Pete Helms hosts his annual ice fishing party at a hunt club located so deep in Pike County that his address isn’t even listed on Google Maps. To get there, you just need to know that it’s half a mile down a wooded, winding road from the Hammered Steel Tavern.
There at the Tall Oaks club, in front of a stone fireplace, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee stood up Thursday to speak about his support for David McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO and one favorites in the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary.
As McCormick gazed over a sea of hundreds of craft beers, Mehmet Oz – the famous surgeon and fellow favorite – sat at the end of a wooden table, listening intently and eating pierogi from a wooden plate. paper.
“I’m running because I think the country is going in the wrong direction,” McCormick told the crowd, “and weakness and awakening are taking us to a place we won’t recognize.”
He concluded his brief remarks and Helms took the microphone: “Before everyone leaves,” he said, “we have another friend of ours here. Dr. Oz, would you like to come upstairs and say a few words?
“It’s like a debate scene,” Oz joked.
Aside from debates and forums, candidates for statewide elections don’t often meet on the trail. The campaigns have a lot of ground to cover, and the Pennsylvania Senate race is one of the most closely watched in the country.
But on Thursday afternoon, instead of a hunting club at the end of a rocky road, Helms’ 50th annual ice fishing party felt like the center of Pennsylvania’s Republican political universe.
The event started decades ago with a few guys who went ice fishing in February in Lake Wallenpaupack. Now few care about the fishing part. It turned into a get-together where some of northeast Pennsylvania’s most well-known people in business and politics bump elbows.
There was Lou Barletta, the former congressman and Republican primary front-runner for governor, who downed a burger then walked into the room to chants of “Louuuuuuu!” State Sen. Mario Scavello (R., Monroe) was there, and State Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R., Susquehanna) rushed in, introducing friends to each other.
“It’s not a political event,” said State Senator Lisa Baker, a Republican from Luzerne County vying for re-election this year, “but it is the political event of the year.”
READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary up for grabs even after Trump backs Oz, poll finds
Don Sherwood, who represented parts of northeastern Pennsylvania in Congress in the 2000s, said he strongly supported McCormick because he was “revered” in the Bloomsburg area. McCormick graduated from Bloomsburg High School, then went to West Point and spent much of his adult life outside of Pennsylvania.
His opponents have repeatedly attacked him over his residency, pointing out that he only recently purchased a home outside of Pittsburgh. But Sherwood, 81, who lives in Tunkhannock, Wyoming County, said McCormick’s family was known in the area.
As for Oz?
“He’s changed his position so much that he looks dishonest,” Sherwood said.
Oz also only moved to Pennsylvania shortly before launching his Senate campaign.
This pocket of Pennsylvania, like all the others, has been blanketed in TV commercials funded by Oz and McCormick, who each spend millions of their personal fortunes. Some of the most memorable ads, voters said at the fishing event, attacked Oz for its seemingly shifting stances on issues like abortion and guns.
Oz, for his part, spoke extensively to the crowd about thorny cultural issues, saying he would be the one to fight for conservative values.
“For too long,” he said, “Republicans have entered the knifefight of the culture wars with 3 by 5 cards straight.”
He said Thursday he was confident in his reception, saying “everyone is really happy that the president approved me.”
But for some, even those undecided, former President Donald Trump’s support is something of a liability.
“I’m looking for confidence and a new way forward, and I think we need to realign,” said Will Clauss, a real estate agent who lives in the area. Another voter, Jack Lennox, added, “That’s kind of why I like McCormick. He doesn’t cling to another guy’s cart.
At the end of the event and after meeting with the two contestants, Clauss, 37, said he remained undecided. He said he was keeping an open mind because he took his vote seriously.
“We’re in a dark red county,” he said, “and usually the winner of our primary is whoever wins it.”