Former president Donald Trump and other Republicans are ramping up their attacks on Kathy Barnette, a political novice who has raised a fraction of the money of her well-heeled Pennsylvania primary rivals — hedge fund magnate David McCormick and television doctor Mehmet Oz — yet is surging in the race for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate.
Trump, who has endorsed Oz, issued a statement Thursday insisting Barnette “will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats.” Oz called her a “mystery person” and a super PAC supporting him is running an ad titled “Crazy Kathy.” McCormick pointed to her double-digit loss in a bid for Congress in 2020 as one of the reasons the GOP can’t take a risk with her on the Senate seat.
But many voters are taking a hard look at this upstart. Barnette, 50, is a political commentator, author and home-schooling mother who has criticized public education and undocumented immigrants. In a campaign video and multiple interviews on conservative media, Barnette has said that she was born in southern Alabama to a 12-year-old mother who was raped. She was raised in poverty and eventually joined the Army National Guard before launching an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2020.
Barnette, a fierce opponent of abortion, gun control and universal health care, has spent much of her campaign attacking some of the Democratic Party’s most influential leaders. And in her book titled, “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America,” Barnette argues that liberal policies have failed Black Americans — a point she has mentioned on the campaign trail.
In an increasingly bitter race featuring multiple candidates, she has captured the attention of a growing number of Pennsylvania’s Republican voters — and has secured the backing and the campaign spending of the Club for Growth. Widely viewed as the most serious threat to scoring an upset win on Tuesday, the winner will face the Democratic choice in November to fill the open seat now held by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R).
“They’re coming out with long knives at this point,” Barnette told a GOP audience on Thursday. “Right? And I had the best day of my life today.”
Days before the primary, the race is tight. A recent Fox News poll showed Oz with 22 percent support; McCormick, the former CEO of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, with 20 percent; and Barnette at 19 percent. McCormick and Oz have tapped their personal wealth and networks to spend several million on the race, while Barnette, who has raised just $1.8 million, only has $217,076 cash on hand, according to the latest Federal Election Commission report.
While Oz has been viewed as a top contender for weeks, especially after the Trump endorsement, his surrogates have increased their attacks on Barnette in recent days. Fox News host Sean Hannity spent significant time criticizing Barnette on Thursday night, arguing that her controversial tweets — including one calling former president Barack Obama “a horrible gay Muslim” — could possibly make beating a Democrat in a general election difficult.
“Because she was polling so low, just until the last week or so, unfortunately, Kathy Barnette has not gone through any kind of vigorous, rigorous vetting,” he said. “That is now proving to be a massive problem in this race.”
“There are so many questions she has never answered in many tweets that likely render her unelectable in Pennsylvania,” added Hannity, who has endorsed Oz.
American Leadership Action, a super PAC backing Oz, has labeled her “Crazy Kathy Barnette” in a new ad, while declaring her “Pennsylvania’s wackiest Senate candidate.”
Ric Grenell, an Oz supporter who was Trump’s acting national intelligence director, has criticized Barnette’s old tweets suggesting that the conservative Christian is homophobic.
“Unfit for office,” Grenell, the first openly gay person to serve at a Cabinet level, tweeted on Wednesday.
Trump’s criticism of Barnette in his statement Thursday stands in sharp contrast to her full embrace of the former president. As an analyst on Fox News, she has been a consistent champion of Trumpism and organized buses to send Trump supporters to the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
But Barnette has been clear about the limits of Trump’s influence on the individuals who continue to support his political ideals and has suggested that she would move the party further right of the former president.
“MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” she said at an April debate. “MAGA — although he coined the word, it actually belongs to the people,” adding, “Our values never, never shifted to President Trump’s values. It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”
It is this populist rhetoric that has attracted Barnette to some voters skeptical of McCormick and Oz, a celebrity known more for his television appearances than his roots in Pennsylvania.
While high-profile Trump supporters are largely split between McCormick and Oz, some of the party’s Black lawmakers have been vocal in their praise for Barnette’s bid to be Pennsylvania’s first Black senator.
Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), one of two Black Republicans in the House, pushed back on the Barnette criticism Friday on Twitter.
“Kathy Barnette is a friend and a powerful voice for the conservative movement,” he tweeted. “The coordinated attacks to discredit her are shameful. I know Kathy can win in November. I am proud to support her and look forward to working with @Kathy4Truth when she is elected in November!”
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) took to Twitter Wednesday to share his full support of Barnette’s candidacy.
“Pennsylvania, there is only one choice for the US Senate and it’s @Kathy4Truth! Kathy, is a strong conservative who will protect your liberties, and get our nation back on track,” he tweeted. “On May 17th, Vote Kathy Barnette for US Senate. She has my full endorsement!!”
Darrell Scott, a former faith adviser for Trump, said Thursday on Twitter that the attacks on Barnette aren’t helping a party that has struggled to win Black voters.
“With all the heat Blacks on the Right take on a regular basis for bucking tradition and voting Republican, I’d be less than a man NOT to defend a Black Woman who is the target of a smear campaign like @Kathy4Truth is, ESPECIALLY if the attacks are from the Right!”
In his statement Thursday, Trump hedged his bets on the outcome, despite his full-throated endorsement of Oz.
“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,” he said.