The title of “Pennsylvanian” may not carry quite the cachet of declarations of fighting socialists or getting tough on China, but it's increasingly the go-to weapon for Republican primary candidates in one of the nation's premier U.S. Senate contests.
A wide-open race for the swing-state seat being vacated by two-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has attracted wealthy and well-connected transplants, and the homers are seizing on it.
Jeff Bartos, a real-estate investor from suburban Philadelphia, derides the transplants as “political tourists" and repeatedly reminds audiences he is a “lifelong Pennsylvanian.”
George Bochetto, a Philadelphia lawyer who has lived in the city for 45 years, suggested that his out-of-state rivals shouldn't bother spending millions to try to convince voters they really are Pennsylvanians.
“They should be honest about it and just flat out say, ‘Look, I haven’t lived in Pennsylvania and I’m not a citizen of Pennsylvania, but I’m coming in because there’s a provision in the Constitution that allows me to do so,’” Bochetto said in an interview. “And that’s fine. But why lie to me?”
And spending millions they are: Carla Sands, Mehmet Oz — the heart surgeon best known as the host of TV’s “The Dr. Oz Show” — and David McCormick are on the air across Pennsylvania, pursuing a Senate seat that is practically out of reach for Republicans in the blue states they are fleeing.
Sands, Oz and McCormick skipped a Wednesday night candidates' forum sponsored by the Lawrence County Republican Party, and that did not go unnoticed.
“I think it’s very interesting that the three carpetbaggers who are in this race, who have galloped into our state saying they’re going to listen to us and work for us and yet they’re not here at all because they don’t care about you,” conservative activist and candidate Kathy Barnette told the crowd.
She predicted that “these very uber-wealthy people are going to phone it in from their penthouses.”
It’s not clear yet whether carpetbaggery will be a pivotal issue, or whether Pennsylvania’s Republican voters — in an increasingly nationalized political environment — care how deeply their elected representatives are tied to the state.
On Saturday, the candidates begin making their multi-week tour of closed-door question-and-answer sessions with regional caucus members of the state Republican Party. The first stop is the party's central caucus.
“Certainly that’s going to be an issue for some people,” said Richard Stewart, a central caucus co-chair. “And we’ll see how big of an issue it is.”
To Bartos, it is.
He has raised it time and again, including on Monday night in a telephone town hall.
“I want to say clearly for all the other people running out there who are just getting to Pennsylvania for the first time, just visiting places for the first time: You cannot save Main Street if you don’t even know how to find it," Bartos — the party’s 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor — said.
While he was raising money for struggling Pennsylvania businesses during the pandemic, his competitors were “living in mansions overlooking Manhattan, on the Gold Coast of Connecticut or in a foreign country,” Bartos told the crowd.
The field is newly open after Sean Parnell, the candidate endorsed by former President Donald Trump, dropped out after losing a custody battle in which his estranged wife, under oath, recounted stories of Parnell's abusive behavior.
Trump has not moved to endorse again.
Sands, 61, a Pennsylvania native, left for California in 1987 — pursuing work as an actress and chiropractor and helping run her late husband's real estate investment firm — before giving generously to Trump's 2016 campaign and drawing a post as ambassador to Denmark.
She sold her homes in Malibu and Bel Air, returned to the U.S. in early 2021 and rented a condo overlooking the Susquehanna River with views of the state Capitol.
Oz, 61, is a longtime resident of Cliffside Park, New Jersey, where his mansion overlooks the Hudson River across from Manhattan, but now says he is renting his in-laws’ home in an affluent Philadelphia suburb.
Oz’s main claims to Pennsylvania are that he grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, not far from Philadelphia, went to medical school in Philadelphia and married a Pennsylvania native.
McCormick, who grew up in Pennsylvania before leaving to attend West Point and serve in the Gulf War, filed candidacy papers Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission. He bought a house in Pittsburgh, where he spent a decade in business before leaving in 2005 to take high-level jobs with the administration of then-President George W. Bush.
Since 2009, he has lived in Connecticut, where he worked for one of the world’s largest hedge funds, Bridgewater Associates. He just resigned as CEO to pursue his campaign.
McCormick, perhaps more than the other two, has played up his Pennsylvania roots, calling himself “Pennsylvania true” on his exploratory campaign website and airing TV ads that describe his boyhood on his family’s Christmas tree farm in Bloomsburg.
There have been growing pains.
Oz, like many candidates for office, toured the Pennsylvania Farm Show in recent days and, in a video posted on social media posing next to a pile of potatoes, proclaimed that “what I've also learned is that Pennsylvanians are very patriotic.”
The primary is barely four months away, May 17.
Bochetto, a lawyer, said he would rather talk about himself and why he is a great candidate, and let his rivals shoot themselves in the foot.
Asked if he thinks they'll turn around and leave Pennsylvania if they lose the primary, Bochetto said, “There is no doubt in my mind. Not a doubt.”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/timelywriter.