In Pennsylvania, Dave McCormick Takes on 'the Most Inconsequential Senator'

David McCormick (Hachette Book Group)
November 13, 2023

Friday, Oct. 27, was a picture-perfect fall day in Squirrel Hill, Pa. Over a thousand mourners gathered in Schenley Park to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue that rocked this community. It also offered a terrifying portent of the outbreak of anti-Semitic vitriol Jews in Pennsylvania and across the country have faced in the wake of Hamas's terrorist massacre in Israel.

Several of the state's lawmakers and dignitaries were present: Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro (D.), whose Jewish heritage was a theme of his campaign, stood on the sidelines. Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman (D.), transformed in recent weeks into an ardent Zionist, was a hulking, hooded presence at the rear. And Pennsylvania's aspiring junior senator, Dave McCormick, sat in the third row alongside Lou Weiss, a member of Tree of Life and father of journalist Bari Weiss.

After the tear-drenched ceremony, McCormick approached Fetterman. The two shook hands. "I just want you to know that it might get a little spicy in the next year, but it's never personal," Fetterman told him. (The senator, who suffered a stroke during his contested 2022 campaign and had auditory processing difficulties, now speaks with fluency.)

Fetterman was referring to McCormick's race against Pennsylvania's senior senator, Bob Casey (D.), who is running for a fourth term in 2024. He wasn't at the Tree of Life memorial—a spokeswoman said he spoke directly with the congregation's rabbi earlier in the week—and his low profile is emerging as a central theme of McCormick's campaign.

"In the state that's the most consequential state in the country, the state that will decide the presidency, the state where the country was born, the state that's the fifth largest economy in the country, you have the most inconsequential senator in Bob Casey," McCormick told Republicans in Punxsutawney, a GOP stronghold, the previous day.

"This is a guy who is, I am sure, a nice person, he's been in public for almost 30 years, he's been in the Senate 17 years, not a single piece of major legislation. There's not a single piece of major legislation—there's not a single thing that Bob Casey can point to that says, 'This changed your lives in Pennsylvania.' Not a single one."

In three Senate races, Casey, who has a vaunted name in the state thanks to his father's two-term governorship, has never had a competitive race. McCormick hopes to give him one. Casey creamed Rick Santorum in 2006, walloped Tom Smith in 2012, and smooshed Lou Barletta in 2018.

Republicans argue that beyond Casey's name, he is softly defined and more vulnerable than he seems.

"His father was great. I just haven't seen him do anything and it really perpetuated that feeling that we have out here. That's why this area went for Trump, you know, he spoke to that part of it. That really resonated," said Jeffrey Grube, 69, the president of a family-owned manufacturing company based in Punxsutawney. Grube said he had reached out to Casey—including in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis—and received perfunctory form letters in response. "I just want to be heard."

McCormick's entry into the race was a boon for Republicans because, in a year when Democrats have to defend Senate seats in three states that voted for Trump in 2020—Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia, now an open seat with Sen. Joe Manchin bowing out of a reelection bid—McCormick is, in the words of the political consulting class, "spreading the map" by forcing Democrats to defend another costly seat, this one in a purple state, and expend scarce resources in a year when they have almost no opportunity to go on offense.

The Democrats are worried about McCormick. Before he had even announced his campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had spent tens of thousands of dollars on an aggressive opposition researcher who turned heads by presenting herself as a journalist.

Because Casey's races haven't been competitive, they have also been cheap, never costing more than $23 million combined between his campaign and allied outside groups.

This one will be different, forcing Democrats at the national level to triage. Democratic spending and that of Democrat-aligned groups for Fetterman last year was a gob-smacking $197 million.

But Fetterman had an advantage that is likely to elude Casey: the embrace and enthusiasm of small-dollar donors. He raised $75 million in so-called hard dollars for last year's race, more than any Republican in the country and more than any Democrat except Georgia's Raphael Warnock, Arizona's Mark Kelly, and Val Demings, who challenged Florida's Marco Rubio. Casey raised just $4 million last quarter.

