By MARC LEVY and JILL COLVIN
WILKES-BARRE, Pennsylvania, USA — Larry Mitko voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But the Republican from Beaver County in western Pennsylvania says he has no plans to back his party’s nominee for Senate, Dr. Mehmet Oz — “no way, no how.”
Mitko doesn’t feel like he knows the celebrity heart surgeon, who only narrowly won his May primary with Trump’s backing. Instead, Mitko plans to vote for Oz’s Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a name he’s been familiar with since Fetterman’s days as mayor of nearby Braddock.
“Dr. Oz hasn’t showed me one thing to get me to vote for him,” he said. “I won’t vote for someone I don’t know.”
Mitko’s thinking underscores the political challenges facing Trump and the rest of the Republican Party as the former president shifts to general election mode with a rally Saturday night in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the first of the fall campaign.
While the rally was organized to bolster Oz and Doug Mastriano, the GOP’s hard-line nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, it was Trump’s first rally since the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago club, and Trump spent part of the evening railing against it.
He called it “one of the most shocking abuses of power by any administration in American history” and “a travesty of justice.”
“They’re trying to silence me and more importantly they’re trying to silence you. But we will not be silenced, right?” Trump said.
Investigators recovered thousands of documents in the search, including more than 100 with classified and top secret markings.
Trump’s endorsed picks won many Republican primaries this summer, but many of the candidates he backed were inexperienced and polarizing figures now struggling in their November races. That’s putting Senate control — once assumed to be a lock for Republicans — on the line.
In addition to Oz, among the others are author JD Vance in Ohio, venture capitalist Blake Masters in Arizona and former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia.
“Republicans have now nominated a number of candidates who’ve never run for office before for very high-profile Senate races,” said veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres. While he isn’t writing his party’s chances off just yet, he said, “It’s a much more difficult endeavor than a candidate who had won several difficult political races before.”
The stakes are particularly high for Trump as he lays the groundwork for an expected 2024 presidential run amid a series of escalating legal challenges.
This past week, President Joe Biden gave a prime-time speech in Philadelphia warning that Trump and other “MAGA” Republicans — the acronym for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan — posed a threat to U.S. democracy. Biden has tried to frame the upcoming vote, as he did the 2020 election, as a battle for the “soul of the nation.” Biden’s Labor Day visit to Pittsburgh will be his third to the state within a week, a sign of Pennsylvania’s election-year importance.
Trump repeatedly attacked Biden — saying at one point “above all this election is a referendum on the corruption and extremism” of Biden and Democrats — and gave a brief spotlight to Oz and Mastriano.
Mastriano, he noted, had fought with him from the beginning to try to help Trump overturn the 2020 election and stay in power, saying Mastriano fought “like very few people fought.”
Oz, Trump said, “is going to work and fight for Pennsylvania,” while he attacked Fetterman and the Democratic nominee for governor, Josh Shapiro, as extreme while distorting their positions on issues like crime and abortion. In particular, the former president went after Fetterman’s irreverent dressing habits — shorts and hoodies — saying that “I don’t like those dirty sweat suits, they’re disgusting.”
“Fetterman may dress like a teenager getting high in his parents’ basement, but he’s a raging lunatic hell-bent on springing hardened criminals out of jail in the middle of the worst crime wave in Pennsylvania history,” Trump said.
Republicans have targeted Fetterman for backing proposals to release more geriatric or rehabilitated inmates from prisons and provide flexibility in certain mandatory-sentencing laws.
While Republicans were once seen as having a good chance of gaining control of both chambers of Congress in November, benefitting from soaring inflation, high gas prices and Biden’s slumping approval ratings, Republicans have found themselves on defense since the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision protecting abortion rights.
Some candidates, like Mastriano, are sticking with their primary campaign playbooks, hoping they can win by turning out Trump’s loyal base even if they alienate or ignore more moderate voters.
Mastriano, who wants to outlaw abortion even when pregnancies are the result of rape or incest or endanger the life of the mother, played a leading role in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election and was seen outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as pro-Trump rioters stormed the building.
But others have been trying to broaden their appeal, scrubbing from their websites references to anti-abortion messaging that is out of step with the political mainstream. Others have played down Trump endorsements that were once featured prominently.
The shifting climate has prompted rounds of finger-pointing in the party, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who last month cited “candidate quality” as he lowered expectations that Republicans would recapture control of the Senate.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said those who complain about the party’s nominees have “contempt” for the voters who chose them.
Trump, too, fired back, calling McConnell a “disgrace” as he defended the party’s candidate roster.
Democrats have also piled on.
“Republicans have put forward a roster of deeply flawed recruits,” said David Bergstein, the Senate Democratic campaign committee’s communication director.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans are hoping Oz’s shortcomings as a candidate will be overshadowed by concerns about Fetterman, who suffered a stroke just days before the primary and has been sidelined for much of the summer.
Republicans acknowledge that Oz struggles to come off as authentic and was slow to punch back as Fetterman spent the summer trolling him on social media and portraying him as an ultrawealthy, out-of-touch carpetbagger from New Jersey.
While Fetterman leads Oz in polls and fundraising, Republicans say they expect the money gap to narrow and are pleased to see Oz within striking distance after getting hammered by $20 million in negative advertising during the primaries.
Oz has won over some once-skeptical voters, like Glen Rubendall, who didn’t vote for the TV doctor in his seven-way primary — a victory so narrow it went to a statewide recount — but said he’s come around and has a “pro-Oz view now.”
Traci Martin, a registered independent, also plans to vote for Oz because she opposes abortion, despite ads that aired during the primary featuring past Oz statements that seemed supportive of abortion rights.
“I hope he is (anti-abortion),” Martin said, “but the sad part is we live in an age when we see politicians say one thing and do another.”