Republican candidates for Senate met twice this week to debate key issues going into the May 17 primary for a race that could tip the balance of power in the congressional chamber.
Most of the GOP candidates at the debates Monday and Tuesday night shared some common ground on immigration reform and the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine, but inflation and election integrity appear to be two of the most critical issues for the Republican hopefuls across the board.
Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick also saw the brunt of political jabs thrown by other candidates, whether they were in the room or not.
Oz and McCormick attended a televised debate on Monday organized by Nextstar Media Group and broadcast through network news affiliate channels, joined by Kathy Barnette, Jeff Bartos and Carla Sands, former Ambassador to Denmark under former President Donald Trump.
Oz, cardiothoracic surgeon turned TV host, and McCormick, former CEO of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, faced attacks throughout the night over their residency and their conviction to conservative values.
Bartos has referred to the two as “political tourists” multiple times and Sands also went after Oz’s dual citizenship in Turkey, saying he was “Turkey First, not America first.”
McCormick said Monday that, while he didn’t live in the commonwealth for the past 15 years before running, his family has lived in the state for seven generations and has “deep roots” through his family farm in Bloomsburg.
Apart from attending graduate and medical school in Pennsylvania, longtime New Jersey resident Oz hasn’t lived in the state until last year.
Oz said that he might not be a lifelong resident of the Keystone State, but voters he talks to don’t care about where he’s from.
“Pennsylvanians are quite clear they care much more about what I stand for than where I’m from,” Oz said during Monday’s debate.
Oz has previously said he would renounce his citizenship to Turkey if elected, adding Monday that his dual citizenship was in large part due to the fact his mother still lives there.
Barnette, a conservative commentator and Pennsylvania resident for most of her life, pushed back on both Oz and McCormick, calling them “carpetbaggers.”
“I don’t make many promises on the campaign trail, but I can promise the people of Pennsylvania that when these carpetbaggers lose, you will never see them again. And if they should win, you will never see them again,” Barnette said.
Recent polls have put Oz and McCormick as the frontrunners of the race, with a poll from the Trafalgar Group released last week showing about 23% of Republican voters favored Oz, 20% for McCormick and 18% for Barnette.
Barnette said Monday and during a debate organized by Spotlight PA on Tuesday that the poll had her in a “statistical three-way tie” between her, Oz, and McCormick. The Trafalgar poll has a 3% margin of error.
A poll from Monmouth University released Wednesday reported about 22% of Republicans said they were very likely to vote for Oz, 19% said McCormick and 18% went to Barnette.
That same poll also showed nearly 69% of voters were unmoved by their stance on Oz following Trump’s endorsement earlier this month, while 48% of voters said they weren’t bothered that Oz only recently moved to the state.
Oz and McCormick did not attend Tuesday’s debate, but that didn’t stop political jabs from the candidates who did, including George Bochetto and Sean Gale, both with professional backgrounds as attorneys.
Political infighting aside, this week’s debates showed two issues will likely follow whoever wins the GOP nomination: inflation and election integrity.
The rising costs of everything
By and large, the candidates put rising costs of goods squarely on Democratic lawmakers in Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration.
The Monmouth poll this week reported that roughly 56% of Republican voters consider inflation to be the top issue in this election cycle, but no single candidate appears to have a decisive lead over the others.
Increasing jobs and drilling for both oil and natural gas were the most common responses to cut back on rising inflation, with Sands at both debates repeatedly proposing her own “Operation Warp Speed” to build pipeline infrastructure in the U.S. to meet energy demands both at home and abroad.
Bartos added that inflation as a “gut punch” to working families across Pennsylvania and that he would focus on small businesses to help ease the pain at the gas pump and the checkout line at the grocery store.
Bartos noted that he created a network of volunteers to build the nonprofit Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund during the pandemic, which he claims has helped save more than 1,000 small businesses across all 67 counties in the state through more than $3.1 million in aid.
