The not-so-wonderful land of Oz
Dr. Oz’s Trump-backed campaign for Pennsylvania Senate has been riddled with GOP infighting, questions of geography, and self-owns on Twitter.
In a sense, Dr. Oz is a quintessential American success story: a first-generation son of immigrants who played college football at Harvard, went on to become a doctor and get his MBA, and parlayed his successful career as a renowned heart surgeon into a media empire worth millions.
If his story were to end there, Dr. Mehmet Cengiz Öz would likely go down in history as a shining star in the exclusive constellation of celebrities whose fame came from laying a serious professional groundwork and then using it to achieve televised notoriety and wealth. (See also: Jerry Springer, Judge Judy.) But with the Venn diagram of “celebrity” and “politician” a near-perfect circle at this point, rather than enjoying his immense wealth without bothering the rest of us, Oz did what any self-respecting TV millionaire does these days: He ran for office.
In doing so, he has joined an exclusive list of Donald Trump-backed celebrity candidates; other members of the club include J.D. Vance and Herschel Walker, two other notables who’ve parlayed their associations with Trump into a nascent career in politics. Yet since announcing his candidacy in late 2021 to replace outgoing Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, Oz’s campaign has been dogged by embarrassing missteps, GOP infighting, and a persistent geographical discrepancy between the state where he seemingly lives (New Jersey) and the one he’d like to represent (Pennsylvania).
It’s that last issue that has become a major part of Democratic rival John Fetterman’s blistering line of attacks — largely on Twitter — that frame Oz as a carpetbagger who should stick to his New Jersey homestead rather than dip his toes into the bruising world of Pennsylvania politics. (Mic reached out to Oz’s campaign for comment on his residency controversy but did not receive a response.)
Oz, meanwhile, has devoted much of his energy to criticizing Fetterman’s recent absence from the campaign trail. Fetterman has been recovering after he experienced a stroke earlier this spring, caused by a chronic heart condition — the sort of thing you might expect a world-class cardiologist like Oz to understand, and maybe even have some sympathy for. Oz, after all, established his public persona as a brilliant heart surgeon offering health tips via appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s long-running daytime show, and eventually parlayed that notoriety into his own The Dr. Oz Show. (Mic reached out to Oz’s campaign for comment on his criticism of Fetterman and did not receive a response. Winfrey hasn’t said much about Oz’s run, but did give this statement to New York magazine last year: “One of the great things about our democracy is that every citizen can decide to run for public office. Mehmet Oz has made that decision. And now it’s up to the residents of Pennsylvania to decide who will represent them.”)
Yet those same medical bona fides that made Oz a household name also lay at the heart of some of his most exploitable weaknesses. Oz has long been accused of elevating and platforming dubious medical practices outside his areas of expertise, as well as casting doubt on established medical science. In 2015, a group of fellow physicians issued a public letter to Columbia University’s Dean of Health Sciences and Medicine, expressing shock and concern over his continued affiliation and employment with the school.
“Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgements about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both,” the group wrote. “Whatever the nature of his pathology, members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable.” (Mic reached out to Oz’s campaign for comment on allegations that he’s pushed dubious science and did not receive a response.)
The Trump factor
This Senate run isn’t Oz’s first dalliance with politics. He previously offered his celebrity largesse to fellow niche-celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach during the latter’s ill-fated congressional run, and he previously helped fill the coffers of former Republican Sens. John McCain and Bill Frist. And while he mused about a potential run himself as far back as 2007, Oz’s current push for the Senate — and in a particularly Trumpian mold — seems at least partially animated by the same sort of bad faith attacks on President Biden that the former president himself relies on.
Here it’s worth noting as well that while Oz, in 2008, described himself as a moderate “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” his recent association with Trump has indelibly marked his current candidacy. In 2016, Oz helped launder concerns about then-candidate Trump’s health to his daytime TV audience, relying on secondhand data provided to him by Trump himself. Two years later, he joined Trump’s Presidential Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, alongside fellow political neophyte Herschel Walker, who is currently using his celebrity status to fuel his own Republican Senate run in Georgia.
