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PITTSBURGH — Just days before Pennsylvania’s primary elections, the Republican Senate nomination has been turned upside down with a late surge from Kathy Barnette, a virtual unknown whose sudden rise has riled former President Donald Trump and his allies.
Multiple polls this week have shown Barnette within striking distance for the nomination to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. She’s a conservative commentator who moved to the state about eight years ago and failed in a bid for a Philadelphia-area House seat in 2020. She lost the safe Democratic seat by 20 points, a result she blamed on voter fraud.
Although Barnette has spent a fraction of her rivals' outlay on television ads, a confluence of events — late endorsements, an alliance with the gubernatorial frontrunner, a lack of enthusiasm for other options and a viral ad about her own mother’s decision not to have an abortion after being raped at age 11 — has pushed her into contention.
It’s also opened her to new scrutiny, including questions about her biography, her embrace of conspiracy theories and her incendiary comments about Islam, which she once said should be “banned in the USA.”
Barnette’s explosive rise threatens to make next Tuesday the second straight week that a Trump-backed candidate has lost a high-profile Republican primary, after Trump’s pick for governor in Nebraska was defeated this Tuesday.
In Pennsylvania, Trump has backed former daytime talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz. Until the past week, Oz and former hedge fund CEO David McCormick had been locked in a tight contest for the top spot.
On Thursday, Trump said Barnette “will never be able to win the General Election” this November against a Democratic candidate.
“She has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted, but if she is able to do so, she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party — and I will be behind her all the way,” Trump said.
Top Trump allies, like former Ambassador Richard Grenell and Fox News host Sean Hannity, have also spent recent days warning that Barnette is unelectable and could cost Republicans their chance of retaking the Senate.
Grenell has used his Twitter account, where he has 875,000 followers, to cast Barnette as a left-wing radical on race, as well as an anti-Muslim and antigay bigot. Hannity, an outspoken supporter of Oz’s candidacy, said on his show Wednesday night that Barnette “has a very troubling history of attacking Donald Trump.”
But over the past few days, Barnette has also gained new allies. The influential and well-funded Club for Growth, which is locked in a grudge match with Trump that arose out of a disagreement over which Senate candidate to support in Ohio, this week started running $2 million in TV ads for Barnette.
And the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, on Tuesday endorsed her.
In addition, Steve Bannon, the far-right media personality and sometime Trump adviser, embraced Barnette on his podcast Monday. “Barnette is a true-blue MAGA candidate and her victory would be a message from the grassroots that they want candidates who are dependably MAGA more than they want candidates who Trump endorsed,” Bannon’s website said.
Even before her recent surge, Barnette was creeping up on Oz and McCormick, who have spent months — and millions from their respective individual fortunes — pummeling each other on the TV airwaves. And over the past week, Barnette’s polling numbers have gone from around 12% in the RealClearPolitics average to 21%, effectively tying her with Oz and McCormick.
Barnette’s rise, experts said, is linked to her alliance with right-wing state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the leading GOP contender for governor in a nine-person primary. Mastriano and Barnette have endorsed each other, have campaigned with each other in heavily Republican areas of the state and have both promoted baseless conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats.
“I think the bulk of her rise can be attributed to the fact that the Mastriano voters have realized that Doug has endorsed her too,” said Republican consultant Christopher Nicholas, who is working for a lower-tier gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Gerow, but is not involved in the Senate race.
“People said she did good in debates,’’ Nicholas told Yahoo News. “Yeah, but so did the other candidates. What is different is the fact that she’s endorsed by [Mastriano].”
At a rally Wednesday evening, Mastriano didn’t mention Barnette, but her literature was included in preassembled bags for attendees. One man wore a shirt that said “PA A-Team” on the back and listed Mastriano, his running mate Teddy Daniels and Barnette. And at a recent rally for Oz headlined by Trump, Mastriano supporters placed fliers and magnets on cars in the parking lot.
Republicans in Pennsylvania and at the national level are not optimistic about Mastriano’s chances of winning a crucial governor’s seat this fall against Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is running unopposed for his party’s nomination.
