By Jarrett Renshaw and David Morgan
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) -Pennsylvania’s hotly contested U.S. Senate Republican primary between TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund executive David McCormick was still undecided on Wednesday and could drag on into next week, with a possible recount looming.
Oz, whose candidacy was propelled by a late endorsement from former President Donald Trump, led McCormick by just over 500 ballots cast on Tuesday out of nearly 1.3 million counted, while conservative political commentator Kathy Barnette trailed at a distant third, according to Edison Research.
Under Pennsylvania law, any margin of 0.5% or less triggers an automatic recount.
A top state election official told CNN that ballot counting would continue in coming days and said authorities should know by the middle of next week whether a recount will be necessary.
Oz and McCormick, who have Pennsylvania roots but only recently moved back to the state, have both struggled with questions about their authenticity and commitment to Trump-style populism.
Either could be at a disadvantage in November against Democratic nominee John Fetterman — the goateed, tattooed lieutenant governor with an “everyman” appeal.
“A lot of Republicans, especially populist Republicans, didn’t find Oz or McCormick to be populist enough. And of course, they’re both seen as carpetbaggers,” said Jeffrey Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College.
A McCormick adviser estimated there were 30,000 to 50,000 votes still uncounted, with some 23 counties still tallying votes.
The two leading campaigns focused on Lancaster County, where a technical error caused delays.
The Oz and McCormick campaigns have poll watchers in the county and will be also sending people to monitor the processing of provisional and military ballots across Pennsylvania, according to campaign officials.
Trump waded into the contest on Wednesday by saying Oz should “declare victory” and suggesting without evidence that his chosen candidate could lose through voter fraud. Trump has repeatedly falsely claimed that his 2020 defeat was the result of widespread fraud, an allegation refuted by multiple courts, state election officials and members of his own administration.
“It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they ‘just happened to find’,” Trump said in a post on his Truth Social media platform.
Both Oz and McCormick told supporters late on Tuesday that they wanted all the votes counted, with each predicting ultimate victory.
On the Democratic side, Fetterman defeated moderate U.S. Representative Conor Lamb just hours after having had a pacemaker implanted to address irregular heart rhythms that caused a stroke last week. He has said doctors expect a full recovery.
The contest between Oz and McCormick represents the latest test of Trump’s influence with Republicans, after an election night in which candidates bearing his endorsement won their party’s nominations for governor of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Senate in North Carolina.
Trump has endorsed more than 150 candidates as he tries to solidify his status as his party’s kingmaker, though his picks have not always prevailed.
One such endorsee, U.S. Representative Madison Cawthorn, lost his bid for a second two-year term in North Carolina after a dizzying string of self-inflicted scandals. Trump’s pick for Idaho governor, Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin, failed in her bid to oust the incumbent Republican, Brad Little.
But another Trump-endorsed candidate in North Carolina, U.S. Representative Ted Budd, won the state’s Republican U.S. Senate nomination. He will face Democratic former state Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who is seeking to become the state’s first Black senator.
The Pennsylvania and North Carolina Senate races are two of the most important midterm contests, as Democrats fight to retain slim majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate. Both seats are held by retiring Republicans: Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Richard Burr in North Carolina.
Republicans are well positioned to regain control of the House, which could enable them to stonewall President Biden’s legislative agenda. Biden’s public approval rating is at 42%, with 50% of Americans disapproving of his performance, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll completed on Tuesday.
Democrats have a better chance of keeping control of the Senate, currently split 50-50 between the parties with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote.
Trump-endorsed Republican Doug Mastriano, who has amplified Trump’s false claims of voter fraud and who marched on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, will face Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro in a Pennsylvania governor’s race that could have major implications for abortion rights and election integrity.
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, David Morgan in Washington and Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Ross Colvin, Will Dunham, Howard Goller and Jonathan Oatis)