In Pennsylvania’s shadow Republican primary to score a Donald Trump endorsement, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz has the support of the ultimate insider: former first lady Melania Trump, according to sources familiar with her views on the race.
“The first lady has let the president know that she likes Dr. Oz. And that matters,” said a top Republican familiar with the conversation inside Trump’s orbit at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach.
“But this isn’t just about what Melania wants,” said the source, who is neutral in the race and was not authorized to speak publicly. “There are a lot of Melanias out there. There are a lot of women, in whose living room and bedroom TVs Dr. Oz has been for a decade. They have a very personal relationship with Dr. Oz.”
While Melania Trump is perhaps Oz’s most-influential backer in the primary, he can boast of a second: Fox personality Sean Hannity, who frequently speaks to the former president. Hannity recently endorsed Oz on his radio show and has often featured him on both his radio and TV shows, giving him valuable free media exposure.
Oz’s main opponent in the Senate primary, former hedge fund executive David McCormick, has a bevy of Trump advisers and influential figures working in his campaign and super PAC, starting with his wife, Dina Powell, who served as a deputy national security adviser to the former president. Trump adviser and 2016 campaign manager Kellyanne Conway serves on McCormick’s super PAC along with former campaign operative Andy Surabian. Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and former White House adviser Tony Sayegh also back McCormick.
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Friday. In the past, his aides have declined to comment on private conversations and the former president’s endorsement preferences.
Trump recently said that he plans to endorse in the Pennsylvania Senate race, which is one of the most competitive GOP primaries in the nation. Trump had previously endorsed military veteran Sean Parnell, but the Republican dropped out of the race after losing a custody battle against his ex wife who accused him of domestic battery.
McCormick landed Parnell’s endorsement and campaigned with him this week near Pittsburgh.
The May primary is crowded with other candidates, including Carla Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark, but polls have shown a tight race brewing between McCormick and Oz. A Fox News survey last week showed McCormick in first place, at 24 percent among primary voters, with Oz in second place at 15 percent.
In a sign of how combative the race between them has become, Oz — who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Turkey — this week announced he would give up Turkish citizenship if elected. McCormick and his allies had hammered Oz on that front, suggesting it would limit his access to U.S. intelligence on foreign countries.
Oz also has faced attacks for positions that he advanced in the past — including more liberal stances on gun control and abortion rights — but that run counter to the conservative orthodoxy required of a GOP Senate candidate today.
One ad from the pro-McCormick super PAC Honor Pennsylvania brands Oz as a RINO, or Republican In Name Only, while recapping previous comments on guns, abortion and transgender children and showing footage of him dancing in 2013 with another first lady, Michelle Obama.
A second Republican source familiar with Melania Trump’s support for Oz said the deluge of opposition research has left a mark on Oz.
“But don’t underestimate the influence of the first lady,” the source, who frequently speaks with Trump, said. “She normally doesn’t weigh in, but she has here. And that matters.”
Oz’s long-running daytime talk show career — launched by Oprah Winfrey and built around his medical expertise — made him a household name. He became friendly with Trump, who discussed the results of his much-scrutinized physical on “The Dr. Oz Show” in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign.
And when Oz entered politics on his own late last year, he was aided by an expanded Fox News profile cultivated through appearances on Hannity’s program during the pandemic.
Critics have panned Oz, though, for promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, as a Covid treatment. Trump also embraced the drug, which other medical experts had flagged for rare but potentially fatal side effects and which subsequent studies found did not effectively treat Covid.
Production on Oz’s syndicated show ended this year, and TV stations in Pennsylvania already had begun pulling it from their programming lineups to conform with federal equal time rules after he announced his candidacy in November.
“I know this is not a pep rally,” Oz said last month at an event in suburban Philadelphia, according to The Associated Press. “It really is for you to understand who I am, which is exactly what I want. I want skeptical people kicking the tires. ‘Is this guy legit? Does he represent my values? Yeah, I know him from television, but what is he really about?’”