What to know about the Republican Senate race in Pennsylvania For the state's open U.S. Senate seat, the two top Republican contenders are David McCormick and Mehmet Oz. And, as in so many GOP races this year, there's another major player — Donald Trump.

Trump's endorsement of Oz reframes the Pennsylvania GOP Senate contest

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Pennsylvania is a key state to watch in this year's midterms. There's an open U.S. Senate seat. And on the Republican side, the top two contenders in a crowded field are a former hedge fund manager, Dave McCormick, and Mehmet Oz, better known as the TV celebrity Dr. Oz. And as in so many places this year, there's another major player in the race - Donald Trump. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Dave McCormick stands on a small stage in front of a giant American flag at a firehouse in Lancaster County. He touts his successful business career, his West Point pedigree and his family's seven generations in the state.


DAVID MCCORMICK: I grew up with a family farm. I baled hay. I trimmed Christmas trees. I was a busboy. I had a paper route. I hunted the first Monday after Thanksgiving. And I played football. And I wrestled in places like Shickshinny and Shikellamy.

GONYEA: More recently, McCormick has lived in Connecticut, where he was CEO of one of the world's largest hedge funds. Prior to that, he worked in the administration of President George W. Bush. For Mehmet Oz, also a first-time candidate, it's an immigrant story. His parents came to the U.S. from Turkey, settling in Ohio. Now he's a celebrity doctor worth millions. This is from his campaign kickoff video.


MEHMET OZ: I attended great universities, raised a family and became a successful surgeon. I invented a heart valve that saves thousands of lives. Then I started TV show to advocate for you taking control of your health.

GONYEA: But Oz's campaign faced immediate criticism - one, that he had, until recently, been a resident of New Jersey. And there were controversies from his time on TV, including that he dispensed questionable medical advice to his audience. Now to Trump's role - both Oz and McCormick have been lobbying hard for his endorsement, and each seemed to have a chance until Trump ended the suspense at a recent rally.


DONALD TRUMP: By the way, I endorsed another person today - Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania.


TRUMP: Dr. Oz.

GONYEA: Trump's statement makes it clear that Oz's celebrity was a big factor in his choice.


TRUMP: Tremendous, tremendous career - and I liked him for a long time. That's like a poll. You know, when you're in television for 18 years, that's like a poll.

GONYEA: The McCormick campaign responded quickly, launching TV spots designed to blunt the Trump endorsement. One features clips of Oz praising liberal figures like Hillary Clinton. Another one, in 30 seconds, features 15 separate instances where Oz praises and encourages the use of masks. In a GOP primary, that is an attack ad.


OZ: Wearing a mask is one of the best ways to stay safe.

Everyone should be wearing a mask.

I don't understand what the argument is about masks.

They don't take our freedoms. They give us freedom.

GONYEA: Professor Berwood Yost of Franklin & Marshall College says Oz does have very high name recognition - something candidates crave - but he also has very high unfavorability scores in polls.

BERWOOD YOST: I think Oz's larger problem is that he's not well-liked among Republicans, and that's why I think President Trump's endorsement of Oz is a bit risky.

GONYEA: There are other candidates to note - political commentator Kathy Barnette, businessman Jeff Bartos and former Trump ambassador Carla Sands. And polls show that the Senate primary also has a very high percentage of voters still undecided. The question is whether the Trump endorsement will have an effect on those who've not yet made up their mind. At the McCormick rally at that firehouse, 71-year-old Bob Rapp says he's still trying to make up his mind. But he does say it won't be Oz. Rapp is a big Trump supporter, but he's not looking for Trump's guidance on this.

BOB RAPP: You don't agree with your leaders 100% of the time, but he wasn't afraid to lead.

GONYEA: Could his endorsement sway you in this Senate race?


GONYEA: That's a flat...


GONYEA: ...No.

But Gina Sanguinetti, who works in health care, tells me she will give Oz a new look because of Trump, even though she's not sure Oz is strong enough in opposing abortion. She says she's seeking out all the information she can get.

GINA SANGUINETTI: I'm just going to pay attention to everything right now, but I put a heavy weight on what Donald Trump has to say.

GONYEA: Still, she's undecided and likes what she heard from McCormick. Pennsylvania has a big Senate race. Polls there do indicate that Republicans have an edge this year in terms of enthusiasm. That could give a boost to the eventual GOP nominee in the general election. But first, there's an unpredictable primary scheduled for May 17. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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