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Subscriber Exclusive Elections 2022

Americans trusted Dr. Oz on health. But will PA voters trust him on politics?

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Dr. Mehmet Oz has always moved through the world at a fast clip. 

It took him less than a decade of life to figure out that he would become a physician like his father; as his story goes, he first chose the vocation at age seven while standing in line for ice cream, and his sister remembers him as a kid practicing with his dad’s plastic syringes by poking them into oranges and trying to draw out the juice. 

After simultaneously earning his medical degree and MBA, he rose as an acclaimed cardiothoracic surgeon, his days spent speed-walking between appointments while downing handfuls of nuts to keep his energy up. 

Next, the telegenic doctor pivoted into entertainment, becoming a regular on Oprah Winfrey's show and launching his Emmy-winning daytime television program on health and wellness. And in his spare time, he wrote more than a dozen books, eight of which landed on the New York Times best-seller list

Jeff Bartos, who lost to Dr. Mehmet Oz in the Republican Senate primary, speaks at a watch party at the Wyndham Garden York hotel on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.
Jeff Bartos, who lost to Dr. Mehmet Oz in the Republican Senate primary, speaks at a watch party at the Wyndham Garden York hotel on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Ty Lohr, York Daily Record

Now as the Republican standard bearer in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, he's attacking the campaign trail with the same verve and efficiency, his supporters say. Though he's new to the political arena, his former primary opponent, Jeff Bartos, said Oz picked it up almost infuriatingly fast. 

“I thought for sure these sort of subtle arts of traveling the state and really getting to know people, that it would take him some time,” said Bartos, who now serves as Oz’s campaign co-chair. “He warmed to it right away. It was quite impressive to watch.”

Oz, 62, has now made more than 200 campaign stops and covered thousands of miles across Pennsylvania, a statistic that has become a sort of bragging right for his team. For them, the Republican's travels are a point of contrast with Democratic nominee, John Fetterman, who stayed off the campaign trail for several months this year while recuperating from a stroke. 

Oz's supporters also say by putting this work in, he’s been able to make up for having moved to Pennsylvania relatively recently, about a year before he announced his candidacy to replace retiring Rep. Sen. Pat Toomey. In that short time, they say, Oz has developed a deep understanding of what Pennsylvanians expect from an elected leader. 

What remains to be seen is whether Oz’s capacity for self-reinvention will propel him to success in politics the way it has in other parts of life — or if it could actually be a liability.

Aformer classmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity
He was a great guy. He really was. I don't know what happened to set him on a path of dubious medical claims and heated political rhetoric.

One of Oz’s former classmates said as a medical student University of Pennsylvania, he was dynamic and interesting, someone everybody wanted to be around. He was elected class president, she said, "an exceptional student in a group of exceptional students." 

“He was a great guy. He really was,” said the former classmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I don't know what happened to set him on a path of dubious medical claims and heated political rhetoric.”

For instance, the person she knew as a meticulous medical student would one day wind up in front of a Senate panel answering for his claim that green coffee bean extract could be a “magic weight-loss cure.” He would tell his TV audience that raspberry ketones might be a “miracle in a bottle” for people who want to shed pounds. And most recently, he aligned himself with former President Donald Trump, became a Fox News talking head and embraced aspects of the MAGA movement. 

So despite being dubbed “America’s doctor” by Oprah and trusted by millions for his medical advice, the physician is now coming across to Pennsylvania voters as a phony, says Democratic strategist Joe Corrigan. 

Dr. Mehmet Oz makes campaign stop in Wesleyville American Legion in support of veterans
A.J. Rao, Erie Times-News

Oz at various times in the race has had work to convince people he's a Republican, an everyday person or even a Pennsylvanian. 

His campaign insists that Oz hasn't vacillated in his character or beliefs over the years.

"Dr. Oz has been the same person his entire life: a world-renowned heart surgeon who fixes things and tells people the truth," Rachel Tripp, a campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement. "Most people, when they are laid out on the operating table, don't ask their doctor what their politics are — they want to know that they can do the job."

Joe Corrigan, Democratic strategist
No one actually knows what [Oz] believes. There’s a lot of skepticism about anything that comes out of the guy’s mouth.

However, a recent CBS News survey in the commonwealth showed 71% of the respondents thought Oz was just saying what voters wanted to hear rather than what he truly believes. By comparison, only 43% of the respondents thought Fetterman speaks inauthentically, according to the CBS News/YouGov survey.   