McCormick is ginning up what may be one of the most well-funded Senate campaigns the GOP has ever seen. His allies have launched a super PAC on his behalf, Keystone Renewal, that has already received a massive influx of cash from the man emerging as the GOP's largest donor, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin. Sources close to Griffin say the hedge fund titan who put $9 million behind McCormick in his failed bid last cycle will spend even more this time out.

The deep relationships that McCormick and his wife, Dina Powell McCormick, a Trump administration alumna and consummate networker, have among GOP donors will grease the skids for a massive cash haul. Casey will be dependent on the largesse of Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D., N.Y.) Senate Majority PAC.

McCormick's candidacy is also a test case for what is possible for a mainstream Republican running unfettered by a divisive primary in a crucial swing state. He ran in a bruising 2022 primary against the celebrity neurosurgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, but, according to GOP pollsters, while Oz's favorability took a beating, McCormick emerged relatively unknown—a fact he is making light of on the campaign trail as he works to introduce himself to voters.

"Dina and I talked to the political people and they said, 'You don't have any name ID and there's this guy Dr. Oz.' And I was like, 'Dr. Oz? He's not gonna sell in Pennsylvania, I think I can do this,'" McCormick told voters in Plumville, Pa. (pop. 256).

"And Dina took me aside and said, 'Honey, people think McCormick is a spice, you are not going to sell in this state.'" McCormick lost by 838 votes only for the Trump-endorsed Oz to get shellacked by Fetterman, still very much recovering from a stroke, in the general election.

Oz was accused of being an out-of-touch carpetbagger: He lived in New Jersey, but his wife's family owned a farm in Pennsylvania, and he is now best known for his love of crudités.

Democrats are trying to paint McCormick, who served in the first Iraq War in the 82nd Airborne Division and in the George W. Bush administration, as the same sort of guy.

McCormick, the former Bridgewater CEO, is obviously rich, and he raised his children in Connecticut, where Bridgewater is based. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party greeted his entry into the race by sliming him in a press release as "a Wall Street Mega-Millionaire Who is Lying About Living in Pennsylvania." Mainstream media coverage has not been far off.

This year, Democrats may have more difficulty running the same playbook.

When I was with him, McCormick had his parents, Jim and Maryan McCormick, tagging along on the campaign trail. The pair met in Punxsutawney, Pa., where his father was a high-school teacher and his mother was a student, and McCormick graduated from Bloomsburg High School before heading off to West Point. Maryan, who lives with her husband in Harrisburg now, burst into tears when I asked her whether she was proud of her son. It's a little more plausible than Oz's tenuous connection to the state.

McCormick is a happy warrior, and watching him campaign—"I am the luckiest guy in the world, and we have had all the opportunity America has to offer," the former Bridgewater CEO says of himself and his wife—one wonders whether he might not offer an off ramp for a GOP that has for the past decade been defined by righteous anger and vituperation, which reaps rewards in contentious primary battles but not necessarily in a general election, as Pennsylvania's losing gubernatorial candidate, Republican Doug Mastriano, learned the hard way last year.

"What is a virtue in a primary is not necessarily a virtue in a general," says Jason Thielman, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

McCormick's genteel bearing is likely to appeal to the suburban voters the party has lost in the Trump era, and he is focusing on turning out the vote in deep red areas of the state.

I was with him in Pennsylvania's Jefferson County, which went for Trump by 58 points in 2020, and Indiana County, which went for Trump by 37 points in the same year. And the expectation—or hope, perhaps naïve—is that Trump, after undermining McCormick and endorsing Oz in 2022, will have a vested interest in calibrating his support for McCormick in 2024 in a way that causes no harm to Republican chances in what is likely a must-win state for Trump if he is the GOP nominee.

"In our highly contested contest in 2022 for the U.S. Senate, he lost a primary by just a few hundred votes. A few hundred votes," said Ed McGinnis, the Jefferson County auditor. "And we all remember what a disaster that election year was for Pennsylvania. And everybody in this room knows we could have got—excuse me—we could have obtained those few hundred votes right here in Jefferson County. And now today we are continually being punished by the embarrassment that we have representing us in the United States Senate."