The two main contenders for the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania took a short break from savaging each other this week to train their collective fire on an unexpected rival who is experiencing a surge in popularity in the eleventh hour of the high-profile contest.
In fact, on Wednesday afternoon, it seemed like anyone with a Fox News show or a follower count in the six-digits on MAGA Twitter is speaking with the same voice: if Kathy Barnette wins the primary Tuesday, she is going to lose the Senate seat to a Democrat.
But for Barnette—a previously little-known author whose only other political credit is a landslide congressional defeat in 2020—all the attacks just showed that leading candidates David McCormick and Mehmet Oz think of her as a threat.
“I think I see it as a badge of honor,” Barnette said. “They’re actually paying attention to me.”
McCormick and Trump-endorsed Oz weren’t the only ones startled by Barnette’s sudden rise.
Sean Hannity took time on his show to slam her attacks on Muslims, including her claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim.
Newsmax’s Greg Kelly called her a “race card playing scammer.” Former Trump acting intelligence director Ric Grenell called her “unfit for office,” highlighting a 2015 tweet in which Barnette said “pedophilia is a cornerstone of Islam.” Pro-Trump accounts have circulated a misleadingly edited video meant to portray Barnette, who is Black, as a radical Black Lives Matter supporter.
Conservative media outlets have stirred up murky questions about her military service. Even Trump got in on the action on Thursday, putting out a vague press release claiming Barnette would lose a general election because of “many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted.”
But Barnette said she isn’t concerned about the questions about her background.
“As some people say, I’ve got receipts,” Barnette said.
Tuesday’s Republican primary was expected to come down to McCormick, a businessman, and Trump’s pick, Oz. But a pricey ad battle between the two leading candidates and a viral video about Barnette’s life story have created an opening for the little-known author and failed House candidate who now polls roughly equal to her rivals.
A Fox News poll conducted between May 3 and May 7 put Barnette at 19 percent, McCormick at 20 percent, and Oz at 22 percent—a three-way tie in the poll’s 3 percent margin of error.
It’s the second time in two election cycles Barnette has been on the ballot. In 2020, she lost a general election bid for a House seat by more than 20 points. That loss and her thin political experience appear to have convinced Republican operatives that she would struggle in the Senate primary. But her sudden rise has upended the GOP race, which for months has been a brutal one-on-one cage match between Oz and McCormick. The two have spent at least a combined $28 million to date—with associated outside groups dumping another $25 million in ads—making this the most expensive congressional race so far in this midterm election cycle.
Republican operatives from Washington to Pennsylvania quickly mobilized this week in a mad scramble to dig into Barnette’s record for potential lines of attack. By Wednesday night, a pro-Oz super PAC was running ads on YouTube attacking Barnette for once circulating a petition to create a statue for Barack Obama, part of an oddball compromise Barnette once proposed to save a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. In a Wednesday appearance on Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s show, McCormick pointed to Barnette’s 2020 defeat as proof that she’s a guaranteed loser.
“She’s been tested,” McCormick said. “Even the last two years, she ran for Congress and lost by 20 points."
Trump, himself, weighed in on Thursday in a statement, saying she “will never be able to win the General Election” and reminded his followers that Oz was his pick.
Barnette’s recent rise has been powered in the primary in part by a video in which she lays out her background as the product of her then 11-year-old mother’s rape to argue for sweeping restrictions on abortion, including in cases of rape. But Barnette’s story may have inspired Republican voters, her hardline stance against abortion even in the case of rape might not play so well in the general election. Other potential general-election weaknesses included her ties to Jan. 6, her attacks on Muslims and LGBT people, her campaign’s unwillingness to discuss her background, and her flirtations with QAnon.
Barnette refused to concede her 2020 congressional defeat to Rep. Madeleine Dean (D), hiring an amateur election fraud “expert” only to fire him after the man failed to find compelling proof that she had been cheated. She chartered three buses to take people to the Jan. 6 protests in Washington, claiming in a Dec. 22, 2020 Facebook video that the country was being stolen from Trump supporters.
“Fight, fight, fight,” Barnette said. “This is our country. This is not their country. This is our country.”
Later in the video, Barnette blended a reference to Christmas family dinners with a militant call for Trump supporters to use a “sword” and prepare for Jan. 6.
“We will enjoy our families with our sword drawn,” Barnette said.
Barnette, who was in Washington the day of the riot but claims she didn’t enter the Capitol, has since tried to distance herself from the violence, calling the riot a “hoax” on Twitter. But in an April 2022 interview with a Pennsylvania TV station, Barnette insisted she didn’t call the riot a hoax after all.