Bochetto and Gale both pointed to “radical” and “out-of-control” government spending as the main factors to the increasing cost of living, with Gale adding that Pennsylvania’s gas tax was also hurting everyday consumers in the state.
“Where you hear inflation talked about the most is at the gas pump. And I remind people … it’s not just inflation that’s causing that cost, it’s 58 cents per gallon tax at the pump,” Gale said, criticizing the Motor Fuel Tax started under Republican former Gov. Tom Corbett.
“We have to stop printing money, we have to stop giving away money to the tune of trillions of dollars which put more money into the system which lessens the value of our dollars, and we have to be energy independent,” Bochetto added.
While the candidates did seem to have similar positions on the economy, political strategist Sam Chen who attended the Spotlight debate, said Wednesday that fiscal topics like these are often too complex to explain on a debate stage.
“The problem is they’re given a minute to explain inflation, and you can’t explain inflation in a minute. If you do, you haven’t done it well,” said Chen, a founder of Allentown-based The Liddle Group.
“I think what ends up happening is everyone sounds exactly the same, ‘Inflation is bad, it is Joe Biden’s fault, I will change it,’ and no one can really break out,” Chen said.
The 2020 election, voter fraud claims and mail-in ballots
Election laws and policies will undoubtedly be a core issue for many voters heading to the polls in May and November, where the lingering unfounded claims of election fraud in 2020 continue to sow doubt among Republican voters.
Bartos is the only GOP candidate who said Tuesday he would have voted to certify Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results if he had been in office two years ago.
When asked on Monday night if the Republican Party should move on from 2020, Bartos pointed to several other issues currently facing voters while noting that the last presidential election was a catalyst that energized conservative voters and would lead to “historic” wins this November.
Apart from Bartos, every other candidate Monday and Tuesday said there is major distrust among Republican voters when it comes to election integrity. Oz specifically referenced a recent conversation with Trump directly and said, “we cannot move on.”
“We have to be serious about what happened in 2020, and we won’t be able to address that until we can really look under the hood,” Oz said.
McCormick added that he would support stronger voter ID laws and questioned the security of mail-in ballots.
Bochetto and Gale focused on Act 77, the state law passed in 2019 that allowed voters to mail their ballots even if they wouldn’t be absent from their voting precinct on Election Day.
Both focused on a January Commonwealth Court ruling that found the law unconstitutional in part due to a Civil War-era legal decision and that mail-in ballots should have been a voter referendum and not a legislative action.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stayed the lower court’s ruling and heard arguments in early March but hasn’t issued a decision yet.
Bochetto said he would fight to get the case before the U.S. Supreme Court if elected and claimed mail-in ballot harvesting helped Biden defeat Trump in Pennsylvania.
Sands referred to the 2020 election as “stolen” before also claiming Facebook influenced the election against Trump.
There were dozens of court challenges across the country from Trump’s campaign following his loss in 2020, but none of those claims have resulted in conclusive evidence of widespread voter fraud.
As a result of the ongoing claims, Republican state lawmakers have also pushed for a review of the state’s voter registration system, claiming it’s wrought with errors that open the state up to potential voter fraud.
This news organization reviewed nearly 30 million rows of voter registration data across 2020 and 2021 and conferred with political policy experts who said the potential errors, like repeating names or missing information, made up less than 1% of the voter rolls and didn’t constitute a serious concern.
Regardless of the facts surrounding unfounded claims of voter fraud, Chen added that this is an issue that could go either way for GOP candidates.
Chen said some polls show 70% of Republican voters distrust the electoral process but noted that means a third of those voters do trust the system and might not vote for candidates who don’t. Outnumbered as the 30% may be, Chen noted that the more the candidates hammer in that the system is rigged against them, the less likely their voters may be to show up.
If election integrity and voter rights remain a key issue across party lines, that could spell disaster for the winner of the Republican ballot spot in November.
The Senate is currently split 50-50 among Republicans and Democrats, who have the lead only because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
Pennsylvania is considered a battleground state on the national stage with Sen. Pat Toomey retiring this year, and the election here could have major implications for national policy.
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