Dr. Oz, Carla Sands, and David McCormick are the three leading candidates in the Republican Senate Primary in Pennsylvania. (Keystone Graphic/Desiree Tapia)
Dr. Oz, Carla Sands, and David McCormick are the three leading candidates in the Republican Senate Primary in Pennsylvania. (Keystone Graphic/Desiree Tapia)

David McCormick sold his Connecticut mansion for $6.5 million before moving back to Pennsylvania last year. Carla Sands sold a pair of California mansions for $33 million before moving back, and Dr. Oz spent the past 20 years living in a six-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion in New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan. 

Marc Stier feels like he has a sense of what’s important to Pennsylvanians. For the past five years, he’s traveled the commonwealth having real conversations with working families, retired grandparents, stay-at-home moms, and others. 

As the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, he’s gotten a crash course in how inadequate education funding and a lack of affordable housing, health care, and child care are harming the lives of Pennsylvanians. It’s firsthand knowledge he considers essential to his understanding of what it’s like to be a working- or middle-class resident of the commonwealth.

His experiences traveling and talking to voters have also made him skeptical that any aspiring elected official who hasn’t spent time doing that can claim to truly understand what’s important to Pennsylvanians.

“I’ve been a policy analyst for most of my life, but until I went out and talked to Pennsylvanians, I didn’t have any idea how serious some of these problems are,” Stier said. “I don’t know how anyone can do in the heat of a political campaign what it took me five years of engagement with and meetings with Pennsylvanians all over the state to get.”

And yet, that’s exactly what three out-of-state, Republican millionaires—who have either recently moved to Pennsylvania or moved back after years away—are trying to do as they vie to represent the commonwealth in the US Senate.

As it happens, those three candidates—TV doctor Mehmet Oz, former hedge fund executive and George W. Bush administration alum David McCormick, and former soap opera actress and Trump administration official Carla Sands—also lead the polls among the more than a dozen Republicans who’ve announced they’re running. In other words, barring a surprise surge from another candidate, it’s likely that one of these three wealthy, out-of-state Republicans will be the party’s Senate nominee come May.

The potential nomination of someone who is new to Pennsylvania or hasn’t lived in the state in years is a big deal, according to Diana Robinson, political director of Make the Road Action in Pennsylvania, a group focused on organizing working-class communities, Latinos, and other communities of color.

“Do they understand the issues affecting our communities? Do they understand the issues affecting Pennsylvanians?” Robinson asked. “Living here a long time ago to currently living here is a big difference.”

“I think voters are smart,” she added. “I think they can see that people are just taking an opportunity. It’s not because [these candidates] care about our communities. It’s that they see an opportunity to run for elected office and make a career for themselves.”

Kristin Kanthak is less certain the candidates’ ties—or lackthereof—to Pennsylvania will be a deciding factor. An associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, Kanthak believes it will come down to whether the candidates are able to effectively portray themselves as “authentically Pennsylvanian.”

Pennsylvania is a state with political dynasties (see incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and his father, former Gov. Bob Casey Sr.), she pointed out, but it has also welcomed out-of-staters who’ve made the commonwealth their adopted home (see retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey).

McCormick, Oz, and Sands don’t cleanly fit either of those categories. While McCormick and Sands were born in Pennsylvania, neither has lived here full time in recent years. 

Can Millionaires Who Lived in Mansions in California and Connecticut Really Be ‘Pennsylvania True’?

McCormick, the former hedge fund executive, owns a family farm in Bloomsburg, but lived in Connecticut from 2009 to 2021—though he did flee to Colorado with his wife Dina Powell, a former Trump administration official, during the early months of the pandemic. In September 2021, McCormick’s LLC sold his Connecticut mansion for $6.5 million, according to public records. Prior to announcing his run, McCormick also purchased a house in Pittsburgh’s east end.

As for Sands, she spent most of the past 40 years living in California, acting and later helping run her late husband’s real estate investment company. After she donated to former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, Trump appointed her as ambassador to Denmark. It wasn’t until 2018 and 2019 that she sold her mansions in Malibu and Bel Air for a combined $33 million. In total, Sands could be worth more than $50 million, according to public disclosure filings. Sands returned to the US in January 2021 at the close of the Trump administration and rented a condo in Camp Hill on the Susquehanna River, making her a Pennsylvania resident once again. 