“No one actually knows what [Oz] believes,” Corrigan said, adding that Oz’s scientifically dubious medical advice also creates a credibility problem for him. “There’s a lot of skepticism about anything that comes out of the guy’s mouth.”

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Seeds of Dr. Oz's political ambition

Seeds of Dr. Oz's political ambition

Lisa Oz has described her husband as someone never content to settle into a routine, with a fierce ambition that drives him from one achievement to the next. In a personality typing tool called the Enneagram, she classifies her husband as a “three,” a person she said is driven hunger for success and a fear of failure. 

"A three is very ambitious. Very, very, very ambitious," she said in an interview promoting her self-help book. "Threes just charge forward and conquer the world."

Lisa Oz and Dr. Mehmet Oz in their Cliffside Park home.
Lisa Oz and Dr. Mehmet Oz in their Cliffside Park home. Anne-Marie Caruso/NorthJersey.com

She and her husband joke that theirs was “sort of an arranged marriage,” with the couple initially meeting at a restaurant where their physician fathers were dining together. After less than a year of dating, Oz chased Lisa down the sidewalk as she was storming off during an argument and proposed to her, picking up a soda tab from the ground to present as a makeshift engagement ring. 

The two settled into a life together, raising kids as Oz developed his career as a surgeon.  

Path to the Senate:Here are five ways Dr. Oz can win

Dr. Mauricio Garrido, who was under Oz’s mentorship from 2005 to 2006, said the physician was a person with a “boundless amount of energy,” remembering he used to send Oz draft papers at night and wake up in the morning to find they’d been edited between 2 and 3 a.m. 

Oz was also a health nut, even then, Garrido said. A whole corner of his mentor’s office was devoted to sprouted beans and other healthy snacks he could grab throughout the day, he remembers. And some mornings, Oz would show up to their New York City hospital and casually mention he’d jogged to work across the George Washington Bridge from his home in New Jersey. 

Lisa Oz
[I]t was the perfect solution. He would be able to influence millions of people, helping them take control of their own health, but would also be able to stretch beyond his comfort zone and grow personally.

Traveling through the hospital, Oz “didn’t run, he walked,” Garrido said. “But you felt like you were running after him.”

But despite that apparent vitality, Oz was experiencing a growing feeling of stagnation at his hospital job, Lisa Oz wrote in her book. She says it was an emotion that is “tantamount to death” for Oz — and as a cure, she suggested he start a television show. 

“[I]t was the perfect solution,” she wrote. “He would be able to influence millions of people, helping them take control of their own health, but would also be able to stretch beyond his comfort zone and grow personally.”

The idea developed into "The Dr. Oz Show," a program that ran from 2009 to this year, when he ended it to run for Senate. 

Oz hasn’t spoken much publicly about his political ambitions over the years, but there were hints he might be interested in someday pursuing an elected post.

At various points, the physician has described himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” or as a “moderate Republican." 

He made sizable donations to John McCain’s presidential campaign and to former Republican Sen. Bill Frist, a physician from Tennessee, but he has also contributed to a couple of Democrats. He supported his local Republican party in New Jersey and GOP state lawmaker Jay Webber. 

Michael DuHaime, a Republican political consultant in New Jersey, said Oz orbited on the outskirts of state politics but was by no means a central character. 

Dr. Mehmet Oz on the set of the Dr. Oz Show in New York.
Dr. Mehmet Oz on the set of the Dr. Oz Show in New York. Rhyne Piggott, USAT

“He donated a little bit, which is in and of itself somewhat unique for the celebrity types. That’s more involvement than most,” DuHaime said. “But it wasn’t like he was … meeting with people and talking about running.”

An interviewer in 2008 asked Oz if he’d ever thought about trying for elected office, and he responded that he might eventually be interested. 

“I think I have a lot of work to do to help us in the Western World realize that the only true salvation to our health care system is for us as individuals to take charge of our well-being,” he said in the National Review of Medicine piece. “Once I’m done that, we’ll see. I think politics might be the next option.”

PA campaign finance:Dr. Oz pumps another $2.2 million into campaign as Fetterman thrives on small donations

Oz makes a political turn toward Trump

Oz makes a political turn toward Trump

A former producer at "The Dr. Oz Show" says she was aware of his conservative leanings but that his politics largely stayed in the background of their work. 

The producer, who was granted anonymity because she worries speaking publicly could damage her career, said the majority of the show’s staff was liberal — and despite any potential differences in worldview, Oz didn’t shut down their perspectives.

