The GOP senatorial primary, in Pennsylvania, has been dominated by the candidacies of Mehmet Oz, David McCormick and Kathy Barnette. Beyond their disparate political histories, however, lies a pair of fundamental similarities which suggest the relegitimization of anti-liberal democratic populism amongst voters.
Mehmet Oz is about as far from a professional politician as one can get. He has no prior legislative experience, nor has he previously held public office. At the outset of his campaign, his biggest, and primary selling point, to potential constituents, was his familiarity, having earned the moniker “America’s Doctor” as a consequence of having been a reality television fixture for the past 18 years1. And yet, in the post-Trump Republican Party, with its exaltation of celebrity promoting such celebrity to sufficient condition for viable political candidacy1, Oz stands as a likely nominee for the general election, his support rooted amongst those who crave an outsider in politics in the ilk of Donald Trump in 2016. Pennsylvania’s other leading GOP candidate, David McCormick, is, in many ways, his antithesis. A “Party of Bush” Republican, McCormick spent numerous years working in the Treasury Department of George W. Bush White House before lending his support to Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican presidential primary2,3. McCormick, until recently, was forthright with his derision towards the rhetoric of and policy decisions made by Donald Trump3. McCormick’s greatest appeal is in his viability as a “traditional” republican. His recent rhetorical tack, whereupon he coupled with his traditional conservative bona fides with sentiments favoring the former president and the ideological positions he espoused, might then understood as political posturing designed to ensure a primary win2,4 and secure a coveted endorsement from the former president. As of the writing of this article, either Oz or McCormick would most likely be the Republican nominee from Pennsylvania for the general election, with them having secured 31.2 and 31.1 percent of the vote share5, respectively, in a deeply factionalized primary race.
Juxtaposing both Oz and McCormick, the likely third place finisher is the former Fox News contributor, Kathy Barnette, who, from the May 17th primary, secured 24.7 percent of the vote share, a far cry above the next leading candidate5. Barnette, unlike Oz, is not a political outsider nor is she like McCormick, a “Party of Bush” Republican4. Rather, Barnette might best be described as a “MAGA-ist” Republican, epitomized by the political base of former president, Donald Trump. By presenting herself, and her supporters, as the original “MAGA-ists,” Barnette has staked claim to a fraction of the vote share, who are drawn to her rhetorical claim that it was not they who shifted to meet the politics of Trump, delivering him the presidency, but rather the contrapositive that was true4,6. Barnette has thereby split the vote share that might otherwise have been conferred upon Oz following Trump’s endorsement of him4. She has coupled this with a depiction of both Oz and McCormick as carpetbaggers and false representatives of people of Pennsylvania7, thereby securing the viability of her candidacy amongst those voters who view Oz as a RINO6 and McCormick as not being sufficiently supportive of “MAGA-isms2.”
Beyond their postural differences lies the all-important similarity amongst the Oz, McCormick, and Barnette campaigns. All three campaigns have sought to position themselves as the “heir apparent”, in Pennsylvania, to the populist movement first brought to the national stage with Trump’s 2016 electoral win, for their own political gain – thereby endangering popular views of liberal democratic legitimacy across the Republican base.
Fundamental to this notion is the recognition that Oz and McCormick’s campaigns both engaged in concerted efforts to “MAGA-ify” themselves and out “MAGA-ify” each other2,8,9, thereby underscoring a fundamental truth of the post-2020 GOP – Trump, and “MAGA-ism,” still reign supreme amongst party ideologies as the most potent of electoral strategies. It is thus more significant that both McCormick and Oz sought the endorsement of Trump than that Trump ultimately endorsed Oz. The desire of such an endorsement and tailoring of campaign rhetoric, on the part of both Oz and McCormick, thereby represents an endorsement of Trumpian populism as, were it inviable as an electoral strategy, neither campaign would have sought the endorsement. As Oz and McCormick can be taken to represent the consummate party outsider and insider, respectively, one can thus conclude that the cumulative effect of their pursuits, of a Trump endorsement lends new, external, and internal, legitimacy to the populist and anti-liberal democratic positions which Trump espoused since emerging upon the political scene within the United States. This reinforces the cleavage of society into a “MAGA-ist” in-group, who view themselves as “true-patriots,” pitted against an elitist out-group which, given its way, would eradicate their way of life. In providing novel, internal and external legitimacy to such a view, the very underpinnings of populism as a thin-centered political tool are reinforced10. Barnette’s out “MAGA-ification” of both Oz and McCormick, earning her the descriptor of being “ultra MAGA6,” while securing nearly a quarter of the available vote share5, indicates a further legitimization of Trumpian-style populism, by the establishment, as the lack of a concerted establishment rejection of her campaign11, in the way that occurred with outgoing representative Madison Cawthon, signifies a willingness to engage in a fallacious co-optation of such rhetoric for short term electoral success despite the long term harm it begets upon democracy12. Her political alliance with the Pennsylvania Republican Gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano, only furthers such a legitimization in light of his recent primary success4.
