HARRISBURG, Pa. – Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon best known as the host of TV’s "Dr. Oz Show" after rocketing to fame on Oprah Winfrey's show, announced Tuesday that he is running for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat as a Republican.
Oz, 61, will bring his unrivaled name recognition and wealth to a wide-open race that is expected to be among the nation’s most competitive and could determine control of the Senate in next year's election.
Oz — a longtime New Jersey resident — enters a Republican field that is resetting with an influx of candidates and a new opportunity to appeal to voters loyal to former President Donald Trump, now that the candidate endorsed by Trump has just exited the race.
In a one-minute video message on social media, Oz casts himself as a sort of champion for people's health, who “took on the medical establishment to argue against costly drugs and skyrocketing medical bills” and is prepared to fight a government that he said has mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oz also makes a pitch to Trump loyalists — and possibly Trump, too — by invoking Trump's slogan for his governing philosophy, “America first.”
“As a heart surgeon, I know how precious life is,” Oz says. "Pennsylvania needs a conservative who will put America first, one who can reignite our divine spark, bravely fight for freedom and tell it like it is.”
Oz was planning to put his wealth to work immediately, airing the video on TV screens across Pennsylvania as part of a multi-million dollar ad buy, a campaign aide said.
Oz in recent days has told associates and Republicans in Pennsylvania of his plans and his campaign said he has lived and voted in Pennsylvania since last year.
As one of the nation’s biggest presidential electoral prizes, Pennsylvania put Democrat Joe Biden over the top in last year’s election. His 1 percentage point victory put the swing state back in Democratic hands after Trump won it even more narrowly in 2016.
Oz’s resume is dizzying: heart surgeon, author of New York Times bestsellers, Emmy-winning TV show host, radio talk show host, presidential appointee, founder of a national non-profit to educate teens about healthy habits and self-styled ambassador for wellness.
He was appointed by Trump to the presidential Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, guest-hosted the “Jeopardy!” game show and helped save a dying man at Newark Liberty International Airport last winter.
In his video message, he touts his entrepreneurship, saying he “invented a heart valve that saves thousands of lives.”
If support from Trump is important in the Republican primary, then Oz may have a leg up. As Oz interviewed Trump on his show in 2016, Trump told him, "you know my wife’s a big fan of your show.”
Still, Oz may have to explain why he isn’t running for office in New Jersey, where he has lived for the past two decades before he began voting in Pennsylvania’s elections this year by absentee ballot, registered to his in-laws’ address in suburban Philadelphia.
It is not clear how, legally, Oz claims to live in Pennsylvania to register to vote, and a campaign aide did not immediately explain it.
Oz's longtime house is above the Hudson River in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, overlooking Manhattan, where he films his TV show and practices medicine. Oz became a household name as a guest on Oprah before starting his own show in 2009.
Oz’s appetite to expand his business portfolio is voracious, with critics saying he often promotes questionable products and medical advice.
He has been dogged by accusations that he is a charlatan selling “quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain,” a group of doctors wrote in 2015 in a letter calling for his firing from Columbia University’s medical school. He wasn’t fired.
Oz began making regular appearances on Fox News during the pandemic, and in the spring of 2020 came under fire for comments suggesting that reopening schools might be worth the extra deaths, because it “may only cost us 2% to 3% in terms of total mortality.”
Researchers from the University of Alberta found in 2014 that, of 80 randomly selected recommendations from Oz’s shows, often dietary advice, roughly half was unsupported by evidence, or contradicted by it.
In any case, the Republican primary somewhat opened up with the exit of Sean Parnell, the Trump-endorsed candidate who is close to Trump's oldest son. Parnell ended his campaign after losing a court fight over custody of his three children in which the judge said he believed allegations of abuse by Parnell’s estranged wife.
Oz is part of an influx of Republican candidates who, until recently at least, did not live in Pennsylvania, but, perhaps more importantly, are rich.
As Oz enters the race, a hedge fund CEO who lives in Connecticut, David McCormick, is working his way across Pennsylvania this week meeting with Republican officials in expectation of returning to his native state to run.
The most prominent Republicans already running are conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, real estate investor Jeff Bartos and Carla Sands, Trump’s wealthy ambassador to Denmark and fundraiser who recently returned to her native Pennsylvania after spending most of the past four decades in California.
Of them, none has won elective office, and only Bartos has run statewide in Pennsylvania, as lieutenant governor on the GOP’s losing gubernatorial ticket in 2018.
The Democratic field has been stable since August, featuring candidates with far more electoral experience — although far less personal wealth — than the Republican field. Best-known are John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of suburban Pittsburgh.
Oz was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a heart surgeon who emigrated from Turkey.
He attended a private high school in Delaware and Harvard University as a college undergraduate, also playing football there, and served in the Turkish army to maintain his dual citizenship.
Oz’s wife is also the daughter of a prominent heart surgeon, and the two met in Philadelphia through their fathers when Oz attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.
To serve as a senator, a constitutional qualification is to be an inhabitant of the state when elected.
The Senate previously decided that someone elected to it must have some sort of residence in the state or at least an intention to establish a residence there, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis in 2015.
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/timelywriter.