“I don’t recall ever saying that,” Barnette said.
“It was a tweet,” one local TV reporter said.
“I don’t recall — no, January 6 was a day, and what happened, happened, on that particular day.”’
Barnette has also dabbled in the QAnon conspiracy theory. In her 2020 congressional campaign, she embraced “Save the Children,” a QAnon front movement that hijacked the Facebook hashtag “Save the Children” after moderators started banning hashtags related to the conspiracy theory. In her 2020 campaign, Barnette posted frequently about Save the Children, putting her campaign logo on stock photos of children bound with rope or with their mouths gagged to suggest that her opponent was weak on child trafficking.
‘I will not forget about the children,” Barnette wrote in one post. “We cannot continue to ignore this evil that is being perpetrated on our children.”
Barnette also has a history of making anti-gay comments. In 2013, she led a group called Truth Exchange Ministries that appeared at anti-gay marriage protests. In a blog post, Barnette called being gay a “culturally degenerate lifestyle.”
“Can we, as a nation, co-exist with the Homosexual Agenda?” Barnette wrote. “No, we cannot and will not for long.”
Barnette went on to compare LGBT people to “robbers” and “extortionists,” and claimed the “homosexual movement” has a goal of “domination.”
“Make no mistake about it, homosexuality is a targeted group in the Bible, right along with cheats, drunkards, liars, foul-mouths, extortionists, robbers, and any other habitual sin,” Barnette wrote.
Barnette even appears to have posted online about not wanting to fly on the same plane as a lesbian woman.
“Please PRAY for my babies and me,” Barnette wrote in a March 2013 tweet. “We are about to board the place (sic) to California and there's a homosexual female…”
Barnette has also joined a growing Republican movement to restrict the voting rights of people who move out of blue states as some kind of punishment. In a Dec. 23, 2020 Facebook post, she wrote that California and New York transplants “should lose your voting privileges for a minimum of 2 years.”
“It’s only fair that you should suffer the consequences of your voting habits,” Barnette wrote.
As Republicans look to undermine Barnette’s bid, right-wing media outlets have stirred up questions on a key part of her resume: her ten-year service in the military. Conservative news outlet The Washington Examiner published a story this week noting that Barnette’s campaign refused to answer basic questions about her life, including her hometown and her military career. The Washington Free Beacon, another Beltway right-wing site, followed up and reported that Barnette’s campaign manager hung up on a reporter when asked about her military record.
For now, though, it appears Barnette was telling the truth about her service. Late Wednesday, Barnette provided The Daily Beast and other outlets with documents that purport to show she served in both the Army Reserves and the Alabama National Guard in the 1990s. A spokesperson for the U.S. Army confirmed the National Guard service to The Daily Beast, though the military office responsible for verifying the Army Reserves information did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview, Barnette blamed the kerfuffle over her military service on the fact she was in Pennsylvania’s rural Elk County on Wednesday and unable to get cell phone service to provide campaign staffers with her military documents.
Though there may be plenty of material to work with, even the well-funded front-runners may not have enough time to air the entire oppo book to voters before Tuesday’s primary.
With the influential conservative group Club For Growth fueling Barnette’s late surge with a $2 million spending commitment, there’s a sense that she could vault into the top spot. If that were to happen, Democrats and many Republicans agree that Barnette would be uniquely positioned to turn Pennsylvania from a top-tier battleground into a likely flip for Democrats. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a prolific fundraiser, is likely to win the Democratic nomination.
Barnette could be a headache for Senate Republicans even if she wins. In a recent appearance on Glenn Beck’s show, Barnette said she would support Beck’s calls for top government officials to be arrested, and suggested she wouldn’t back Sen. Mitch McConnell as the party’s Senate leader.
The only Democrat who knows what it’s like to run against Barnette is Dean, who defeated her easily in 2020. Dean watched as Barnette embarked on her quixotic crusade to prove, somehow, that rampant voter fraud was the reason she lost, and she has been paying attention to her previously longshot campaign for Senate.
“If somehow she wins the nomination, we will see through the course of the campaign, she simply doesn't have ideas that match our state's values,” Dean said. “She just doesn’t.”
Other Democrats are salivating at the prospect of facing Barnette in the general election.
“I’m sure many of us are hoping she sustains it and wins,” said T.J. Rooney, the former head of the state Democratic Party. “Because she’s certainly — [it] would be very tough to elect her.”
-Additional reporting by Ursula Perano