What to Watch for in the Pennsylvania Primary

an enveloper with a note that has an outline of Pennsylvania


The GOP Senate contest is between Trump-backed Dr. Oz, a hedge-fund exec, and a far-right commentator.

On Tuesday, voters in Pennsylvania will cast their ballots in two closely-watched primary elections. The Republican primary for Senate is a tight race between hedge-fund exec David McCormick, former talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz, and the late-surging far-right commentator Kathy Barnette. In the GOP race for governor, polls show that State Senator Doug Mastriano, who helped lead efforts in Pennsylvania to overturn the 2020 election, has emerged as a clear front-runner. 

Both races will test the power of a Trump endorsement and gauge voters’ appetites for hard-line conservatives. We spoke to good friend Brian Goldsmith, a political expert and media consultant, about what he expects from these primaries and what they mean for the future of the country.

Katie Couric: Why should people be paying attention to this race?

Brian Goldsmith: This is one of the tipping point Senate seats that will determine which party has control of the Senate after the midterms, which will have a profound effect on whether Joe Biden can get any legislation through Congress and can get his appointees confirmed. 

Let’s talk about the contest and who this candidate will replace.

Pennsylvania is the class swing state. Donald Trump carried it narrowly in 2016. Joe Biden carried it narrowly in 2020. The Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey, who is very conservative on economics, but not exactly a Trump/MAGA-type Republican, chose to retire rather than run again. And there is a ferocious competition in both parties to get the nomination for this seat. 

Let’s start with the Republican candidates. This race has gotten a lot of ink — it’s a pretty splashy face-off

There are two frontrunners who have been just beating the crap out of each other for months now. One is David McCormick, who was the CEO of Bridgewater, one of the world’s biggest hedge funds. The other is, of course, Dr. Mehmet Oz, who everyone knows from his eponymous talk show. Trump has endorsed Dr. Oz as a fellow TV star. Apparently, the show was a big part of what drove Trump to support Oz. He famously said that being on a hit TV show for a number of years is better than a poll because it means the people like you. McCormick is not taking that lying down and is also touting his ties to Trump, including his wife’s work in the Trump administration. 

They’re both extremely well-funded, very wealthy, and supported by outside groups. The surprise in the race has been the emergence in the last week or two of a third candidate, Kathy Barnette. She’s an African-American conservative, very MAGA, and a real true-blue Pennsylvanian in a way that neither McCormick nor Oz actually is. Both of them lived in the New York tri-state area for most of the last decade and came back to Pennsylvania to run for the seat. And I do think that this is an instance of the voters smelling a little bit of disingenuousness in both the frontrunners and are maybe shopping for an alternative.

Pennsylvania is a very purple state, so let’s talk about the Democratic slate of candidates.

First, a couple of things about the state: Democrats were pretty optimistic about flipping this seat from red to blue in the wake of Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania in November of 2020. Since then, however, the President’s approval rating in the state — and nationally — has gone down dramatically. It’s now somewhere under 40 percent. So whoever the Democratic nominee is, I think, has to be perceived as an underdog going into the general election. 

There are two principal candidates on the Democratic side. There’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who’s kind of an unconventional, almost Jesse Ventura type, who was a Bernie guy but who’s now distanced himself a little bit from that wing of the party. But he can still raise a ton of small-dollar contributions from Bernie’s army online. In part because of that, he’s been able to dramatically outraise and outspend his principal competitor, Congressman Conor Lamb, who’s from Western Pennsylvania. Lamb has won a Trump district three times and most of the Democratic establishment in the state is with him. But he’s well behind at this point, and it would be a big surprise if he won. 

Now, there’s been a twist in the race in the last couple of days. It was revealed Sunday that Fetterman actually had a stroke on Friday. He disclosed the information on Sunday. The Fetterman campaign says that he’s fine, that he’ll make a full recovery, that it’s very minor. But last-minute developments like this can shift the race. It’s very unclear if this will though.

Can you tell us more about the race for governor there?

On the Democratic side, the candidate is going to be Josh Shapiro, the Attorney General, who doesn’t have significant primary competition. On the Republican side, the frontrunner who’s probably going to win the nomination is a guy named Doug Mastriano. He’s very far right, an ultra-MAGA type who Trump has endorsed. He was actually there at the Capitol on January 6, though it’s not clear what exactly he was doing. He also helped to lead the efforts to overturn the election results in Pennsylvania following the November 2020 election, which is one of the reasons Trump thinks he’s so terrific. But there is fear among more mainstream Republican types that Mastriano could drag down the whole ticket. Mastriano, in effect, is running on a kind of a ticket of his own with Kathy Barnette as the most extreme conservative candidates.

Do you think that somebody who is a proponent of the Big Lie would have enough support from voters in the state of Pennsylvania?

I think it’d be a heavy lift for Mastriano. It would be unprecedented for somebody as extreme as he is to win an election in a state like Pennsylvania. That said, the Democratic brand is so tarnished and underwater right now. The President’s approval rating is so low, that it is possible.