Turkish-Americans have limited influence over national legislative and judicial processes in the US due to their near-total absence from Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court. In comparison, Greek-Americans (a traditional political opponent of Turkish interests) have historically held many high-ranking political posts in the US. The 39th Vice President of the United States, Richard Nixon’s running mate Spiro Agnew, was of Greek descent. So too was Michael Dukakis, who ran as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1988. Currently, there are six members of Congress of Greek heritage.
Turkish-Americans not only fail to hold elected office at the moment but they are also scarcely seen in other high-level appointed positions. Once again, in contrast, Greek-Americans have been known to hold prominent positions across the US government; examples include Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency George Tenet, Former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, and Commander Admiral James Stavridis.
Currently, Dr. Mehmet Oz is running as the Republican candidate for one of Pennsylvania’s Senate seats. In the past, other Turkish-Americans have run for office, albeit unsuccessfully, the most prominent of which may be Joseph D. Youssouf, who ran as the Democratic nominee for New Jersey’s 12th congressional district in 1994; ultimately he lost to his Republican opponent, Dick Zimmer. Other Turkish-Americans including Osman Bengur, Cenk Uygur, and Tayfun Selen unsuccessfully bid to be chosen as their respective parties’ candidates for Congress during primaries. Bengur ran in the Democratic Party primary for Maryland’s 2nd and 3rd districts in 2002 and 2006, respectively. Uygur ran for the Democratic nomination for California’s 25th district. Selen attempted to be the Republican Party’s candidate for the 11th District of New Jersey, but lost to Paul Degroot by a four percent margin. The only Turkish-Americans to hold political office in the US are seen at the hyper-local level, this includes District Judge Ali Paksoy and retired Judge Jay Karahan.
If history is any indicator, political candidates with Turkish heritage usually lose in US elections. Nonetheless, the party with which they are associated is changing. Not more than a decade ago, it was hard to imagine a Turkish-American running for office as a member of a party other than the Democrats. The same could also be said of Greek-Americans and Armenian-Americans. But, as seen with Dr. Oz and Tayfun Selen, more and more Turkish-Americans are compelled to run as Republicans. Even so, many were surprised to see Dr. Oz running as a Trump Republican because they thought he was liberal.
Can Dr. Oz Win?
Dr. Oz is not only the first Turkish-American to run for the US Senate but also one of the few with a national profile. Oprah Winfrey was the first to present him to the American public as a medical doctor on her wildly popular TV show. Back in Turkey, he is recognized as the son of renowned surgeon Mustafa Oz. His political prospects have long been a topic of discussion in the Turkish-American community, but his tight ties with Trump offered him the most direct path to winning the Senate seat. Trump’s support helped him to secure the Republican Party’s nomination, but it also alienated his liberal supporters. Some now even blame Oprah for giving this Trumpian Republican the fame and platform he currently enjoys.
Dr. Oz’s name recognition may give him an advantage, but it won’t hand him the win. As a New Jersey resident with no prior political experience or conservative credentials, Dr. Oz has thus far been unable to convince Pennsylvania voters of his narrative. Indeed, his Democratic opponent Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman routinely questions Dr. Oz’s authenticity. Through his skillful use of social media, Fetterman criticizes Oz’s residence in New Jersey, portraying him as a “carpetbagger”. An inexperienced politician, Dr. Oz has had many gaffes that compound the problem. For example, Fetterman’s campaign attempts to expose Dr. Oz as a detached-from-reality elitist who calls raw vegetables “crudités” and owns “only” two houses. There are also reports that Dr. Oz is having difficulty funding his campaign. Some forecasts, including Sabato’s Crystal Ball and FiveThirtyEight, shifted the Pennsylvania Senate race from a “toss-up” to “leaning Democrat”.
Despite the forecasts, Oz could still win in November. First, despite the unfavorable circumstances, several polls show that it is still a close race. According to one poll conducted by Emerson College at the end of August, Fetterman leads Oz by only 4 points, while Trafalgar Group has him ahead by only 2 points. Also according to Susquehanna Polling and Research, 9 percent of Republicans find Dr. Oz to be unconvincing. Second, Trump’s support and his rallies in Pennsylvania could change the tides. It also helps that Oz has now buried the hatchet with fellow Republican and primary opponent David McCormick.
Fetterman has his own vulnerabilities, including major health issues. After suffering from a stroke, the Democratic candidate has been conducting an online as opposed to in-person campaign. Additionally, Fetterman receives financial support from his parents, allowing Dr. Oz to frame him as somebody born with a silver spoon. Lastly, but most importantly, the rocky status of the American economy and the rising price of gas presents opportunities to rally voters against the Democrats, who currently control both Congress and the White House.
In conclusion, Mehmet Oz is the first Turkish-American senatorial contender. It is absurd to think that his policies will be molded by the aspirations of the Turkish community in the United States or Turkish government if he is elected. Nevertheless, the presence of a Turkish-origin senator would instantly elevate Dr. Oz to a pivotal position in Turkish-American relations. It is also true that an actor who comprehends both perspectives can contribute significantly to bilateral relations.
*A Turkish version of this piece was published at PolitikYol on 18th of September 2022.