McCormick’s Second Senate Try Hinges on Fitting a Changed GOP
- Former hedge fund executive needs to reach working-class base
- McCormick is making moves, but wary of a second defeat
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Dave McCormick is doing everything a potential candidate would do if he was going to run for Senate.
The former chief executive of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates is touring Pennsylvania and visiting county party dinners. He’s promoting a book about his biography and policy vision — emphasizing his local roots and military service. He even got a nod this month from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who told Bloomberg News that he’s supporting McCormick for the GOP nomination against Sen. Bob Casey (D) in a key battleground that could help determine control of the chamber.
But as McCormick weighs whether to actually run for a second time, at least two significant obstacles loom: state Sen. Doug Mastriano, and Donald Trump.
Mastriano, a Trump acolyte with a fervent following, has teased an announcement on Facebook Thursday night. If he runs, it would complicate McCormick’s plans. A clash between the two would become a high-stakes test of whether someone with traditional GOP roots can squeeze himself into a party remade by Trump — or if base voters still demand nominees who fit the former president’s mold.
It’s a question that confronted Republicans nationwide last year, when primary voters frequently chose Trump-aligned candidates who went on to lose in battleground states, and is again at the forefront of key races heading into 2024.
Running for Senate in 2022 McCormick dazzled old guard Republicans with his military, government, and business credentials, only for Trump to slam him as a “liberal Wall Street Republican” and “not MAGA.” Primary voters narrowly nominated Trump’s pick, celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz, who lost to Democrat John Fetterman.
“Ten, 15 years ago when you still had a lot of suburban Philadelphia Republicans voting in primaries, Dave McCormick would be your central casting figure. Those people are gone, they’re not in the electorate anymore,” said Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. “They’ve been replaced by lots of working-class Republicans in areas of the Southwest and Northeast (Pennsylvania) who don’t necessarily align with someone like Dave McCormick.”
More than a half-dozen Pennsylvania Republicans who have either spoken directly to McCormick or been briefed on his deliberations said he has expressed concern about how much it could cost to win a primary against Mastriano, and whether it could leave him politically bruised and the GOP base divided. And that’s before what’s likely to be a difficult fight against Casey, a formidable incumbent who has cruised to re-election twice. A second loss in two tries would likely end McCormick’s political ambitions.
Republican insiders largely expect McCormick will run, but several people in touch with him said a decision could wait until late summer, and that he’s being cautious and deliberate. That’s in part, they said, because McCormick was led to believe last year’s primary would be far easier than it turned out in reality.
Spectacular resume, but maybe for a previous era
On the surface, McCormick looks like a clear favorite over a state senator who lost to Democrat Josh Shapiro by 15 percentage points in last year’s gubernatorial race. Mastriano, a former Army colonel with far-right views, raised a paltry sum of money, barely advertised, and made almost no effort to reach beyond his hard-core supporters. Many Republicans blame him for down-ballot losses in key Senate, House and state legislative races.
But the glittering resumé that might make McCormick attractive — West Point, decorated service in the first Gulf War, senior roles in the George W. Bush administration, leading the world’s largest hedge fund and acting as an Aspen Institute trustee — may have suited the Mitt Romney-era GOP, not Trump’s. After dropping more than $14 million of his own money in last year’s primary McCormick doesn’t want to make a similar investment for another second place finish, according to people who have spoken to him and who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
In interviews with more than a dozen Pennsylvania Republican operatives and officials, many, while critical of Mastriano, also fear he could win a primary again, given the party’s direction. He won 44 percent of the Republican vote in a sprawling gubernatorial primary, a sign of his grassroots appeal. No one else got more than 20 percent.
“Dave is a smart person. He would be foolish not to consider what a primary against Doug Mastriano would mean, what does the top of the ticket look like?” said Liz Havey, secretary of the Pennsylvania Republican party, who sees McCormick as the best candidate for a general election. “All of those things have to be factored into his analysis.”
Jim Worthington, a suburban Philadelphia gym owner and Trump ally who supported Oz last year but now praises McCormick, pointed to the Pennsylvania GOP’s brutal 2022 primary. “He certainly doesn’t want to go through that again and neither do I and neither does anybody else who wants to win in 2024,” he said.
A difficult MAGA fit
Others close to McCormick, however, disputed the idea that he’s concerned about Mastriano, saying he’s confident of winning a primary. Defeating Mastriano, some argue, could bolster McCormick’s standing and distance him from the far right.
“I addressed that with him directly and that was not even on his radar,” said Pennsylvania’s Republican national committeeman Andy Reilly. “His radar was about whether the environment next year in Pennsylvania would be such that a candidate like him — which he described as a ‘happy warrior’ — would be right for him.”
Trump will be a major factor in that environment, if he’s the Republican nominee for president.
McCormick tried to appeal to Trump supporters in last year’s campaign. In contrast to his high-altitude career, wealth, and multi-million dollar homes from the Upper East Side to Pittsburgh to Aspen, Colo. his ads presented him as a hay-baling, Harley-riding, pint-drinking “America First” Republican who grew up in rural Pennsylvania wrestling and playing football. (McCormick, his critics noted, had been living in Connecticut for more than a decade before returning to Pennsylvania to run for Senate). He openly sought Trump’s endorsement.
But it was often an awkward fit.
Smiling and cheerful, McCormick criticized “wokeness” but hardly channeled angry populism. He hired a bevy of former Trump aides, but it’s unclear what most did. He ran an ad featuring the “Let’s Go Brandon” chant—code on the right for cursing President Joe Biden—but didn’t appear in or speak in the spot.
More substantively, opponents resurfaced his past comments as a businessman and member of the Bush administration praising free trade, globalization and China’s economic growth. All were mainstream ideas at the time, but have fallen out of favor, especially as Trump has drawn swaths of white, working class voters from communities devastated by economic change — including in key parts of Pennsylvania. Oz blasted Bridgewater’s significant investments in China while McCormick was CEO.
Many Republican leaders in Pennsylvania and Washington, however, see McCormick as their best bet, given his background and ability to fund his own campaign in a big state where TV ads are essential and expensive.
Democrats are relishing a potential clash. Maddy McDaniel, a spokesperson for the Democratic state party, said the GOP will nominate “a candidate who has already been trounced in a general election or one who will emerge badly damaged from a bruising primary.”
A McCormick spokesperson declined to comment and Mastriano’s office didn’t return a message seeking comment.
A lighter touch
Planning for another potential run, McCormick has hired some staff but appears likely to shuffle the army of advisers and consultants who drove his first campaign. People who have seen him recently describe a lighter touch.
“I’ve actually seen him more now than when he ran in the primary last time,” said Havey, the Pennsylvania party secretary. “It’s just him, there’s no big entourage like last time. He comes, he works the crowd, he’s very friendly and approachable.”
McCormick allies argue that Mastriano won’t have the benefit of a fractured field splitting the vote this time, and that Republican voters will think twice after seeing the state senator flop in the general election.
“I think people want to win and we saw that across the country,” Havey said. “There are a lot of Republicans who are looking back on last year’s election and in particular Doug Mastriano’s race for governor and saying, ‘He lost by 15 percent and we can’t make that mistake again.’”
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