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There’s another high-profile vote count in Pa., but Republicans aren’t objecting this time

Neither Mehmet Oz nor David McCormick is decrying the vote count deciding their GOP Senate primary, a sharp contrast to the way former President Donald Trump smeared Pennsylvania’s 2020 vote count.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate David McCormick and his wife, Dina Powell, greet supporters at his election night event in Pittsburgh (left), while GOP rival Mehmet Oz and his wife, Lisa, wave to their supporters during a watch party in Newtown.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate David McCormick and his wife, Dina Powell, greet supporters at his election night event in Pittsburgh (left), while GOP rival Mehmet Oz and his wife, Lisa, wave to their supporters during a watch party in Newtown.Read moreALEXANDRA WIMLEY/ Post-Gazette, left, JOSÉ F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Another nationally watched campaign is coming down to a painstaking vote count in Pennsylvania.

But this time, there are some key differences.

Neither of the Republicans in the Pennsylvania Senate primary are decrying the vote count, or the mail ballots involved, as fraudulent, a sharp contrast to the way former President Donald Trump and his allies smeared the process in 2020 with a string of lies and unfounded claims (votes shipped in from Camden!).

Facing the same process and the same election system, Senate candidates David McCormick and Mehmet Oz are mostly quietly waiting out the excruciating tally, which has edged McCormick ever closer to Oz as they await a complete count — and an almost certain recount — that will decide who represents the GOP in one of the country’s most crucial Senate races.

And while Trump specifically attacked Philadelphia’s vote in 2020, his endorsed candidate, Oz, now stands to benefit from votes counted after election day in the city, since Oz has run stronger there than McCormick. (A batch reported around 10:20 p.m. Thursday added 68 to Oz’s tally, and 64 to McCormick’s).

The race is close enough that both Oz and McCormick have plausible paths to victory, so each is projecting confidence. By Saturday evening, Oz’s lead was fewer than 1,100 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast, though it had been cut by more than half since the count on election night. The Associated Press said Friday that the race is too close to call and that it would not declare a winner until a recount is completed.

“We’re moving in the right direction, and we’re pretty confident that we’re going to end with me in the win column,” McCormick, an Army veteran and former hedge fund CEO, told conservative radio host Rich Zeoli on Thursday.

Trump has urged Oz to simply claim victory now, as the former president falsely and prematurely did in 2020. That hasn’t happened, but Oz’s camp argues that the math is in his favor. And while one top surrogate, U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R., Pa.), suggested they’ll wait for the final initial tally, he hinted Friday that Oz might declare victory before the recount.

“I think that his lead is not going to be diminished by the 1,200 votes that McCormick needs. Then I think we take a look to see if Dr. Oz wants to declare victory ahead of the recount or not,” Reschenthaler said in an interview, noting that recounts rarely change the initial outcome.

Reschenthaler also compared McCormick’s emphasis on mail ballots to close his deficit to the pushes usually made by Democrats, who have used mail ballots more extensively. He said Republicans can’t wait to turn their attention to the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

“I think Dr. Oz ultimately beats Fetterman, but we can’t waste time. We can’t cede time to the Fetterman campaign,” Reschenthaler said.

At the same time, Reschenthaler, who cast doubts on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and voted in Congress to throw out Pennsylvania’s results, didn’t raise concerns about the legitimacy of the vote this time, saying that there are real logistical reasons for why it takes time to count mail ballots and determine a winner in such a close race. He noted that state law prevents officials from even beginning to count mail ballots until the day of the election, an issue that also slowed the 2020 count.

“There is this assumption by people outside Pennsylvania that we should have the results by 11 p.m. on election night. With our system that’s just not realistic,” he said.

At another point, he added, “the election was truly close, and it’s irrefutable that there’s outstanding ballots to count.”

This count, unlike the one during the chaotic 2020 presidential election, has happened relatively quickly, as predicted. Nearly all the votes were tallied on primary day or the day after. The pace of the count isn’t stopping news outlets from projecting a winner, it’s the closeness of the race.

By 3 a.m. Wednesday, five hours after polls closed, a little more than 1.3 million votes had been counted in the GOP Senate primary. By 7:30 p.m. Thursday, the number of votes counted had only grown by about 2%. Only a small handful of votes remain to be tallied as of Friday afternoon.

That’s typical. Some votes are always counted after election day, it’s just that they are so few, they usually can’t affect the outcome. That’s true this year, too, in the Democratic primaries for Senate and governor and the GOP primary for governor.

