Donald Trump is hedging his bets. His candidate in the Pennsylvania race for US Senate, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, looks like he might lose to a political nobody in Tuesday’s primary. So, on Saturday, Trump endorsed State Sen. Doug Mastriano, the far-right front runner in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary.
The move seems to be a way for Trump to save face and pretend his endorsement is more powerful than it really is. Last month, Trump surprised many of his supporters when he put his weight behind Oz, who is not really anybody’s idea of a MAGA warrior. Since then, “ultra-MAGA” candidate Kathy Barnette has surged in the polls and has now joined another candidate, David McCormick, within the margin of error behind Oz, according to a recent Fox News poll.
Barnette’s hard-right rhetoric and story of overcoming the adversity she faced as a Black girl in rural Alabama has resonated with Trump’s supporters. It’s an embarrassing development for Trump, who is testing his base’s loyalty by urging them to vote for a TV doctor.
In interviews with Pennsylvania Republicans, the New York Times found deep skepticism of Oz and admiration for Barnette. An 83-year-old named Dolores Mrozinski told Times reporter Jennifer Medina that Barnette was “no-nonsense and the real thing.” Her daughter said of Oz, “He looks like he had a face lift.”
Barnette is now near the top of the polls, despite having far less money and institutional backing than her competitors. Her supporters do not seem to mind her record of anti-Muslim and anti-gay comments. Instead, they appear inspired by her message of how she rose to be a Senate candidate after growing up in a home without insulation or running water. The closest she came to elected office before this year was losing a 2020 House race by nearly 20 points.
In the governor’s race, Mastriano built up a roughly 10-point lead over his rivals before securing Trump’s support. He was central to Trump’s efforts in Pennsylvania to overturn the 2020 election. He also organized bus trips to Washington, DC, for the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally and was outside the Capitol that day—though there is no evidence he entered the building and he has not been accused of breaking any laws. “There is no one in Pennsylvania who has done more, or fought harder, for Election Integrity than State Senator Doug Mastriano,” Trump said in his endorsement of Mastriano. “He has revealed the Deceit, Corruption, and outright Theft of the 2020 Presidential Election, and will do something about it.”
Earlier this week, Trump’s preferred candidate in the Nebraska governor’s race, Charles Herbster, lost his primary. Herbster had impeccable Trumpian credentials, but he was also accused of sexual assault by eight women, including a Nebraska state senator. Despite the allegations, which Herbster has denied, Trump traveled to Nebraska to campaign on Herbster’s behalf. Trump’s loss in the Nebraska contest came just after he played a key role in securing a win for JD Vance in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary.
Pennsylvania will provide another test of Trump’s sway. Fox News host Sean Hannity, a close Trump ally, has gone out of his way to attack Barnette in the lead up to the primary. Trump has said in a statement that she “will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats.”
The problem for Trump is that many of his supporters are making up their own minds, including Mastriano himself, who has endorsed Barnette and has been campaigning alongside her. Michael Testa, an Army veteran and handyman interviewed by the Times, drives a minivan with “Trump Won” stickers. But Testa, who hasn’t yet decided who he’ll vote for in the Senate primary, said, “I’m not going to be somebody who does something just because one person says so, even if that person is Trump.”