Ahead of his Wednesday night town hall at a Washington, Pa., American Legion post, Mehmet Oz is hidden away in a side room while his campaign staff bustles around, assuring the mostly elderly crowd that “the show” is going to start soon.
The 100 or so people attending are herded into folding chairs arranged in a circle around the show’s centerpiece: a stool with a blood pressure cuff on it.
“Part of the reason I’m here is to find out what’s getting your blood pressure up,” Oz tells the crowd once he’s made his entrance. He’s taken to using the ELO song “Mr. Blue Sky” as his walkout music. “If you don’t like anything else that you hear tonight, at least you have gotten something out of it for yourself.”
As Oz embarks on an outsider campaign to win Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, he’s using these town hall events — he’s done nearly a dozen — to introduce himself to the commonwealth as a serious, conservative politician.
But that pitch always comes with a blood pressure cuff-shaped reminder: He’s still the Dr. Oz of more than a decade of daytime TV fame.
As Oz straps the cuff on his first volunteer — her blood pressure is a little high, but not bad — he briefly runs through his biography, emphasizing the parts that feature Pennsylvania.
He grew up, he says, “just south of Philadelphia, about 10 miles outside of a place called Kennett Square, which is the mushroom capital of the world.” He doesn’t mention his actual hometown, Wilmington, Delaware. He notes that he went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and business school at Wharton, but not that until last year, he lived and voted in New Jersey.
He throws out some policy specifics: He’s against mask and vaccine mandates, though he concedes he urged staff on “The Dr. Oz Show” to get vaccinated. He wants a tighter southern border, and to stop outsourcing to China. He thinks tougher policing is a good idea.
He punts a question on natural gas extraction to U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a supporter who has been campaigning with him.
“We all have blind spots,” Oz says. “Energy is a good example … I do my homework, but every day I learn more things.”
His core pitch to these voters, though, is that he understands them in much the same way they decided, nearly six years ago, that Donald Trump understood them. More than 60% of Washington County residents voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
“Why does Washington get it wrong?” Oz asks, referring to D.C. “Because they have different values than us. And they don’t care about your values because they think your values are wrong. They think you are irredeemably stained and need to be broken asunder. And once you’re gone and the dust has spread, they can rebuild America with their toxic ideology.”
On this group at the American Legion post, at least, the pitch seems to resonate.
Several people in the hall say they came because they had gotten calls and texts from the campaign, letting them know Oz would be in town. Some were a little skeptical of his Pennsylvania bona fides and policy chops. Others were already on board. Most were excited to see the man in person, after watching him on TV for years.
“You almost feel like you know him,” says Art Navrhe, a 79-year-old semi-retired psychologist.
At first, Mark Mikec considered himself to be one of the skeptics. But after the show, he says seeing Oz work the room in person has him reevaluating. It’s actually a familiar feeling.
“It hit me like Trump hit me in ’16,” he says, recalling a trip to Europe before that election, during which he was struck by the fascination Europeans had with the fact Trump was running for president. Initially, he’d dismissed Trump, but that changed his mind. “I was like, ‘Well, maybe he has a chance.’”
Mikec, who is 64, has some experience with politics. He’s been on the GOP state committee and was a Washington County chairman. But he isn’t the only one here making comparisons between Oz and Trump.
Ken Randolph, 72, the commander of this American Legion post, sees it too. He describes himself as a staunch, Fox News-watching Republican, and says Oz “has the same qualities that Trump has, and that’s the kind of people we want on our team.” Oz has made many appearances on Fox since announcing his bid, on topics ranging from COVID-19 “authoritarianism” to misleading rumors about immigrants being relocated to Pennsylvania.
Becky Redell, 49, also says she thought of Trump after hearing Oz speak. She’s a mom and a grandma, and her husband, David, works in natural gas extraction. She says she doesn’t care that Oz has so little in common with her and her family, or that he’s still getting to know the state.
The fact that he’s wealthy makes her trust him more.
“I think because he can’t be bought,” she says. “He already has his money. I think there’s so much, so many politicians being bought. It’s just corrupt. I don’t think I believe him when he says he can’t be bought. I think that was the same with Trump.”
That’s one of Oz’s pitches to these voters: He doesn’t plan to take any PAC money. It’s true, almost all of the more than $5 million in the Dr. Oz for Senate campaign account came from Oz himself. But there is already at least one big PAC spending money on his behalf: American Leadership Action, which has a staff full of D.C.-based strategists and has so far reported spending almost $1.3 million on consulting and ads criticizing David McCormick, one of Oz’s biggest rivals.
McCormick, the former CEO of Bridgewater, the world’s biggest hedge fund, is also wealthy and expected to self-fund, though he hasn’t filed reports yet. At least two political action committees are spending on his behalf. The Pennsylvania Patriots PAC and Honor Pennsylvania Inc. have reported putting more than $2 million into ads decrying Oz for being a “Hollywood liberal” and appearing supportive of the Affordable Care Act.
Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer and the third candidate who has built real traction in the Senate primary, also has put more than a million of his own dollars into his campaign, and is backed by a PAC, Jobs for Our Future, that has reported spending almost $2 million on ads pitching Bartos as the only true Pennsylvanian in the race.
This is just the beginning of what will likely be a historically expensive U.S. Senate race. Samuel Chen, a political science professor and Republican political strategist, notes all that money can bring with it a real downside. It insulates candidates from actually answering tough questions.
“The great thing about having a lot of cash is you can skip debates, and you can just keep running TV ads, and you can make up whatever excuse you want for why you’re not actually showing up at the debates,” Chen said.
Case in point, the first Senate GOP debate at Villanova University on Monday. Neither Oz nor McCormick participated.
Chen says Oz’s name recognition is a definite strength, and that he sees potential for the former TV host to appeal to voters in ways similar to Trump. But, he adds, it’s a long race, and Pennsylvania is much bigger than a few American Legion halls. Eventually, he thinks, Oz will need to be more specific about why he’s doing this.
“It’s not just a matter of being able to come through here and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a lot of cash, I’m a well-known figure, I can represent you,’” Chen says. “You’ve got to show that you understand what it means to be a Pennsylvanian. I think that’s going to be his biggest challenge.”