Oz, meanwhile, spent the last 20 years living in a six-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan. In 2021, he and his wife began renting her parents’ home in Bryn Athyn. Unlike McCormick and Sands, Oz was not born in Pennsylvania, though he did attend the University of Pennsylvania for medical and business school and married a Pennsylvania native.

Despite having lived in lavish, posh homes out of reach for all but the most elite, all three candidates are now aiming to depict themselves as being real Pennsylvanians suited to represent the commonwealth.

In a Fox Business column announcing his campaign, McCormick described himself as “Pennsylvania true.” He’s also run TV ads talking about his childhood on his family’s farm. 

Oz, meanwhile, has touted old photos showing him in the state; he also visited the Pennsylvania Farm Show, where he said that “what I’ve also learned is that Pennsylvanians are very patriotic.”

Sands has also talked about her Pennsylvania roots, while shying away from discussing her time as a Hollywood actress. 

The McCormick campaign declined to comment on the record when asked about their candidate’s wealth and out-of-state ties. Dr. Oz and Carla Sands’ campaigns did not respond to similar requests for comment.

Kanthak, the political science professor, anticipates all three candidates will use their wealth to run ads to try to convince voters that they’re authentic Pennsylvanians. 

“There are a lot of Pennsylvania voters who don’t like this idea of carpetbaggers, but I think are open to the fact that you don’t have to have been someone who’s never left the state of Pennsylvania to understand the issues and problems of Pennsylvanians,” she said. “And money is going to go a long way toward being able to create that message and send it out to voters.”

The fact that these three candidates have emerged as the frontrunners says something about the state of the Republican Party and what they represent, according to Ted Bordelon, director of communications for the progressive organization For Our Future Pennsylvania.

“I think Republicans at large should do some soul-searching,” he said. “Are you OK with these super rich, careerist, public office hunters basically parachuting in and trying to stake their claim on this seat?” 

Bordelon acknowledged there’s nothing illegal about the candidates moving to Pennsylvania to run for office, but said it should be raising alarm bells for Republican primary voters. 

Pennsylvanians Need Help. Will Any Of These Candidates Deliver?

Regardless of which Republican emerges from the primary, they’re likely to face a competitive general election against one of the three prominent Democrats vying for their party’s nomination: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Congressman Conor Lamb, and state. Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.

Whether it’s a Republican or Democrat, Stier hopes Pennsylvania’s next senator takes steps to deliver results for Pennsylvanians—the kind he knows they need. Stier cited re-authorizing President Joe Biden’s now-expired child tax credit and healthcare subsidies for marketplace insurance plans as key policies that the next senator could support to help Pennsylvania families struggling to recover from the pandemic. 

He also believes whoever gets elected should help pressure the Republican-led state Legislature to use the state’s enormous budget surplus—due largely to Biden’s American Rescue Plan—to provide help to Pennsylvania families. Thus far, Republicans have declined to do so, stashing away most of the state’s federal dollars in a rainy day fund, even as other states have used significant chunks of federal funds to invest in health care, education, child care, housing, and infrastructure, among other areas.

“A federal official like a senator can play a role in helping get the General Assembly to do its job. Sen. Casey has been quite vociferous in holding the General Assembly accountable,” Stier said. “So one question is will any of these Senate candidates focus on this and use their influence as Senators to get the General Assembly to help the people of Pennsylvania? That’s just not clear to me.”

If the Republican Senate primary is any indication so far, the odds of any of the three leading candidates taking that sort of step appear low. Thus far, they’ve spent the primary attacking each other over Hollywood ties and who’s closer to China, fear-mongering about immigrants and talking about building a border wall, and embracing conspiracy theories about the 2016 and 2020 elections. They’ve also highlighted the issue of inflation, without offering any concrete proposals to actually help Pennsylvanians deal with the higher costs of living.

“Nobody seems to be running a policy-based candidacy, at least not yet,” Kanthak said. 

Bordelon isn’t optimistic that any of the three candidates will do anything to help actual working-class families in Pennsylvania. Instead, he believes they will continue to say whatever they have to in order to get elected for their own gain.

“It’s ridiculous. These guys stand for nothing and I think the residency kind of gets to that,” he said. “It’s completely opportunistic.”