By Gabby Orr, CNN
In the hours after Fox released a poll this week showing Pennsylvania Republican US Senate candidate Kathy Barnette locked in a statistical tie with primary opponents Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick, allies of former President Donald Trump went to work trying to stifle her momentum.
To sow doubt about her conservative bona fides, they circulated one of Barnette’s tweets from July 2020 featuring the hashtags #BLM and #DefundThePolice — two rallying cries deployed by racial justice activists that Republicans seized on during the last election cycle.
But a video accompanying the tweet told a much different story. “Abolishing the police is stupid,” Barnette declared through tears into the camera. “Do not fall for these White liberals who are coming into our communities and telling us we need to remove law enforcement.”
The episode illustrates the problem that Trump, who endorsed Oz in the Pennsylvania primary, is facing as he and his allies try to prevent both a dark horse victory by Barnette in the final week of the race and another blemish on his endorsement record, following the defeat of his chosen candidate in Nebraska’s gubernatorial primary this week.
The situation has left Trump feeling “nervous about Oz’s prospects,” according to one Trump adviser, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“For the past five months, he’s been told the only threat to Oz is named David McCormick. This is a twist no one saw coming,” the adviser said.
Another person close to Trump who has been supportive of Oz described the situation as “a nightmare.” In interviews with CNN, this person and three other Trump allies described Barnette, who nabbed endorsements late Tuesday from the socially conservative groups Susan B. Anthony List and CatholicVote and a seven-figure investment from the Club for Growth, as a major threat to both Oz and McCormick in the last stretch of the race.
In an unexpected move on Tuesday, the Club for Growth announced that it would spend $1.9 million to boost Barnette on the airwaves in Pennsylvania between now and the May 17 primary — a significant development for a candidate who has spent $160,000 on TV since launching her campaign in April 2021 in a race that has seen nearly $50 million in combined spending by her opponents and outside groups.
“I don’t think people were expecting Kathy Barnette to come up the middle this hard right in the last week,” one Trump ally said. “The biggest story in the last week of this race is her momentum, and so she’s getting both earned and paid media. That’s a two-for-one.”
Barnette’s late rise in the polls has also left her opponents little time to change the way voters see her, leaving her in a less vulnerable position than Oz and McCormick, who have been working for months to cast each other in an unflattering light.
“You can go negative on her, but you only have a week to introduce her in a negative way and I don’t think there’s much from a conservative perspective. I haven’t heard of anything where I’ve thought, ‘Oh, yes, this will be very effective,’ ” the Trump ally said.
Oz himself called Barnette a “mystery” durign an interview on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox Wednesday night, expressing concern about her electability amid her late polling surge.
“She is a mystery person, we don’t know much about her, and we have to be able to learn, and she’s not willing to share,” Oz said.
The former President is still determining whether there is anything he can do to give Oz an extra boost in the race, the adviser to Trump said, noting that Trump was already planning to host a tele-rally and to target Republican voters with robocalls before the primary. Trump also held a campaign rally outside of Pittsburgh last Friday, where he repeatedly tore into McCormick to turn on-the-fence voters against him.
“He is absolutely the candidate of special interests and globalists and the Washington establishment. … David is totally controlled … by Mitch McConnell, the old crow, the old broken-down crow,” Trump said.
Notably, the former President did not mention Barnette once in his remarks.
Creating an opening
Inside Trump’s orbit, Barnette’s swift rise from obscurity to a legitimate competitor is seen as a direct result of the mud-slinging contest that has unfolded between Oz and McCormick over the past several months. It’s a classic case of a candidate running up the middle, said allies of the former President, with one likening Barnette to Sen. Deb Fischer, whose bare-bones campaign defeated two well-funded tea party darlings in the 2012 Nebraska GOP Senate primary.
McCormick and Oz, both self-funders, have each spent more than $10 million on television advertising so far, most of it on vicious attack ads against one another. Though Oz received Trump’s formal backing last month, McCormick has continued to raise questions about his opponent’s MAGA credentials while casting himself as a true ally of the 45th President.
“Dave, I want to congratulate you. You’ve served our country well in so many different ways,” Trump could be heard telling McCormick in an old video clip featured in an ad launched by McCormick’s campaign this week.
The heated battle between Oz and McCormick that has been playing out on the television screens of Pennsylvanians has left both men with significantly higher unfavorable ratings than Barnette, according to the Fox poll, which found that 46% of Pennsylvania Republican primary voters do not view Oz favorably. That has created a giant opening for Barnette in the closing days of the race, said one of the Trump allies.
“For four to five months now, McCormick and Oz have spent millions of dollars nuking each other. Who would you rather be?” said the Trump adviser.
Still, allies of Barnette expect both of her main opponents to direct some of their attacks toward her now that she is registering as more of a threat in polls.
“‘I’m sure they will go after her. There’s no doubt they will do something,” said former Kansas US Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a senior adviser to CatholicVote, which praised Barnette as “genuinely pro-life” and claimed she is “now within striking distance” of her competitors in an endorsement announcement on Tuesday.
“But if they do that, they will just draw attention to the fact that she is what they are trying to be: an authentic conservative and Pennsylvanian,” Huelskamp added.
As Huelskamp’s group launches a pro-Barnette text message campaign that will target church-attending Catholics in the state who the group has identified as anti-abortion Republicans, the other boost for Barnette will come from the Club for Growth’s ad buy.
The group’s $1.9 million ad blitz for Barnette caught several Trump allies off guard who had been expecting Club for Growth President David McIntosh to keep a low profile after his relationship with the former President took a nasty turn in the final weeks of the Ohio US Senate primary. McIntosh had directed the Club for Growth to continue attacking J.D. Vance on the airwaves following Trump’s endorsement of him, though Vance still prevailed against his Club-backed opponent, Josh Mandel, in the end.
“This was the thing that really made people take notice, because before the Club’s investment, the thinking was that she has some momentum but the others are going to spend millions of dollars this week and just drown her out,” said one of the Trump allies.
“Even when her numbers started to tick up, no one expected her to have the resources to get up on TV. That obviously changes if the Club is going to spend $2 million on her now,” this person added.
An Oz loss — either to Barnette or McCormick — could mark the beginning of a rough patch for Trump, who has backed several candidates competing in contested primaries this month.
In addition to Pennsylvania, where Trump was ultimately convinced to get behind Oz by his wife, Melania, and allies like Fox host Sean Hannity, he has endorsed Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina, who is also competing in a Senate primary next Tuesday, against former GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. And later this month, Trump will have multiple candidates competing in primaries across Georgia, including gubernatorial challenger David Perdue, whom Trump personally recruited as he works to rid the GOP of elected officials — like incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp — who have refused to embrace his disproven claims about the 2020 election.
With the exception of Charles Herbster’s defeat in Nebraska amid several allegations of sexual misconduct, Trump has been able to reasonably claim so far that his endorsement does indeed make a difference in competitive races — carrying Vance from a possible third-place finish to a comfortable win in last week’s Ohio US Senate primary and giving a boost to Rep. Alex Mooney in a heated West Virginia congressional primary this week.
This story has been updated with additional reaction.
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CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.