(The Center Square) – As Wednesday morning dawned, just a few hundred votes separated the leading candidates in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat from Pennsylvania.
And with it, another possible setback in the toughest referendum yet for former President Donald Trump. His pick in this battleground state of celebrity surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz led former hedge fund manager David McCormick in unofficial returns, with the margin less than 1,500 votes – an edge of 31.38% to 31.26% – with more votes left to count in an unofficial decision that might not be clear for a couple more days.
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Margins of 0.5 percentage points or less require a recount by state law. As Election Day approached, Kathy Barnette had surged in polling but she took a significant step back receiving 24.55% of the vote. In a seven-candidate field, nobody else captured at least 5%.
The seat held by retiring Republican Pat Toomey will be contested in November against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who easily won his Democratic primary on Tuesday.
Earlier Tuesday evening, Trump did gain a key victory in the state when voters chose Doug Mastriano in the Republican governor’s primary. The former Army colonel was leading in the polls when the former president made his endorsement as early voting wound down just days before the primary.
Amid five states with primaries, key races on Trump’s scorecard had a second win in North Carolina (U.S. Senate, Ted Budd) as well as losses in North Carolina (U.S. House, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthown to state Sen. Chuck Edwards) and Idaho (governor, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin to incumbent Gov. Brad Little). Two weeks ago, his endorsement of J.D. Vance for a Senate seat from Ohio boosted him from third in polling to a primary day win.
The outcome in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, has attracted national attention as an indication of whether Trump’s influence still dominates or if Republican candidates can win without his endorsement. The razor-thin margin between Oz and McCormick makes it hard to declare, definitively, Trump’s status in the GOP. While his political judgment may not be the final word, the election does show that a Trump endorsement is no guarantee of electoral success.
“A recount seems almost guaranteed at this point,” Fox 29 political analyst Bruce Gordon said of the Oz-McCormick race.
The late-campaign surge of military veteran Barnette complicated the Senate race. McCormick and Oz spent much of their time attacking each other, giving her a chance to build support. More than 300,000 voters chose Barnette.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands and former lieutenant governor candidate Jeff Bartos combined for more than 130,000 votes, more than enough to take away a clear victory by Oz or McCormick.
National publications have focused on Pennsylvania and the outcome of its Senate race. The New York Times noted “chaos” in the Republican race could upend the midterm elections. Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner said the primary race was unprecedented. And The Wall Street Journal argued the state GOP failed to find “a sober populism.”
Like all statewide contests this year, the state Republican Party declined to endorse any candidate for U.S. Senate. That decision made it easier for the party to avoid a situation where its preferred candidate loses, but it also left space for many candidates to splinter support.