The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pennsylvania Republicans identify the real kingmaker: Sean Hannity

President Donald Trump listens to Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity speak during a rally on Nov. 5, 2018, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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As of writing, the results in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary are undetermined. The leading candidates are television personality Mehmet Oz and businessman Dave McCormick. The pair appear to have held off a late threat from right-wing commentator Kathy Barnette, who has no path to victory.

The race was one of the most ferociously contested of Tuesday night’s elections, introducing an unusual new dynamic to Republican politics. Former president Donald Trump, whose endorsement has been sought by all the Republican candidates, chose to back Oz, frustrating many of his allies. Barnette’s candidacy was a more natural fit with Trump’s base, helping explain why she earned as much support as she did. It was an interesting test: Could Trump’s endorsement lift a less-Trumpy candidate over a more-Trumpy one?

In the hours after polls closed, though, both Oz and Barnette pointed to a different person as playing an important role in how the race turned out: Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity.

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This is the paragraph in which I am obliged to harrumph about how Hannity, as a member of the media, is not supposed to be endorsing candidates. But let’s be honest: No one on this earth who has paid more than 20 seconds of attention to Hannity is under any misapprehension about his proximity to evenhanded reporting. Fox News has in the past chastised Hannity for getting actively involved in races, but it seems to have just given up on the idea. Hannity said directly last week on his show that he endorsed Oz. Perhaps his comment prompted a senior Fox executive to think about shrugging, but I doubt one actually exerted the effort to carry it out.

So Hannity backed Trump’s candidate — in keeping with his dedication to the former president — and then used his resources (a prime-time program on the cable news channel most watched by Republican voters) to benefit that candidacy. Over and over, even within the same program, he hammered on Barnette and touted Oz.

Now, we should not assume that this by itself was why Barnette is likely to finish in third. There were television ads targeting Barnette’s murky background and lots of non-Hannity-led conversation about how she might fare in a general election. Barnette might never have had a real shot or she might not have done any better had Hannity not said a word about her.

But one person who ascribes Barnette’s poor showing to Hannity is Kathy Barnette.

On Wednesday morning, Barnette released a brief video thanking Pennsylvania voters for supporting her candidacy. She also offered some words of condemnation.

“I do want to say,” she said: “Never forget what Sean Hannity did in this race. Almost single-handedly, Sean Hannity sowed seeds of disinformation, flat-out lies every night for the past five days. And that was just extremely hard to overcome, apparently.”

Okay, sure, you say. A person who lost is finding a scapegoat for losing. And, yes, it’s true that bashing Hannity is a safer play than bashing Trump for someone who might want to either run as a Republican again or who is looking for a more prominent perch for punditry. But we should also note that it isn’t just that Barnette blamed Hannity for her loss. It’s also that Oz gave him some credit for his potential win.

“I want to thank Sean Hannity,” Oz said during the speech he gave at his campaign party Tuesday night. “Sean’s like a brother to me. When Sean punches through something, he really punches through it. He understands exactly how to make a difference and he’s been doing that this entire campaign. Much of it behind the scenes. Giving me advice in late-night conversations — again the kinds of things that true friends do for one another.”

Here, again, I am obligated by the standards of my profession to gnash my teeth at Hannity offering “behind the scenes” advice to a candidate for office, but I will say that I’m gnashing them with little more than depressed resignation.

That formulation of Hannity hopping on the phone and riffing on how to proceed might sound familiar. It is, after all, exactly the way in which he reportedly offered Trump advice in the White House. (Gnash, harrumph, sigh, etc.)

I raise this point because it’s possible that Trump — for whom endorsements are as emotionally vital as the last dollar placed on a roulette table by a man on the brink of insolvency — may strike out in his Senate endorsement in Pennsylvania. He did endorse Doug Mastriano, the state senator who won the gubernatorial primary in the state, but only after it was obvious Mastriano was going to win handily. (“Give me $20 on red,” the gambler says as the roulette ball settles onto a red space.) If Oz loses to McCormick, Trump’s breathless insistence on his king-making prowess takes a hit.

And if Hannity gets the credit for knocking out Barnette? Or if Oz wins and Hannity gets more credit than Trump? In his next late-night call with the former president, one might expect that Sean Hannity will hear some choice words about how “true friends” are supposed to act.

Update: Shortly after this piece published, Barnette picked up on Oz’s comments.

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