December 3, 2022

Words are straightforward, but photos tell the story

In politics, it is never is about what you believe as much as what people think you believe. That perception can be created or destroyed in an instant. When Michael Dukakis appeared less than commanderly in a tank, or John Kerry was filmed windsurfing, or Dan Quayle was taped misspelling potato, those impressions proved impossible to overcome.

At Breitbart—an important agenda setter for the exact kind of conservatives who love to vote in primaries—they understand that. And in Pennsylvania, it seems they’ve chosen sides.

A recent article about the race for the Republican nomination for US Senate in Pennsylvania featured four photographs. Even though there are many candidates—and none holds a commanding lead—Breitbart painted this as a two-man race. Mehmet Oz was depicted with pure Hollywood assholery, including kneeling on the sidewalk next to his star on the Walk of Fame. For Republican primary voters, he might as well have been baking vegan cookies for illegal immigrants.

Oz’s chief rival, David McCormick, was pictured precisely the opposite way. In one photograph he looks like a no-nonsense job creator standing next to some industrial looking whatever. And in the other picture, boom. He’s being embraced by President Trump.

In a contested Republican primary, little things matter, even crazy things. A big state like Pennsylvania, with 8 million votes cast in the Nov. 2020 presidential election, feels like it ought to have a robust electorate. But if you look at voter turnout for off-year Republican statewide primaries, it’s another story.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

In 2018, when Lou Barletta defeated Jim Christiana for the Republican nomination to take on incumbent Bob Casey, just over 680,000 votes were cast in the Republican primary, out of a state population of almost 13 million people. Even 2010, one of the best years for Republicans in history—a classic PA primary because incumbent Republican Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties—didn’t draw that many voters. Pat Toomey defeated Peg Luksik in a landslide that drew about 820,000 voters.

So that’s the stage onto which Mehmet Oz and David McCormick—as well as Army veteran Kathy Barnette, former LG candidate Jeff Bartos, and fomer Amb. Carla Sands—seek the opportunity to replace Toomey, who’s retiring.

The race has already seen its share of drama. Army veteran Sean Parnell won an early coveted endorsement from former President Trump. In a Republican primary, that endorsement is as gold as one of the faucets at Trump National (to steal a line from Trump insider Michael Glassner, who used it on me when the then-candidate was endorsed by Sarah Palin before Iowa in 2016).

Trump’s endorsement might have sealed the deal in a multi-candidate primary, but Parnell’s candidacy crashed amid a messy divorce and some unsavory accusations. That caused a massive vacuum. A purple state open seat that had been occupied by a departing Republican in a mid-term year in which the Democratic president has an approval rating of -22 has proven catnip to Republicans looking to join America’s most exclusive club.

Thus was born the candidacy of Dr. Mehmet Oz, best known for his long-running daily TV show on which he dispenses legitimate medical advice (he’s a much decorated cardiothoracic surgeon with degrees from Penn and Harvard) alongside wacky cures, fad diets and incongruous true crime. Also jumping in was David McCormick, who became the CEO of Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater fund, served as Under Secretary of the Treasury during the George W. Bush administration and won the Bronze Star in the first Gulf War.

(Disclosure: I am friendly with McCormick’s wife, and have on occasion BS’ed about politics with her and others close to McCormick.)

Having been on TV every day for over a decade, Oz was expected to jump to an early lead. That occurred, but to nowhere near the degree experienced watchers (including me) would have predicted, based on Name ID alone. The Trafalgar poll at the core of the Breitbart article puts Oz in first at 27.4 percent and McCormick closing fast at 15.9 percent.

The Oz candidacy seems to have gotten off to a shaky start as his tenuous connections to the Keystone State have been parsed. Perhaps more importantly, continued ties to Turkey and off-message remarks about abortion have surfaced.

The filing deadline is March 8 and the primary will be held May 17. It’s way too early to assess the race. But this is when images of candidates begin to harden. Photographs of Oz prone on Hollywood Boulevard juxtaposed with McCormick smiling next to Trump might be difficult to overcome. And there’s no way the photo editor at Breitbart doesn’t understand that.