one-on-one, with a joke for many and a cackling laugh for others, leaving many charmed.

“You’re much more handsome in person,” one woman told him.

“Where’s my wife?!” McCormick shouted, turning to look for her. “I want you to hear this!”

State Rep. Craig Williams, who endorsed McCormick that day, said he immediately bonded with a fellow Desert Storm veteran.

“The first conversation was just easy,” Williams said “I felt like I found a true friend.”

In a suburb where a relatively moderate brand of Republicanism still holds, McCormick supporters talked up his military and professional backgrounds. Few mentioned the pro-Trump platform McCormick has spent so much time promoting.

“I just relate to Dave more than the other candidates,” said another Desert Storm veteran, Dan Van Wyk, 66. He said Trump’s endorsement didn’t weigh on his decision.

But it clearly weighed on McCormick.