Mastriano aside, Barnette is an appealing option for Pennsylvania Republicans for a number of reasons. She’s a Black woman in a party still dominated by older white men. She has benefited from the brutal campaign Oz and McCormick waged against each other while she remained under the radar. And she’s so far been able to embrace Trump and his policies while downplaying the importance of his endorsement.
“MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” she said at an April debate. “Our values never, never shifted to President Trump’s values. It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”
Yet questions are also being raised about her résumé ahead of the Tuesday primary. Salena Zito, a national political reporter for the Washington Examiner who is popular in conservative circles, submitted questions to Barnette’s campaign about some of the claims made on the candidate’s website.
Barnette’s campaign bio says that she “served her country proudly for 10 years in the Armed Forces Reserves where she was accepted into Officer Candidacy School. She worked with two major financial firms in corporate America and sat on the board of a pregnancy crisis center for five years.” It also says she was “an adjunct professor of corporate finance.”
Zito asked for details about where and when she was a professor, her time in officer candidate school and the financial firms where she worked. But Barnette’s campaign declined to answer the questions, citing a need for privacy, other than to say she attended “basic training at Fort Dix Army Reserves.”
Her website does state that she worked for A.G. Edwards and Sons and for Bank of America Capital Asset Management. But the campaign’s response prompted Zito to criticize it for “trying to run out the clock.”
“She could be hiding nothing. She could be hiding everything. We don’t know because there are no answers,” Zito wrote. “All candidates should face scrutiny and pointed questions about their biographies, their positions, their life experiences, and their work experiences. Barnette, to date, has not faced them.”
Zito also compared Barnette to Christine O’Donnell, a right-wing activist who defeated a popular mainstream Republican in a Delaware Senate primary in 2010. O’Donnell then lost the general election in a landslide to Democrat Chris Coons.
The conventional wisdom has been that the race would be between Oz and McCormick. Oz has hit McCormick for being soft on China and alleging he’s “pro-Biden.” McCormick has hit Oz for being a “Hollywood liberal,” his dual citizenship with Turkey, and his flip-flopping on key issues such as abortion.
Unlike in Ohio’s Senate primary earlier this month, where Trump’s endorsement led to a steady increase in polling for eventual winner J.D. Vance, Oz has not seen a similar climb. At the recent Trump rally for Oz, the celebrity doctor was at times booed, with some attendees telling Yahoo News that they were confused why Trump had backed him.
Trump, however, has stayed in Oz’s corner, telling rally-goers that McCormick — a former hedge fund CEO and the husband of former Trump aide Dina Powell — is a “liberal Wall Street Republican.”
Another potential drag on both Oz and McCormick is that they’ve both been criticized for swooping in from more Democratic states to attempt to buy a winnable Senate seat. Both McCormick, who has Pennsylvania roots but has lived in Connecticut for years, and Oz, who attended medical and business school in Philadelphia but has lived in a New Jersey mansion for the last two decades, established Pennsylvania residency only in the last year.
“I can promise the people of Pennsylvania, when these carpetbaggers lose, you will never see them again,” Barnette said at a televised debate last week.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, joked this week that he was surprised he could brag about being from Pennsylvania in a race for the state’s U.S. Senate seat. In his final ad before the primary, Fetterman said he’s “taking on every politician, insider and out-of-state rich guy trying to take over Pennsylvania.”
Pennsylvania is likely Democrats’ best hope of picking up an extra Senate seat in what is expected to be a tough November election for the party. Republican leader Mitch McConnell is hoping to wrest the Senate back from Democratic control, but that may prove impossible if the GOP can’t retain Pennsylvania’s open seat.
At an event in Kentucky last month, McConnell said Republicans were looking at their best midterm elections in decades, before warning that the GOP could still manage to “screw this up” by picking bad candidates.
“In the Senate, if you look at where we have to compete in order to get into a majority, there are places that are competitive in the general election,” he said.
“So you can’t nominate somebody who’s just sort of unacceptable to a broader group of people and win. We had that experience in 2010 and 2012.”