Indeed, Oz’s Trump connections very well may have helped tip the scales in his favor during the bruising GOP Senate primary in Pennsylvania this spring. In May, Oz narrowly defeated hedge fund manager Dave McCormick, despite McCormick’s vast political experience (he worked in the second Bush White House) and his campaign staff’s (and wife’s) ties to the Trump administration. Oz, meanwhile, simply enjoyed the personal favor of Melania Trump, as well as a personal relationship with the former president, who leaned heavily on that friendship in his ultimate endorsement for Oz.
“I have known Dr. Oz for many years, as have many others, even if only through his very successful television show,” Trump said when he finally threw his weight behind Oz in early April. “He has lived with us through the screen and has always been popular, respected, and smart.” He added: “He even said that I was in extraordinary health, which made me like him even more (although he also said I should lose a couple of pounds!)”
Like Trump, Oz has framed himself as a champion for the everyman, despite his personal wealth and success. But unlike Trump, Oz’s efforts to hone that image have been cringingly transparent, and largely landed flat. They include a bizarre, clearly staged grocery trip meant to peg high food prices to Biden, and an animated ad that attempts to score points by claiming Fetterman’s head is literally full of money and cannabis, which is, apparently, a bad thing.
The Turkey factor
Should Oz win in November, he would become the first Muslim person to serve in the history of the United States Senate — a significant and commendable achievement. However, in a conservative ecosystem dominated by white men, Oz’s faith — and more pointedly, his ethnicity — has been the subject of attacks. Oz is a citizen of Turkey, and he maintained that status by serving in the Turkish army in the 1980s. He’s said he keeps his Turkish citizenship to be able to legally make decisions for his mother, who still lives in the country and has Alzheimer’s disease. But during the primary race, McCormick unleashed a not-so-subtly xenophobic attack on Oz, implying that his dual citizenship was one of the many features that made Oz fundamentally untrustworthy.
While there have been dual-citizen lawmakers before, like Ted Cruz, an exact count of how many have served is unclear as there’s no official requirement for lawmakers to declare dual citizenship. Still, McCormick’s hits on Oz read like a conservative Republican hoping to score points against his opponent by saying he’s a Muslim man from the Middle East. Eventually, after initially saying he’d be willing forego certain security clearances as a senator in order to maintain his Turkish citizenship, Oz backtracked and promised to become a sole U.S. citizen if elected.
But Oz’s ties to Turkey are still causing problems for his campaign, with a report from The Daily Beast in late July alleging that a New Jersey apartment Oz owns is currently occupied by friends who were associated with hardline Turkish nationalist movements and Armenian genocide denial. Asked whether Oz condemned the Turkish government’s murder of nearly 1 million Armenian residents during World War I, an Oz campaign spokesman told NBC News that “Dr. Mehmet Oz opposes genocide and the murder of innocent people in all forms. The evils of World War I should be commemorated. Dr. Oz looks forward to those important discussions, as well as helping the 3 million people of Armenia today.”
The policy factor
On the policy front, Oz has staked out a number of standard conservative positions. That’s to be expected for a Republican Senate candidate — except those positions are notably at odds with things Oz said publicly before he was running for office.
In addition to flipping from once supporting the Affordable Care Act to now claiming he “would not have voted for Obamacare,” he also said he was “okay” with the overturn of Roe v. Wade after saying in 2019 it would be a “big-time concern” if the Supreme Court struck down the ruling. He’s additionally reportedly thrown his support behind children’s author J.K. Rowling, who continues to make headlines with transphobic remarks. Oz has also disavowed a series of columns published under his name prior to his campaign that argued for stricter gun control in the United States, claiming they were written primarily by his business partner Dr. Michael Roizen, with whom he’d shared the byline. And despite having once condemned the public health risks associated with fracking, he has since come out in favor of the dangerous extraction process.
With the November election still a few months away, Dr. Oz might yet manage to convince enough Pennsylvania voters that he is not only a resident of their state, but that he can represent their interests in the Senate. But he has consistently polled well behind Fetterman, even despite the latter’s months-long absence from the campaign trail during his recovery. And last week, perhaps the most damning information of all emerged: Trump, who is loath to admit when he’s wrong or has failed, reportedly thinks his chosen candidate is going to “fucking lose.”