Republicans are watching conservative candidate Kathy Barnette’s sudden rise in their party’s upcoming Pennsylvania US Senate primary with a mix of unease, wonder and dread.
Barnette’s late surge in the closely watched contest has turned what was broadly seen as a two-person race between celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick into a chaotic three-person affair, with Barnette seen as a wild card who has grassroots momentum mere days before the Tuesday contest.
The unexpected development has caused even the most influential Republicans to panic, including former President Donald Trump himself, who attempted to quash Barnette’s campaign by claiming in a statement Thursday that she is not a viable general election candidate.
“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump said.
Though Trump acknowledged that Barnette, who he described as “not properly explained or vetted,” is poised to “have a wonderful future in the Republican Party,” he reaffirmed his support for Oz and encouraged GOP primary voters to stick with his chosen candidate.
“A vote for anyone else in the Primary is a vote against Victory in the Fall!” he said.
At a campaign stop Thursday evening, Barnette brushed aside the blistering assessment and smiled when asked about the pointed words from Trump, telling reporters: “I look forward to working with the President.”
Asked if the whirling criticism is a sign that she’s on the rise, Barnette said, “I would agree.”
But like the former President, other Republicans are worried about the myriad unknowns surrounding Barnette, who until this week was barely a household name in Pennsylvania, let alone a Republican candidate garnering national attention.
“She is a giant walking question mark,” said one Republican operative working on Senate races. “There has been almost no vetting of her. … There is a lot that we don’t know about her, including basic biographical details.”
Oz told Fox host Sean Hannity on Wednesday that Barnette was a “mystery person.”
“I don’t see any way, any scenario under which she can win a general election,” he told Hannity, who was among those pushing Trump behind the scenes to endorse Oz earlier this spring.
One person close to Trump said the former President saw the Oz-Hannity interview as “too heavy-handed” and thought Oz’s attacks on Barnette would only make her stock rise further.
‘There is certainly fear from some Republicans’
The source of Barnette’s rise, though, is not a mystery: The persistent campaigner has outflanked Oz and McCormick from the right, using Trump’s now-unpopular decision to back the television doctor to rally Pennsylvania’s conservative base to her side and benefiting from an alliance with leading Republican gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano. Barnette has effectively stepped into the void created by that grassroots anger and the singular focus that Oz and McCormick have had on each other for weeks.
What worries Republicans now is just how much of Barnette’s personal and professional background remains a mystery and the limited window in which voters might be informed of any liabilities she would have as a candidate on the ballot this November.
“There is certainly fear from some Republicans. The surge happened quickly and sort of out of nowhere,” said a Republican aide focused on Senate races. “She is relatively unknown and unvetted.”
While Barnette’s campaign website describes her as a “veteran, former adjunct professor of corporate finance, sought-after conference speaker, and conservative political commentator,” little is known about almost all aspects of her professional life.
The most in-depth look at Barnette’s personal life came in the form of a two-minute campaign ad released in the wake of the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, in which Barnette revealed that she was “the byproduct of rape” after her mother was molested and became pregnant at age 11.
Republicans in Washington have also been passing around a Washington Examiner piece titled “Who is Kathy Barnette,” which reports that a series of questions posed to Barnette’s campaign manager about the candidate’s background – including about her military service – went unanswered.
Still, not all Republicans are publicly concerned about Barnette’s rise.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN he had no concerns about her emergence in the race – and he downplayed the idea she would be more vulnerable in a general election matchup. He said he has spoken with her as well.
“Everybody’s going to attack everybody. But ultimately, the voters are going to choose,” said Scott, who is neutral in the race.
And Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, the only US senator who’s endorsed Barnette, told CNN that the candidate is “extraordinary” and dismissed the attack that Barnette has not been properly vetted.
“Look around the Senate,” Ernst said in the halls of the chamber. “I see a lot of people that I think should have been vetted. But no, I just, I think she is extraordinary.”
