early and often

Can Wild-Card Kathy Barnette Win Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate Primary?

Kathy Barnette at a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania on April 2, 2022. Photo: Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

In Pennsylvania, the Republican Senate primary has largely centered around two prominent men: Mehmet Oz, the famous doctor and former TV personality, and David McCormick, the former CEO of Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge funds in the world. The two have poured millions of dollars into their campaigns and have subjected Pennsylvanians to a deluge of ads accusing each other of being sympathetic to China and not conservative enough. After months of the pair butting heads over who’s the most MAGA candidate, Oz finally snagged Donald Trump’s crucial endorsement.

But in recent days, a lesser-known contender has emerged — and she’s striving to be the most MAGA-y of them all. Kathy Barnette, a 50-year-old political commentator, is suddenly surging a week ahead of next Tuesday’s primary. A survey last week from Trafalgar Group, the Republican pollster, shows Oz leading with 25 percent, followed by Barnette with 23 percent, and McCormick with 22 percent. A more recent Fox News poll had Oz in first with 22 percent, McCormick with 20 percent, and Barnette with 19 percent. In both polls, all three candidates are within the margin of error.

If elected, Barnette, who has never held political office, would be the first woman and first Black senator to represent Pennsylvania in its history. Two years ago, in her first run for office, she challenged Congresswoman Madeleine Dean for her seat that covers most of Montgomery County, the state’s third-largest county. Dean ultimately won reelection by a double-digit margin, a result Barnette initially claimed was tainted by voter fraud. Barnette even filed a lawsuit alleging that county officials broke state election law by pre-canvassing ballots, but she ultimately withdrew it.

In some ways, Barnette fits the mold of a standard Trump-aligned Republican candidate in 2022. She has supported the former president’s claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. She has denounced her two top competitors as carpetbaggers and “globalists,” citing their past ties to the World Economic Forum. And she has railed against the perceived hypocrisy of the left, saying in her first ad, “We’re told that Black lives matter. Except, of course, my Black life because I’m a conservative.”

Barnette has also positioned herself as staunchly pro-life at a time when the Supreme Court is poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, making abortion a major midterm issue. In another ad that resonated with voters, Barnette said she opposes abortion unless the mother’s life is at risk because she is the product of rape. She’s been backed by the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List and has cited her personal experience when challenging Oz’s pro-life bona fides in a recent debate.

“I was not just a lump of cells. As you can see, I’m still not just a lump of cells. My life has value,” Barnette said. She accused Oz of viewing her life as “nothing more than an acorn with electric currents” based on remarks he made in interviews before entering politics.

Despite some overlap with her fellow Republican candidates, whether you dig into Barnette’s past or focus on her current campaign, it’s clear that her politics are considerably more extreme. In 2010, she published a piece on Canada Free Press, a conservative website, about the “homosexual agenda,” alleging that its goal is to dominate the country. In recently unearthed tweets from 2014 to 2017, Barnett attacked Islam repeatedly and touted the debunked conspiracy theory that former president Barack Obama is secretly Muslim.

Since entering the Senate race, Barnette has participated in interviews with Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon. She has fully embraced an endorsement from Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to Trump who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. On New Year’s Eve in 2020, she posted a video saying she was arranging two to three buses to travel to the nation’s capital on January 6, 2021.

“This is our country. And we must be determined now more than ever to keep her. To keep this republic, come hell or high water,” Barnette said. “We must be ready to defend and to keep our country.”

A spokesperson for Barnette told PoliticsPA that she watched Trump’s speech on the Ellipse but never entered the U.S. Capitol building or participated in the riot.

Barnette casts herself as aligned with Trump’s movement but not in need of his imprimatur. “MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” Barnette said at a recent debate. “MAGA, although he coined the word, MAGA actually belongs to the people.”

As she rises in the polls, parts of both Trump World and the GOP Establishment are trying to stop her momentum.

Sean Hannity, the Fox News host known for his coziness with Trump, has voiced his support for Oz and recently dedicated time on his show to challenging Barnette. This week, Hannity highlighted old Barnette tweets that he deemed “disturbing,” including several that criticized him and Trump. (Earlier in her campaign, Barnette appeared on Hannity’s show.)

On Thursday, Trump himself weighed in, reiterating his support for Oz and saying Barnette hasn’t been properly vetted.

“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump said in a statement. “Dr. Oz is the only one who will be able to easily defeat the Crazed, Lunatic Democrat in Pennsylvania. A vote for anyone else in the Primary is a vote against Victory in the Fall.”

Meanwhile, Barnette rankled Trump’s GOP Establishment foes by indicating in a debate that she might not vote for Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader if Republicans retake the chamber. Pat Toomey, the retiring two-term senator that Barnette hopes to replace, has expressed his concerns about her candidacy, telling Axios that there’s “a lot” that Pennsylvania voters don’t know about her.

Barnette does have some Republican groups and elected officials in her corner, though. The Club for Growth, which took on Trump and lost in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary, has recently thrown its support behind Barnette and launched a biographical ad campaign on her behalf. She has also been endorsed by Doug Mastriano, a Republican state senator who is campaigning to be Pennsylvania’s next governor. Though Mastriano has faced criticism for backing 2020 election-fraud claims and being seen outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, he’s been leading in the most recent gubernatorial polls.

And if Barnette manages to prevail on May 17, some of her biggest Republican critics could quickly change their tune. In his Thursday statement urging his supporters to back Oz, Trump left the door open to endorsing Barnette in the general election, saying that if she manages to explain various questions about her past, “she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party–and I will be behind her all the way.”

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Can Wild-Card Kathy Barnette Win PA’s GOP Senate Primary?