» READ MORE: The Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary is probably headed for a recount

Rather than question the mail vote, McCormick is relying on it to help him overtake Oz, the celebrity surgeon widely known as “Dr. Oz.”

“We invested a lot in making sure we reached out to people who were absentee voters, and we also invested a lot of money in the ground game,” McCormick said Thursday. Around 32% of the GOP mail vote has gone to McCormick, compared to about 23% for Oz.

Reschenthaler said, given McCormick’s reliance on mail ballots, their push to have as many counted as legally possible “could very possibly start to reinforce and champion what up to date has been the Democratic position, the liberal position.”

At the same time as McCormick relies on votes counted after primary day to win, however, he has hired an attorney, Mike Roman, who led Trump’s efforts to undermine the extended vote count in Philadelphia in 2020 and who spread unproven conspiracy theories about fraud.

Roman is part of extensive teams both campaigns are gathering for what could be a grueling recount, in which each campaign tries to get certain votes thrown out or counted. One former GOP Senate candidate, Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto, is now advising Oz on a potential recount in the city. Leading the Oz team will be the Jones Day law firm, which played a major role in Trump’s legal efforts after the 2020 election. McCormick hired Chuck Cooper, a prominent Republican election law attorney who recently won a Supreme Court case while representing Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas).

Why 2022 isn’t 2020, even though it sort of feels like it

In the first hours after polls closed, it seemed like McCormick had a major lead over Oz. But those initial results are often misleading because they are just a small number of votes, coming from a few specific counties.

As more votes were tallied, it quickly became clear that McCormick and Oz were locked in a tight contest.

Very little has changed since — in part because there haven’t actually been that many additional votes counted.

The reason why 2020 saw a more dramatic shift was that only one party — Democrats — voted heavily by mail, thanks in large part to Trump casting doubts on that voting method. That meant a significant portion of votes, primarily for one candidate, had to be counted after Election Day.

This time, in a Republican-only contest, far fewer people voted by mail, so the vast majority of the vote was already counted on election night.

Neither campaign is complaining about mail ballots as a recount looms

Whoever leads once the initial counting is done will almost certainly still face a recount, which is triggered if the final margin is within 0.5% of the vote. Recounts rarely change the final outcome, but one last November in Commonwealth Court races found thousands of additional votes for each candidate, a number that, if repeated, could swing a McCormick-Oz race that looks extremely close.

Still, both campaigns hoped to cement public perception by taking the lead before the recount begins.

Oz campaign officials told reporters Thursday that they believed the data is in their favor and that his lead would hold.

Oz and McCormick, like most Republicans, have cast aspersions on the 2020 presidential vote in Pennsylvania, though Oz has focused more specifically on mail voting and Act 77, the bipartisan law that allowed anyone to vote by mail for any reason.

“As we look at this fraud, how much of it was caused by decisions made by us, do we give rise to the opportunity for fraud?” Oz told conservative radio host Chris Stigall in March. “Act 77 is a good example, [it] gave absentee ballots to people who didn’t even know they were getting them.”

In fact, voters still had to request absentee ballots to vote by mail.

McCormick’s criticisms have ranged from complaints about ballots arriving after Election Day (which weren’t counted in Biden’s 80,000-vote victory) and security at drop boxes, though there’s no evidence of significant problems there, either.

Adam Bonin, a Democratic election lawyer from Philadelphia who worked on Biden’s legal team in 2020, said Act 77 did extend the vote count, by allowing mail ballots to be counted if they arrive by Election Day, instead of the Friday before; by allowing more people to vote by mail, which creates more volume to process; and by moving the counting to the county level, instead of at polling places.

» READ MORE: 5 takeaways from the Pennsylvania primary election

But he said the vote count is legitimate and transparent.

“It’s only when you start from an ideological basis where you take things and twist them in circles as to their validity that there’s any question about what you do from here,” Bonin said.

Ned Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University, hoped that the GOP Senate count restores some of the trust that was lost after Trump attacked the 2020 vote count.

Let’s hope that the closeness of this Oz-McCormick race can help to dispel some of the Big Lie hysteria,” Foley wrote on the Election Law Blog. “Because this is an intra-party race, it can’t be the case that the Democrats are ‘stealing’ the election in the vote-counting process.”

Bonin was skeptical.

“If Oz wins this primary by 2,000 votes, Donald Trump is not going to become a believer in the process,” he said. “He’s going to say that he should have won by 10,000.”