It wasn’t an easy job, she said. The program and Oz in particular faced criticism for pitching certain supplements as possible miracles for weight loss. The British Medical Journal in 2014 released a study that reviewed dozens of Oz’s recommendations and found more than half of them either couldn’t be substantiated by the evidence or were completely wrong

Then-GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump releases medical records for the first time to Dr. Mehmet Oz on "The Dr. Oz Show" on Sept. 14, 2016.
Then-GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump releases medical records for the first time to Dr. Mehmet Oz on "The Dr. Oz Show" on Sept. 14, 2016. Sony Pictures Television

About Mehmet Oz

Background: Born in Cleveland to Turkish immigrants, Oz was raised in Delaware and followed in his father's footsteps to become a surgeon. He lived with his wife, Lisa, in New Jersey for about 30 years before moving to Bryn Athyn in late 2020. 

Experience: After working for years as a cardiothoracic surgeon, Oz in 2009 launched "The Dr. Oz Show," an Emmy-winning daytime TV talk show focused on health and wellness. He has four children and four grandchildren.

Education: Oz earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University before simultaneously completing medical school and attaining an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Still, the former Oz producer said she felt good about the show's underlying mission of raising awareness about health and wellness.

Then came Donald Trump’s guest appearance in 2016

At the time, Trump was running for his first term as president and had been facing questions about his health and medical history. 

During the show, the physician performed an onstage “review of systems” with the candidate to assess his health on the fly. After that, Trump produced what he said was a report from a medical checkup he’d had a few days earlier. 

“If a patient of mine had these records, I’d be really happy,” Oz said after leafing through the document. “And I’d send them on their way.”

The former Oz show producer said she was horrified by the interview. She was used to Oz being meticulous about accuracy and asking thoughtful questions to prepare for each show. But when he spoke with Trump, he seemed to accept whatever the future president said, even though the producer thought the height and weight on the medical report were clearly suspect. 

That show gave her the first inkling that Oz might have political ambitions, she said.

Previous actions make voters question the doctor's authenticity

Previous actions make voters question the doctor's authenticity

During the primary, Oz took pains to stake out positions as a social conservative, a label he once said didn’t apply to him. 

“I don’t believe that we should be intruding into the private lives of homosexuals, and we should not be creating obstacles during the difficult time that women have when trying to terminate a pregnancy,” he said in the 2008 interview. 

On the other hand, speaking to a group of supporters in May, Oz called abortion at any phase of pregnancy “murder,” according to a recording that surfaced recently. He identifies as “100% pro-life” and says abortion should only be allowed for cases of rape or incest or if the pregnant woman’s life is at risk. 

Mehmet Oz in a 2008 interview
I don’t believe that we should be intruding into the private lives of homosexuals, and we should not be creating obstacles during the difficult time that women have when trying to terminate a pregnancy.

For subscribers:Dr. Oz says he's '100% pro-life,' but past research could upset his anti-abortion voters

LGBTQ advocates once praised the physician for inviting transgender children onto his talk show and setting higher standards for televised conversations about gender identity. But as the primary race started, so did his complaints about the “woke mob” allowing “biological males to compete against females” in sports. 

And he made the most of his broad exposure to right-wing audiences during the pandemic, when he often appeared on Fox News to dispense coronavirus advice

Citing the criticism he’s drawn for some of his more dubious assertions, Oz has been telling voters he was the victim of so-called cancel culture and that the establishment tried to muzzle him for his views on the pandemic.

But he’s still faced attacks from those on the right who view him as a RINO, or “Republican in name only,” based on everything from his association with Oprah to his support for vaccines and his Turkish citizenship (which he’s pledged to renounce if elected). 

The doubts lingered despite Oz’s endorsement from Trump.

Kathy Barnette, former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, arrives at her primary night election gathering, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Elizabethtown.
Kathy Barnette, former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, arrives at her primary night election gathering, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Elizabethtown. Matt Slocum / AP

GOP primary candidate Kathy Barnette, not Oz, became known as the ultra-MAGA candidate in the race. And Oz barely squeaked past opponent David McCormick to claim the Republican nomination.

The Trump support was “absolutely essential for [Oz] to get across the line” in the primary, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. 

“But his commitment to lots of positions, I think, remains a bit unclear,” Borick said.

Oz's stance on abortion policy are still vague; he recently hedged when asked if he'd support Republican efforts to enact a federal ban on the procedure after 15 weeks, reiterating his "pro-life" beliefs while also arguing the federal government should not interfere with state decisions on abortion.

