Democrat John Fetterman wins Pennsylvania seat from Erdoğan-ally Dr. Mehmet Oz

John Fetterman, Dr. Mehmet Oz

The Democrats won the Senate seat for Pennsylvania after their candidate John Fetterman had an unexpected success over the Turkish-American TV doctor and Republican candidate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, who was favourite to win.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman defeated Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in a pivotal Senate race that could prove a decisive blow in the battle for control of the upper chamber of Congress, NBC News projects.

With 90% of the vote counted, Fetterman led Oz 49.4% to 48.1%, a margin of about 66,000 votes, according to NBC.

Fetterman will succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, moving a Republican-held Senate seat into Democratic hands.

Democrats, who held the slimmest-possible Senate majority heading into Election Day, were banking on flipping the seat in the key swing state, where President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump two years earlier.

The projected verdict deals another blow to Trump, who backed Oz in a hard-fought GOP primary election and campaigned for him in the general.

“It’s official. I will be the next U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania,” Fetterman tweeted early Wednesday morning.

“We bet on the people of Pennsylvania - and you didn’t let us down,” Fetterman’s tweet said.

Oz, a celebrity doctor who had invested millions of dollars of his own money in his first campaign for elected office, trailed Fetterman in the polls throughout the race — even after a stroke took the Democratic nominee off the trail for three months.

A wealthy TV host who lived in New Jersey until a year before launching his campaign, Oz had struggled to shake off accusations of being an out-of-touch carpetbagger with little connection to the Keystone State and a lackey of Turkey.

Fetterman’s campaign sought to illustrate this point at every opportunity, slamming Oz for allegedly owning many properties or complaining about the price of vegetables for a “crudites” platter.

Polls showed Oz making gains in the final weeks of the race, as his campaign bombarded Fetterman with accusations of being soft on crime and too far left for Pennsylvania. But Oz still held high unfavourability ratings heading into Election Day.

Before midnight on Tuesday, Oz told a crowd of his supporters that “when all the ballots are counted, we believe we will win this race.”

A spokeswoman for Oz did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on NBC’s projection.

Oz once served in the Turkish army to maintain dual citizenship. For US government employees and contractors, giving up dual citizenship has often (but not always) been a requirement to obtain top security clearances — but those restrictions don’t apply to members of Congress.

On the question of Oz’s business ties, National Review laid out a detailed list of instances in which he interacted with individuals and organizations closely linked to Erdoğan or doing the Turkish leader’s bidding in the United States. For example, Oz spoke onstage at the 2019 New York conference of the World Turkish Business Council (DEIK) — a group from which many Western companies have distanced themselves since Erdoğan’s government took control of it in 2014.

Also in 2019, Oz was the “special guest” at a fundraiser for the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), whose co-chair is Turkish American attorney Gunay Evinch, a registered agent of the Turkish government.

Evinch’s law firm allegedly worked with Turkey’s Washington embassy to compile dossiers on Erdoğan’s critics inside the United States, including those associated with exiled religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania.

Late last year, TASC’s Twitter account was temporarily suspended for allegedly organizing an online smear campaign against the other Turkish-born celebrity in the news these days, NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom. (TASC argued that the suspension was a violation of its free speech.)

Freedom, whose father was jailed by Erdoğan for his association with Gulen, has been an outspoken critic of the Erdoğan regime. Last year, after many years of being pursued by the Erdoğan government, Freedom became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

“People need to understand that Dr. Oz is in Erdoğan’s pocket. And whatever Erdoğan wants, that’s what Dr. Oz is going to do,” Freedom told me. “So, if Dr. Oz gets into the Senate, it’s like Erdoğan’s arm will be in the Senate.”

In an interview, Oz rejected that assertion and insisted he isn’t concerned whether Erdoğan likes his positions or not. To be sure, Erdoğan likely doesn’t like some of the stands Oz is taking during this campaign, including his defense of Gulen and his opposition to Turkey’s purchases of advanced missile systems from Russia.

“Gulen cannot be touched,” Oz told me. “There are no credible allegations that he was involved in the coup. He will stay in Pennsylvania.”

Oz explains his interactions with top Turkish businessmen and political figures over several years as totally normal for a Turkish American celebrity of his stature. He was participating as a member of the Turkish American community, not as a politician, he told me. Oz said he does not know Evinch and has had no contact with him other than onstage at the 2019 DEIK event.

“I hadn't even really gotten engaged in any of this until I decided to run for the Senate, and I'd never been politically involved in Turkey in any capacity. I didn't even donate money to these organizations,” Oz told me.

It’s not exactly a satisfying answer. Oz is not unaware of international politics. He traveled to Israel in 2013 at the height of Turkey-Israel tensions. In 2018, he visited Syrian refugee camps as part of a humanitarian aid mission, commendably. The Oz campaign now says he was “unaware” that these Turkish organizations had become so politicized when he associated with them. That, if true, is its own problem.

This primary campaign will likely be ugly, and it will be difficult to separate the good-faith concerns from the bad-faith attacks on Oz. In the coming months, Oz will be required to disclose more information that will show whether he has fully disentangled himself from whatever business ties Erdoğan might see as leverage against a U.S. senator — and voters will make their own judgments.

“Is he really an agent of the government? There’s not really any evidence of that,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But if Oz has business connections that rely on being in the good graces of the government, there are legitimate questions about his views on these issues.”

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