In the post-2020 republican party, it is however not enough to merely co-opt Trumpian populism to ensure electoral viability. Rather, the propagation and legitimization of the Big Lie has resulted in the Big Lie – the denial of the veracity of the 2020 Presidential election – becoming intertwined with the policy positions that the republican base expects of their governmental representatives.
Such a recognition highlights the significance of the fact that neither Oz nor McCormick have vocalized their acceptance of the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential election13. Just as Oz and McCormick’s positions as a consummate outsider and insider, re-legitimized populist rhetoric, so too does their unwillingness to publicly acknowledge the veracity of the 2020 election re-legitimize the false narrative of the Big Lie. Their unwillingness further contributes to the spread of disinformation which, given that it is regarding electoral veracity, serves to undermine their voters’ trust in future electoral results, thereby decreasing public confidence in the electoral system. That disinformation itself begets negative implications for democratic stability, by serving as a potential harbinger of confusion, disorientation and anger14, only furthers the adverse effects brought on by a denial of electoral veracity. Causally, this results in a decline in a democratic culture, which is a fundamental pre-requisite for liberal democratic stability15. That Barnette has not only parroted such claims but was also photographed at the January 6th Capitol Hill riot16 only serves to further propagate disinformation and thus undermine a democratic culture amongst the Republican base. Given that Oz, McCormick and Barnette cumulatively captured 87 percent of the available Republican vote, in the primary election, only highlights the extent to which disinformation has propagated through the Republican base. Their acceptance of the Big Lie, coupled with the electoral failures of republicans who combatted the Big Lie suggests a self-reinforcing cycle as acceptance of the electoral veracity of the 2020 election dooms campaigns amongst the fundamentalist republican base that overwhelmingly supports the Big Lie while its re-legitimization offers electoral viability, amongst the republican base but furthers the damage to a democratic culture.
Since 1972, Pennsylvania has voted for the winning presidential candidate in 11 out of the 13 possible elections – with its 2 deviations being in 2000 and 2004 when it voted for Al Gore and John Kerry, respectively17. Coupling this with its geographical diversity, encompassing both major metropolitan locales and significant agrarian districts, and its population distribution being a reasonable approximation of overall distributions, across the United States, proffers a view of Pennsylvania as an electoral bellwether, capable of forecasting the national mood. With such a background in mind, it is thus possible to view the 2022 Pennsylvania Senatorial republican primary as being indicative of the national mood. In that vein, Oz and McCormick’s co-optation of “MAGA-isms” for electoral gain coupled with Barnette’s “ultra MAGA” rise suggests a continuing electoral viability for the corresponding populistic notions, across the country, thereby resulting in a potential further decline in the popular view of the legitimacy of liberal democratic institutions.
Sources: https://fortune.com/2022/04/10/trump-endorses-dr-oz-pennsylvanias-senate-primary-race/  https://www.politico.com/news/2022/01/11/david-mccormick-senate-campaign-trump-526870  https://www.inquirer.com/politics/election/david-mccormick-senate-2022-pennsylvania-primary-election-20220503.html  https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-political-scene/pennsylvania-republican-primaries-trump-dr-oz-mccormick-barnette-mastriano  https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2022-primary-elections/pennsylvania-senate-results  https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/10/kathy-barnette-pennsylvania-senate-gop-primary-00031262  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/13/us/elections/kathy-barnette-pennsylvania-senate.html  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/16/us/politics/senate-governor-pennsylvania-republicans.html  https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/16-gop-primaries-to-watch-in-north-carolina-pennsylvania-idaho-and-oregon/  Gökmen, Özgür (2017) “Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (2016),” Markets, Globalization & Development Review: Vol. 2: No. 2, Article 7.  https://www.axios.com/2022/05/12/gop-panics-pa-senate-wild-card-kathy-barnette  Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Penguin, 2018.  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/18/us/politics/pa-nc-primary-takeaways.html  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/  Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 21, no. 1, May 2018, pp. 93–113, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.  https://www.reuters.com/world/us/republican-us-senate-hopeful-barnette-marched-alongside-proud-boys-jan-6-report-2022-05-16/  https://www.270towin.com/states/Pennsylvania
Hi Akshay. The role Pennsylvania has started to play in American politics is fascinating in light of MAGA-ism and the 2020 election results. Firstly, your differentiation between the candidates is organized and clear. Your argument also mentions each aspect I found myself curious about next while reading so really well done. I was drawn to your article because of what I know about gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and so I also appreciate your mention of him.