And other challenges to Oz’s authenticity have also continued into the general election, both from within his party and from Fetterman, who’s tried to depict him as a wealthy, out-of-touch carpetbagger. 

Dr. Mehmet Oz in a campaign TikTok.
Dr. Mehmet Oz in a campaign TikTok. Twitter

Oz and his wife moved into Pennsylvania, renting a Bryn Athyn home that her parents own, about a year before he announced his candidacy, his campaign has said. But Oz had spent about three decades living in New Jersey before that, and Fetterman has characterized the physician as all-but-clueless about what it means to be Pennsylvanian.

In the prepared statement, Tripp said Fetterman is the one who's out of touch, noting that the Democrat was taken to court for unpaid taxes and received financial support from his parents well into adulthood.

"Dr. Oz knows what it means to work hard for a living and the importance of fighting for the hard-working families of our Commonwealth — something John Fetterman could never understand," she said.

But a couple online snafus have only highlighted questions about Oz's authenticity, among them, a now-infamous campaign video in which the candidate said he was shopping for vegetables to make “crudités.” He was widely mocked for using the fancy French term for a veggie platter — and gave Fetterman additional fodder to attack him as an elitist. 

“In PA we call this … a veggie tray,” Fetterman tweeted in response.

Senate social media wars:Dr. Oz wanted some cheap crudité, but got more than he bargained for

Oz continues the 'Dose of Reality' tour

Oz continues the 'Dose of Reality' tour

With polls consistently putting Oz behind Fetterman, even Trump has privately predicted his candidate of choice would lose the race unless something changes, the Rolling Stone has reported. And Politico has reported the National Republican Senatorial Committee was also unhappy with Oz’s campaign performance over the summer. 

Stacy Garrity, Pennsylvania’s treasurer
Anybody that talks to him, even people that said to me, ‘Stacy, I would never, ever vote for Dr. Oz,’ the minute they had a conversation with him, they came away basically changed.

Yet, as Oz continues his "Dose of Reality" tour to meet with voters across the state, GOP supporters say his momentum is building. Some recent polls suggest the race is tightening, and Fetterman's team has warned major donors that the Republicans are outspending them as the campaign enters its final weeks.

In-person events are where Oz shines, says Vince Galko, a Republican strategist from Pennsylvania, adding that he was impressed when watching the candidate interact with voters.

“He just took his time, whether he was stopped by someone in a hallway and would talk to them or something in groups, he's very prepared,” Galko said. “He’s very good one-on-one.”

Garrido said Oz's ability to connect with people is nothing new — he even witnessed it in the operating room.  

He still remembers Oz entering a room one day where everyone was scrambling to prepare for surgery on a woman who was in poor condition and had just been airlifted to the hospital. While everyone else was rushing around, Oz walked over to the woman, introduced himself and told her they would take good care of her.

“You could tell from the lady, even though she was in distress, her eyes calmed down a bit,” Garrido said. “That simple action gave everybody a little bit of pause.”

Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is running for U.S. Senate, held a campaign stop in February in Neshannock Township, Lawrence County.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is running for U.S. Senate, held a campaign stop in February in Neshannock Township, Lawrence County. Sally Maxson/For BCT

Stacy Garrity, Pennsylvania’s treasurer and an Oz supporter, said she helped lead a veteran’s roundtable where Oz made participants feel so at ease that one woman opened up about how she'd lost her father to suicide because of his PTSD. Oz walked over and embraced her as others in the room wept, she said.

“Anybody that talks to him, even people that said to me, ‘Stacy, I would never, ever vote for Dr. Oz,’ the minute they had a conversation with him, they came away basically changed,” she said.

But for Oz's critics, his efforts to campaign as a caregiver — even taking the blood pressure of crowd members at his events — ring hollow. The GOP candidate's team has at times spoken derisively about Fetterman's stroke, with a spokeswoman at one point saying that if the Democrat had "ever eaten a vegetable in his life" he might've avoided the medical incident.

"Can you even imagine if you had a doctor that was mocking your illness?" Fetterman has asked his supporters.

Bartos, who was in the news recently after his wife co-hosted a fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, said Oz has been forced to highlight Fetterman's medical issues, contending that the media has written more about the candidates' social media trolling than about the Democrat's health problems. To his eye, though, Oz hasn't gotten frustrated by that or much of anything else on the campaign trail and has kept moving forward despite any setback.

In the primary, Bartos said he expected to "out-hustle everybody" to gain an edge over his competitors. The only problem was, he could never seem to outpace Oz.

"I kept turning around," Bartos said, "And there [Oz] was."

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