In his closing pitch to Republicans voting in the Pennsylvania Senate primary last month, Mehmet Oz portrayed himself as pro-life, pro-police, pro-guns, and—most importantly—pro–Donald Trump. That message, along with a Trump endorsement, was enough for Oz to best his opponents in a contentious GOP primary. But since securing the party’s nomination in a recount three weeks ago, the TV doctor turned Senate hopeful has taken steps to distance himself from Trump in a general election rebrand that he hopes will win over independents and even “conservative Democrats.” In a review of more than a dozen radio, TV, and public appearances that Oz has conducted since securing the nomination, he appears to have only mentioned Trump when directly asked about him, opting instead to stick to talking points on uniting Americans and solving the current energy and economic crises. “If you’re culturally a Democrat, God bless you, I’m with you,” he told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo last week. “Come across, join us, we’ve got a big message and a big tent.”
In the weeks leading up to the May 17 primary, the 62-year-old retired cardiothoracic surgeon aggressively touted his relationship with the former president, so much so that one could have mistaken Trump for his running mate with all the side-by-side photos that Oz’s campaign pushed. That has all changed; Oz has barely mentioned Trump on social media since winning the primary, and has largely avoided discussing him in public appearances. As Oz urged Republicans against using “arrogant and abrasive” messaging in his interview with Bartiromo, he even refused the host’s attempt to get him to diagnose Joe Biden with “dementia” symptoms. “You don’t doctor on people who don’t want your help…[so] I can’t speak to that issue,” he said, despite telling Sean Hannity as recently as April that he is “concerned” by Biden’s cognitive state.
Axios reported last week that Oz removed the photos of him standing with Trump that previously adorned the top of his campaign’s website and social media banners. He also dropped the “Endorsed by Trump” line from his online presence and removed mentions of Trump from his social media banners. (The Oz campaign did not respond to Vanity Fair’s request for comment but dismissed the changes in a statement to Axios saying Trump’s endorsement remains listed on their website and the online banners were changed “to thank Pennsylvanians after the recount was completed.”)
Of course, this shift is far from surprising. Given Pennsylvania’s status as a battleground state, Oz will have to make inroads with voters outside of Trump’s base to defeat Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic Party’s nominee in the race, and fill outgoing Republican senator Pat Toomey’s seat. “I understand why Oz is doing it, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle––he’s known as Trump’s candidate even among casual voters,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist based in Western Pennsylvania. “But he’s playing with fire. To say that Donald Trump demands absolute loyalty is an understatement, and this actually has the potential to turn Trump against him.”
Trumpworld has taken notice of Oz’s unspoken apostasy. Former Trump administration adviser Seb Gorka accused him of pulling “a slimy move after Trump helped him,” while right-wing media commentator and provocateur Jack Posobiec cited the Axios story as vindication for opposing Oz in the primary. “Will all the people paid off by Oz to attack us apologize? I won’t hold my breath,” he tweeted. “Enjoy your RINO.”
Fetterman holds a sizable lead in polls against Oz, who is also not liked by Pennsylvanians as a whole; a recent AARP survey noted that 63% of voters view him unfavorably. “The Trump branding issue is not necessarily Oz’s biggest problem,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. “He has his own baggage, namely that I think most people here think he lives in New Jersey. I’m not sure people really see him as a Pennsylvania resident. If not for his celebrity status, I don’t think anybody would take him seriously.” (Oz, who grew up in Delaware and lived in New Jersey for decades, did buy a house in Pennsylvania this year but seemingly still spends time in his North Jersey home, per a Philadelphia Inquirer report. According to The Inquirer, he also owns properties in Turkey, where he has dual citizenship, and Palm Beach, Florida.)
This line of attack has become a go-to among Fetterman supporters. “Mehmet Oz is a scam artist and a fraud who isn’t from Pennsylvania and doesn’t care about our values, but will say whatever he needs to in order to get ahead,” said Jack Doyle, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “At this point, he’s been on every side of every issue there is, and Pennsylvania voters know they can’t trust him.” The Pennsylvania Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.