“Just because you’re a political newcomer doesn’t mean we write you off,” Ernst added. “I think she’s got a great story. It’s convincing.”
Barnette’s connections to Pennsylvania are also largely unknown, and both her book and campaign website are sparse on basic biographical information about the would-be senator. While Barnette ran unopposed in a Republican congressional primary in 2020 only to lose to Democrat Madeleine Dean by 19 percentage points for a congressional seat in the Philadelphia suburbs, the listing for her 2020 book, “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America,” said she lived in Virginia.
The book features heavily in Barnette’s stump speech. The candidate writes that she “grew up on a very small farm in southern Alabama in a one stop-sign town.” The house, she writes, had no running water and had an outhouse. In another passage she writes that “for the majority of blacks in Nichburg, Alabama, and surrounding areas, the goal of each day was sheer survival.” Those who support Barnette and have heard her speak often cite her personal story – rural upbringing, college, military service and work as a commentator – as the reason they are backing her.
“I was very impressed with her life story,” said Donna DePue, the vice president of the Wyoming County Council of Republican Women, a group that hosted a luncheon for Barnette. “She was never taught to believe she was lesser than. She came across as the real deal. She is not a disgusting RINO and I liked her sincerity.”
“I keep telling folks that President Trump is not nearly as politically right as parts of this populist movement – Kathy Barnette is a manifestation of that. It’s MAGA vs. ultra MAGA in Pennsylvania,” said former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was due to host Barnette on his “War Room” podcast Thursday afternoon.
Barnette has also skillfully explained how she, a candidate running in line with Trump and his values, did not get the former President’s endorsement, saying at a recent debate that “MAGA does not belong to President Trump” because “our values never, never shifted to President Trump’s values” and it was “President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”
The explanation worked for many Republican activists, who see Oz as the antithesis of the MAGA movement.
In response, Oz’s and McCormick’s campaigns and associated super PACs have quickly worked to stop Barnette’s surge. American Leadership PAC, a super PAC backing Oz, posted a video on Wednesday calling Barnette “crazy” and “Pennsylvania’s wackiest candidate” and linking her, a Black Republican, with efforts to defund the police.
“Her surge is tied to her relationship to state Sen. Doug Mastriano. His supporters are supporting her. … Mastriano supporters will follow him off a cliff,” said a Republican operative in Pennsylvania. “[I] have a feeling most will stay with her even through the attacks.”
Mastriano’s rise has set off panic in Republican circles. State Sen. Jake Corman withdrew from the gubernatorial race on Thursday and endorsed former US Rep. Lou Barletta. Mastriano is one of the commonwealth’s most outspoken proponents of the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Republicans watching the response to Barnette’s rise, however, believe it may be too late for either operation to slow her rise. And the current response may be the extent of the effort to stop her, given the primary is just days away.
A source close to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the group had “no plans to get involved in this primary.” The super PAC’s central goal is electing a Republican majority to the Senate, which at times has meant getting involved in primaries to push the candidate it sees as the most electable – an open question about Barnette. But the timing of her rise has effectively hamstrung the group and others.
For Republicans, the prospect of Barnette winning on Tuesday now turns their focus to a general election with the largely unknown candidate helming one of their most high-profile Senate campaigns. Republicans are buoyant about their chances of taking back the evenly divided Senate in November, powered by President Joe Biden’s slumping poll numbers and a favorable environment for the Republican Party.
But 2022 would not be the first time an unexpected Republican candidate doomed those chances. Top Republicans are eagerly looking to avoid turning winnable races into clear losses like they did in 2010 and 2012, when far-right, unvetted candidates won primaries but struggled in general elections.
A range of Republican operatives told CNN on Thursday that while Barnette could make their work harder in Pennsylvania, she will have a chance in what will likely be a good year for Republicans.
“It’s absolutely wild, but it still seems early to say she would be a surefire loser in a general,” one of the operatives concluded. “She could explode on the tarmac two weeks after the primary is over. Or she could win.”
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Michael Warren contributed to this report.