Pennsylvania Gets a Trump Shot in the Arm

GREENSBURG, Pennsylvania—In January of last year, the New York disco band Village People let out a sigh of relief when President Donald Trump left office, telling Billboard that the former president’s “abusive use” of their music “has finally ended.” But now more than a year after leaving the White House, Trump has found that the band’s “Y.M.C.A.” is still a crowd pleaser at his rallies—rain or shine.

His recent campaign event at the Westmoreland Fairgrounds in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was no exception. “What weather!” the former president said Friday evening to a large crowd of his supporters, most of whom were decked head-to-toe in mud-spattered Trump gear after waiting for hours to hear him speak. “We’re gonna have a lot of fun, Pennsylvania, we’re gonna have a lot of fun.”

Rally attendees trekked through pools of mud, a soggy field of parked cars, and a maze of “Get Your Trump Gear Here!” pop-up stands selling knick-knacks splattered with MAGA monikers: “Deplorable Damn Right” read one sticker, “The Final Variant is Called Communism” read another. Closer to the arena was a giant jumbotron projecting Trump’s “official” donor livestream—$25 from Joe A. of Mississippi, $45 from Elizabeth W. of Arkansas, $500 from Connie M. of Ohio—its electric blue screen contrasting with the backdrop of Friday evening’s dark and cloudy sky. 

As soon as Trump took the stage he launched into a freewheeling speech about inflation—“I got gas way down to $1.87 a gallon!”—the war in Ukraine—“when I was there, [Putin] would never have done it”—the Russia probe—“It was a fake con job”— and even J.D. Vance, who last week won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Ohio— “He’s a great hot celebrity!” 

(Photo by Audrey Fahlberg)

Anyone arriving in the middle of Trump’s speech was hard-pressed to figure out what most reporters thought was the main purpose of the event—to boost support for Dr. Mehmet Oz, Trump’s hand-picked candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania ahead of the Republican primary on May 17. 

Only 45 minutes into his speech did Trump finally get to the point. “His show is great,” Trump said of the celebrity heart surgeon who recently canceled The Dr. Oz Show in his bid to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. “He’s in the bedrooms of all those women and telling them good and bad.” Trump then invited Oz onstage, where he delivered a vague one-minute speech about the Biden administration’s failures before letting Trump take back the floor. “The only thing Joe Biden has built back better is the Republican Party,” Oz said.

Trump’s shout-out was long-anticipated: Both Oz and his only real Republican challenger, David McCormick, spent months before the primary ingratiating themselves with the former president at his Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago, in a bid for his endorsement. (The New York Times reported that McCormick’s wife, Dina Powell McCormick, showed Trump a picture of Oz next to people wearing full head coverings in a private meeting to emphasize Oz’s Turkish American heritage and Muslim upbringing. McCormick denied the claims.)

As McCormick now knows all too well, unsuccessfully gunning for Trump’s approval can come at a cost. If you win his endorsement, as Oz did in early April, you could experience a boost in the polls, as Vance did in the days leading up to last week’s Ohio Senate primary. (Oz now leads McCormick by roughly 2 points, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling average.) But failing to score the endorsement runs you the risk of being ridiculed by the former president for trying. 

As of Friday, McCormick now falls into the second camp. “If anybody was within 200 miles of me, he hired them,” Trump said of McCormick, the former Bridgewater CEO and George W. Bush administration Treasury official whose campaign hired a handful of high-profile Trump staffers—including Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller—in a failed bid to curry favor with the former president. Friday evening, Trump told the crowd that McCormick “may be a nice guy” but that he is “totally controlled” by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and simply isn’t “MAGA” enough to fit the bill. 

Chief among Trump’s concerns was McCormick’s criticism of the former president’s actions leading up to the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. “He did want my endorsement very badly, but I couldn’t do it,” Trump added. “David came out very strongly against me on numerous occasions—this is before he was going to run. All of the sudden he said, ‘Boy, I like this guy a lot.’” 

McCormick responded to the rally with a characteristic ad blitz ridiculing Oz for kissing his Hollywood star and slamming him for abortion-related comments he made years ago. 

One rally-goer, Rick DeLauro, finds any attempt to paint Oz as a Hollywood liberal as unpersuasive. “When the media plays clips of Dr. Oz in Hollywood years ago, it doesn’t do his current knowledge base any justice,” he said. “I think when President Trump endorsed him that’s really all I needed.” He and his wife said they are looking forward to voting for Oz in next week’s Republican primary, although they readily admitted that they were far more excited to see Trump than Oz. “We love President Trump and we just wanted to show our patriotism,” Kate DeLauro said.

Also competing for Toomey’s seat is Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a goateed, 6-foot-8 former mayor of a steel town who leads the Democratic field in both fundraising and polling. A Franklin & Marshall survey released Thursday has Fetterman in a 39-point lead over his closest competitor, Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb (53-14 percent), with the rest of the Democratic candidates barely registering in the polls.

“Whatever the opposite is of the MAGA movement on the Republican side, John Fetterman embodies it on the Democratic side,” Christopher Nicholas, a Pennsylvania-based Republican consultant, said of Fetterman, who regularly sports jeans and sweatshirts at his campaign events.

But Fetterman’s grassroots popularity among Democratic primary voters and statewide name recognition as lieutenant governor is no guarantee he’ll sail to victory in the general election. “No matter who wins on the Republican side, I think they’re going to have a better-than-even shot to beat Fetterman, ‘cause I just don’t think he appeals well to the entire state,” Nicholas said.

Republicans are hoping that rising crime, skyrocketing inflation, and Biden’s poor approval ratings will help the GOP keep Toomey’s seat in Republican hands. But right now, election forecasters say it’s too early to tell. Both Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report rate the general election race as a tossup.

First comes next Tuesday’s primary, in which Oz hopes to win support from rally attendees like John Keane, who see Trump’s support as a determining factor in the race. “I have a lot of friends that have actually been promoting Dr. Oz, and I was sort of hesitant at first,” Keane, from Upper St. Claire, Pennsylvania, said in an interview after the rally. “But at this point, I’m more likely to be supporting Dr. Oz, primarily due to Trump’s endorsement.”

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