McCormick, ex-hedge fund CEO, aims to be hometown boy in Pennsylvania's key Senate race

As CEO of the world's largest hedge fund, David McCormick wore suits, lived on Connecticut's ritzy Gold Coast, talked up bipartisanship and described China as America's most important "bilateral relationship."

Now, as a Republican running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, McCormick wears jeans and casual dress shirts. He recounts the greatest hits of the right's culture war attacks on Democrats — paranoia about illegal immigration and the left using school curriculum to teach a history of America that's "not the America I know" — and he frames China as an "existential threat."

For McCormick, spinning the narrative of a hometown boy-done-good and hewing to the politics of Trumpism is central to his candidacy in a premier battleground Senate race.

But he is facing skepticism — and, as a leading candidate, attack ads — that his international business past is counter to former President Donald Trump’s "America First" governing philosophy and that he's a carpetbagging political opportunist trying to buy the seat.

Now, instead of Wall Street name-dropping or telling anecdotes about meeting with a Chinese CEO, he's name-dropping small towns and telling anecdotes about growing up in Pennsylvania.

"I baled hay on my family farm. I trimmed Christmas trees," he recently told listeners seated on foldout chairs at foldout tables in a wood-paneled room in the rear of Heisey’s Diner about 75 miles west of Philadelphia. "I was a busboy at the local hotel, played sports in little towns, football and wrestling, from Shikellamy to Shickshinny to Pottsville to Mount Carmel to Selinsgrove."

It is places like these where McCormick is trying to convince conservative voters that he should be the Republican standard-bearer in a contest to replace the retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.

In doing so, McCormick, 56, must navigate a deep primary field as he balances his establishment Republican credentials with the demands of a base loyal to Trump — in a state won by President Joe Biden.

The primary election is May 17.

For Democrats, Pennsylvania may be their best chance of picking up a seat in the closely divided Senate. That party's primary is shaping up as a contest among Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb.

For Republicans, perhaps the biggest primary prize — a Trump endorsement — appears unlikely after Trump's first choice, Sean Parnell, bowed out of the race in November.

Parnell's exit threw open the doors to McCormick and Mehmet Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon best known as daytime TV’s host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and accelerated spending in what could be this year's most expensive Senate race.

Money is a strong suit for McCormick.

He is wealthy enough to pay for his own TV ads, plus he is backed by a super PAC spending millions of dollars — largely from hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin — on ads hammering Oz as too liberal and too Hollywood.

Virtually unknown to voters before declaring his candidacy just weeks ago, McCormick topped a recent Fox News poll of Pennsylvania GOP primary voters with 24%. Still, nearly a third of respondents are undecided.

Meanwhile, McCormick is tapping not only deep connections across the world of finance, but politics and government, too.

That's in part through his high-level service in President George W. Bush's administration. It's also through his wife, Dina Powell, a Goldman Sachs executive, longtime Republican operative and veteran of both the Bush and Trump administrations.

For the last 12 years, McCormick lived in Connecticut and was a top executive of Bridgewater, notable for its sizable portfolio that catered to Chinese investors investing in China.

That has brought accusations that McCormick is a carpetbagger and a sellout to China.

To counter the carpetbagging angle, McCormick bought a house in Pittsburgh and stresses his upbringing in Pennsylvania. He also points to his military service: a West Point grad — first from his town, he says — and a Bronze Star-winning veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division in the Gulf War.

On China, McCormick insists his hedge fund experience — he tells one diner audience it was a "financial firm" — makes him uniquely qualified to go "toe to toe with China," and turns the topic to Trump.

"He set us on the right direction with China, but then he owned his experience," McCormick told the crowd. "He basically said: ‘I’m a global businessperson. And that experience is going to make me a better president.’ And for me, it’s going to be the same. That experience is going to make me a better senator."

In Bush’s administration, McCormick dealt in trade issues. He likes to point out that his tough trade stances drew a complaint from the Chinese to Bush himself.

Still, making McCormick into the candidate for Trump's Republican Party is no small task.

In 2015, McCormick held a fundraiser for Jeb Bush, once a contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination eventually won by Trump. Oz's campaign pounced, saying in an ad, "Wall Street insider David McCormick paid for attacks on Donald Trump."

Last year, McCormick told a Bloomberg interviewer asking about Trumpism that it is important to recognize the frustrated masses that Trump "tapped into." Then he brought up "the divisiveness that's characterized the last four years and the polarization, and I think the president has some responsibility, a lot of responsibility for that."

Meanwhile, McCormick keeps getting plastered with the term "globalist" — a derogatory slur with an antisemitic origin adopted by Trump and right-wing allies to conjure up an elite, international coterie that doesn't serve America's best interests.

To shore up his pro-Trump credentials, McCormick has worked to land endorsements from GOP stalwarts, including Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

McCormick also professes America First allegiance, saying it has helped people in small-town Pennsylvania where he grew up. And despite his ties to the wealthy and well-connected, he calls himself an "outsider."

Trump aside, primary campaign issues might be turning McCormick’s way, with Russia’s attack on Ukraine spurring an interest anew in global affairs.

McCormick — who has a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University — is most animated by talking about how to confront China and Russian President Vladimir Putin, boiling down his ideas into bullet points for audiences in diners and restaurants.

One diner patron, 69-year-old Carol Forster, asked McCormick about an ad linking him to China and appeared satisfied with McCormick's answer that he won't need "on the job training" to take on China.

She also likes McCormick’s military background — her husband and son served in the U.S. Marine Corps — and seemed inclined to trust McCormick on matters of the border, war and international relations.

"Knowing he was in the military, I know he has some heartfelt feelings about that, and what's going on with Ukraine," Forster said.