The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The MAGA establishment looks to crush an unwelcome outsider

Kathy Barnette, a Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, speaks during a forum in Newtown, Pa., on May 11, 2022. (Ted Shaffrey/AP)
5 min

Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Thursday night had a theme.

“Kathy Barnette,” he said, referring to the candidate for the Republican Senate nomination in Pennsylvania, “has not gone through any kind of vigorous, rigorous vetting. That is now proving to be a massive problem in this race.”

He was at least honest in representing his position: “The candidate I endorsed, and President Trump endorsed, Dr. Mehmet Oz, is holding on to the number one spot,” he said, leaning into both his allegiance to the former president and his employer’s seeming indifference to his political activism. But because Barnette had “surged into second place in the polls” — really a tie, per Fox News’s own polling — the time had come to vet Barnette. Or, really to undercut Oz’s opponent.

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So he walked through some of Barnette’s old tweets. He showed an ad attacking her. He interviewed two of her opponents. He interviewed two former Trump administration officials. He interviewed former House speaker Newt Gingrich. It was a barrage with all of the subtlety of a Trump speech.

Speaking of, Donald Trump released a statement delineating similar complaints — but with an asterisk.

“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” it began. “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.”

That caveat is interesting. The challenge is that Barnette represents the same sort of outsider status as Trump himself did and she’s appealing to many of the same voters for that reason. She is a Trump-y candidate, full of opinions and anger at the establishment, but one who Trump declined to endorse.

The result is an unusual new conflict in Republican politics. Having nearly completely defeated and devoured the historic Republican establishment, Trump now represents an establishment of his own, the MAGA establishment. And while Barnette is not running in opposition to that establishment — she’s a vocal and demonstrated Trump supporter — she nonetheless challenges that establishment’s power. So the MAGA establishment is doing what established bases of power do: They’re trying to leverage that power to crush the insurgent.

It’s not that the questions about Barnette’s background aren’t warranted. Columnists from both the left and the right have explored the question in recent days.

“She could be hiding nothing. She could be hiding everything,” the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito wrote. “We don’t know because there are no answers.”

But this uncertainty has not seemed to impede her candidacy. In part, this is a function of the large field; like Trump in 2016, securing a decent, loyal chunk of a splintered electorate can be all you need. In part, it’s because the MAGA establishment’s candidate, Oz, doesn’t speak the language of Trump’s base in the same way. He shares Trump’s celebrity credentials but not his connection to the political right, and voters notice. Then there’s Barnette’s informal alliance with gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, himself a fervent Trump backer. Mastriano is in the driver’s seat in that primary, and, as Zito reports, he and Barnette are running in an informal alliance.

Interestingly, this is a problem for Trump not because it will yield a candidate who doesn’t share his worldview; Barnette clearly does. Instead, it’s a problem because it threatens his political clout. Trump has insisted on the importance of his endorsement in this year’s primaries, regularly touting how well his candidates have done. This is useful because it bolsters the fealty system that’s driving Republicans to Mar-a-Lago to seek his blessing and helps dissuade potential 2024 GOP challengers. In other words, the threat Barnette poses isn’t to politics, it’s to power — exactly the sort of thing that political establishments have fretted over since day one.

Even the attacks on Barnette echo those that the traditional Republican establishment has levied in the past, including against Trump: Can she win? It is clearly the case that there are question marks about Barnette that could lead to a disastrous general-election revelation, but, then, Trump hasn’t worried about such baggage in the past. It may be the case that he and his allies are legitimately worried about Barnette’s chances should she secure the nomination. (There does not appear to be recent polling measuring how she would fare against the likely Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.) But it is also clearly useful to elevate that question for an electorate in which 3 in 5 voters worried most about electability, according to that Fox News poll.

Another interesting dynamic in the race emerged soon after Hannity’s show ended on Thursday night. That he so fervently rose to the defense of the new MAGA establishment was a reminder that, for those who like to tweak the powerful, Barnette offered a useful opportunity. So Hannity went off the air and host Laura Ingraham’s show began.

Ingraham soon entered the fray — in Barnette’s defense. She, too, hosted multiple segments focused on the Pennsylvania race, rebutting Hannity’s rhetoric (if only indirectly) and targeting Oz. This is a reflection of one reason Barnette has the support she does anyway: There’s an ongoing appetite for contrarianism on the pro-Trump right, even if that means going against the president’s endorsed candidate. Even if it means rejecting the vaccines he touts.

Even if it means undercutting the core of power Trump has so carefully tried to defend.