Kathy Barnette has gone from virtual nobody to virtual front-runner in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate contest — and now she's facing the heat that comes with being on top.
With days until the primary Tuesday, detractors are frantically trying to prevent her from pulling off one of the biggest political upsets of the year. A super PAC backing one of her opponents released an ad calling Barnette, who would be Pennsylvania’s first Black senator if she is elected, "Crazy Kathy." Allies of her opponents are circulating old tweets, including one critical of former President Donald Trump.
Trump chimed in Thursday, reiterating his support for TV doctor Mehmet Oz's candidacy while trashing Barnette — a sign of how real the threat is — but still expressing a willingness to support her if she ultimately wins.
“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump said in a statement. “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.”
Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment Thursday about the intensifying attacks from other Republicans.
Barnette’s late surge — along with the last-minute scramble by her opponents to squelch it — has cast another chaotic sense of urgency over one of the country’s top Senate races. The seat is being vacated by Republican Pat Toomey, and both the GOP and Democrats see it as one they can win.
The original front-runner, Sean Parnell, had Trump’s endorsement but dropped out after he lost a custody battle for his children that made accusations of abuse by his ex-wife public. Oz and former hedge fund executive Dave McCormick rushed to fill the void and have saturated Pennsylvania’s airwaves for months.
But neither paid the low-funded Barnette much mind, allowing her to sneak into what polls indicate is a three-way tie for the lead. This week, she landed a major endorsement from the Club for Growth Action, a conservative organization that quickly shelled out $2 million for pro-Barnette commercials — a financial commitment 12 times greater than what Barnette has spent on advertising.
While the ads could give Barnette a boost ahead of Tuesday’s primary, Oz and McCormick also risk throwing their own campaigns off message if they spend the final days attacking her.
“It’s getting late, and at this point, her opponents can’t change tack,” said Samuel Chen, a Pennsylvania Republican political strategist who has not taken sides in the primary.
The best move, Chen said, might be to push opposition research — a political tactic that unearths past statements or previously unvetted parts of a candidate’s life — in hope of scoring late-breaking stories that undecided voters will see before they cast their ballots.
Indeed, operatives involved in the race are calling attention to such things.
The "Crazy Kathy" ad, produced by a super PAC supporting Oz, features video of Barnette talking about racism, including clips that appear to show her discussing “systemic racism” “particularly among police officers.” The video suggests she supported Black Lives Matter. The video appears to be edited, and it is unclear whether she made the statements as complete thoughts or offered other context.
A McCormick campaign official said Thursday that paid ads attacking Barnette were not planned as of now.
On Twitter, Oz supporter Ric Grenell, who was Trump’s acting national intelligence director, has been highlighting Barnette’s old tweets to his more than 840,000 followers. Also on Twitter and in emails to reporters, an employee of McCormick’s consulting firm has flagged her campaign’s refusal to answer questions from two conservative media outlets that asked about her military experience and other parts of her past.
Oz, meanwhile, criticized Barnette without spending a penny in an appearance Wednesday night on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program. Hannity, who has endorsed Oz and promotes him often on the show, introduced a segment with Oz by showing some of Barnette’s old tweets and declaring her unelectable in November.
“I concur with your diagnosis,” Oz said when Hannity asked for his response. “She is a mystery. Barnette won’t answer questions about her record, but what I do know concerns me.
McCormick, who appeared Wednesday night on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, offered something of a backhanded compliment when he was asked about Barnette’s surge.
“She’s got a great life story,” McCormick said before he alluded to her unsuccessful 2020 run for a congressional seat in the Philadelphia suburbs. “But she’s been tested. Even the last two years, she ran for Congress and lost by 20 points. We can’t take a risk on this seat.”
Barnette, known previously as a conservative commentator, tweeted a video Thursday morning responding to her critics and what she called “crazy allegations.”
“I have never supported Black Lives Matter,” she said.
“I have been very clear about who I am, and I’ve been this way for a very long time,” she added. “When Donald Trump talked about the swamp, he wasn’t just talking about Democrats, OK?”
I have been very clear about who I am, and I’ve been this way for a very long time.
republican Senate candidate Kathy Barnette
Her rise in the Senate race has befuddled Republicans in Pennsylvania and nationally who had been fixated on the two-person race between Oz and McCormick. Through Thursday, the two early front-runners had spent a combined $24 million on advertising, compared to Barnette’s $159,000, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.
“My opponents have been just very reckless in their spending, quite frankly, to get as little of a return on their investment,” Barnette said in an interview Tuesday. “And one of the questions we need to ask ourselves: If they’ve been so reckless with their own money, what do you think they’re going to do when they get their hands on your money?”
Barnette, who has embraced Trump’s Make America Great Again movement and indulges in the same cultural grievances that energize his base, has benefited from a word-of-mouth following.
Her campaign produced a moving video with her discussing how she was conceived when her mother was raped at 11 years old. The video shows her mother explaining how abortion was not an option after she learned she was pregnant. Abortion has become newly relevant in the midterm elections. In a recent debate, she used her story to attack Oz for changing his views on abortion.
Barnette also has forged an alliance with Doug Mastriano, the front-runner in the GOP primary for governor, appearing with him at events.
But Barnette has been less than forthcoming in media interviews, declining to answer basic questions about her past from a Pennsylvania-based writer with the Washington Examiner.
Christopher Nicholas, a top Republican strategist in Pennsylvania who is neutral in the primary, said Barnette’s opponents could weaponize her refusal to talk about her past, because “when you’re a top-tier Senate campaign, you have opposition on everybody,” but it could be too late to use it.
Another GOP strategist with Pennsylvania ties, Chris Mottola, said that because the race is so close, there is little room for error as Barnette’s rivals seek to neutralize her.
“I don’t know if the Oz or McCormick campaigns are panicking,” he said, adding, “You’re talking about an election that’s going to be won, probably, by a few thousand votes, and any mistake you make over the next few days could be irreparable.”