HARRISBURG, Pa. – What could be the final primary debate between Republicans running for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat devolved into a string of attacks over China, abortion and more as the candidates stretched Wednesday night for any perceived advantage in a wide-open and expensive race.
In many cases, the five candidates blew off questions during the hour-long debate in favor of repeating talking points and attacking rivals.
Attackers often tried to make hay out of the business ties to China by former hedge fund CEO David McCormick and Mehmet Oz, best known as the heart surgeon-turned-celebrity and host of daytime TV's “The Dr. Oz Show.”
Abortion made one question at the debate, despite headlines being dominated in the wake of a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion suggesting the court’s conservative majority is poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
The candidates called themselves “pro-life” and applauded the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but none responded directly to the sole question on abortion: whether the candidates support any exceptions for abortion and if they have changed their opinion over the years.
Instead, McCormick and conservative activist Kathy Barnette tried to paint Oz as insufficiently loyal to the anti-abortion cause because of comments on a 2019 radio show in which Oz said most people support the standard set in 1973's Roe v. Wade opinion. That standard bans abortion after the fetus is viable outside the womb, around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
In the appearance on “The Breakfast Club” morning show on New York’s WWPR-FM, Oz said he did not want anyone in his family having an abortion and seemed to criticize the idea of banning abortion just because a heartbeat is detected — which usually happens at around six weeks of pregnancy.
He also criticized the broader fight over abortion and suggested that states that do ban abortion will see businesses flee the state.
At the debate, Oz insisted he is pro-life and said “life starts at conception,” a talking point for anti-abortion groups that want to ban abortion of any diagnosed pregnancy.
Barnette has special cachet on the topic: she has told of being the product of rape when her mother was 11 and repeated that story at the debate.
“I was not just a lump of cells,” Barnette said. “As you can see, I’m still not just a lump of cells.”
The primary is May 17, leaving the candidates less than two weeks to distinguish themselves as spending exceeds an eye-popping $60 million in the Republican primary.
The debate was sponsored by the conservative broadcaster Newsmax and held in a packed auditorium at a private Christian school, Grove City College in northwestern Pennsylvania.
Oz is endorsed by Donald Trump and is attending a rally with the former president in western Pennsylvania on Friday.
Meanwhile, McCormick has significant establishment ties going back to his service at the highest ranks of former President George W. Bush's administration.
At other points, Oz and Bartos suggested that McCormick’s former hedge fund is responsible for billions in debt at the state’s largest public pension fund that began piling up two decades ago amid a market downturn and inadequate contributions by the state.
In reality, the hedge fund — while making nearly $700 million in fees going back to 2004 — often met expectations on its investments, according to pension system officials.
Barnette, at another point, called McCormick and Oz “globalists" and tried to tie them to the World Economic Forum — which has been the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Oz told Barnette.
"Globalist” is a derogatory term with an antisemitic origin adopted by Trump and others in his orbit to conjure up an elite, international coterie that doesn’t serve America’s best interests.
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