By Dan Merica, CNN
To Kathy Barnette and her ardent supporters in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary, former President Donald Trump made a mistake.
It’s not that Barnette and her supporters don’t still support the former President. They do, and many of her backers remain Trump’s most fervent defenders. But when the former President endorsed celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz in the Republican Senate primary, it opened a pathway for Barnette to run further to the right, and more in line with the “MAGA movement” than any of her primary opponents.
“As much as people support Trump, hey, he ain’t God,” said Gary Smith, chair for the Constitutional Republicans of Western Pennsylvania in Jefferson County who personally plans to vote for Barnette. “He made a mistake. I think it is one of the worst mistakes he has made in his endorsements because Oz is everything we are not.”
Smith added: “This is Trump country. A year later, all the signs are still up. … But I would say right now, 90 some percent of our group is probably going to vote for her.”
Barnette’s campaign has been a surprising success in the final months of the primary, according to top Pennsylvania Republican operatives and county officials, many of whom have been impressed by the durability and strength of the author and commentator’s Senate bid in the face of unmatched money.
That persistence was rewarded this week when a string of Republican groups announced they were going to give Barnette last minute, big money support. Club for Growth, a top Republican super PAC, reserved nearly $2 million in ads on behalf of Barnette on Tuesday, according to the ad tracker AdImpact. And two anti-abortions organizations — the super PAC arm of Susan B. Anthony List and CatholicVote — announced on Tuesday they were endorsing Barnette. Both groups now plan to use their vast nationwide networks to help the conservative candidate.
While the top two Republicans in the race, Oz and former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick, self-fund their campaigns and spend millions on television ads, Barnette has crisscrossed the commonwealth in relative obscurity, holding events with a range of Republican groups, spending little money on television and winning over many of the activists who will make up the electorate in Tuesday’s primary.
“She is getting out in the public, going to these events and meeting, not just committee members, but local Leigh residents,” Joe Vichot, chairman of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, said of Barnette, who recently upstaged her better funded rivals by winning the county party’s straw poll.
Vichot said that while there is a subset of the party who will vote for whoever Trump backs, many aren’t as tied to the former President’s support as they are looking for someone who they believe embodies the former President.
“That’s resonating,” he added, noting questions about Oz’s conservative credentials. “Some people will vote for Oz because Trump says so, but that’s not always the case. They love what Trump has done and they like what he is standing up and fighting for. That is what she has.”
A new Fox poll released Tuesday showed a wide-open primary with Oz at 22%, McCormick at 20% and Barnette at 19% — within the survey’s margin of error — and 18% of Republican voters undecided. Barnette’s standing was up 10 points from where she was in Fox’s March poll. And if Barnette can benefit from the top two candidates being narrowly focused on each other and pull off an unexpected victory in Tuesday’s primary, it will be, in part, because of blowback to Trump’s decision to endorse Oz.
“MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” Barnette said at a recent debate to explain why she did not receive the former President’s endorsement. “Although he coined the word, MAGA actually belongs to the people. Our values never, never shifted to President Trump’s values. It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”
It’s a strategy Barnette has had for months. Smith recalled that Barnette told him back in October 2021 that her strategy was to embrace Trump and fill in the gap once the top candidates bludgeon each other with negative ads.
“She told me, ‘I am going to let the top three just beat each other up and them I am going slide in and win,'” Smith recalled. “And I think this girl is going to slide right in like this Kentucky Derby winner just did. It’s going to be close… but I think she is going to pull it off.”
From 2020 loss to upstart Senate campaign
Barnette is a relative newcomer to elected politics and both her book and campaign website are sparse on details about her ties to the commonwealth. She 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.
In her 2020 book “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America,” Barnette details how she “grew up on a very small farm in southern Alabama in a one stop-sign town,” in a house with no running water and an outhouse.
In a recent debate, Barnette — a mother of two who opted to homeschool her children — also said she was a “byproduct of a rape” when a 21-year-old man impregnated her 11-year-old mother. She said she turned the trauma into the life she has now, using it to relate to those voters who oppose abortion.
The book goes on to detail Barnette’s views on being a conservative, how she associated being Black with being a Democrat — “I was born into the Democratic Party just as much as I was born into brown skin,” she writes — and how Trump’s 2016 campaign and his appeal to Black voters inspired her views on conservatism.
From her “dirt poor” upbringing, Barnette’s website says she would go on to graduate from college, served for 10 years in the Army reserves and went on to both work and teach corporate finance. It does not detail Barnette’s ties to Pennsylvania, or when she moved to the state.
What Barnette’s campaign has lacked in funding — she has spent a paltry $160,000 on television ads compared to $13 million for Oz and $12 million for McCormick — it has made up for in energy. County officials tell CNN that Barnette is, by far, by the most responsive of the Senate candidates, often attending events in rural stretches of the state and spending time with activists and voters. Barnette’s spots also focus more on issues like rising prices than they do on tearing down her opponents.
“I know what matters most to you and your family, because I am you,” she says in a recent video. “Everything is up. Our ability to live is being squeezed. Biden did this.”
Barnette has also staked out far right positions that are popular among Republican activists. She is proudly skeptical of the coronavirus vaccine — her Facebook photo features one sign: “HIRING THE UN-VACCINATED” — and she has said that politicians on both sides of the aisle “allowed COVID-19 to trump the Constitution.”
She also routinely sprinkles her stump speech with baseless claims about election fraud in 2020, arguing that the Republican Party should “absolutely not” move on from talking about the last election and at times arguing there were “irregularities” in her overwhelming congressional loss.
She has endorsed state Sen. Doug Mastriano’s bid to be governor. Mastriano is one of the commonwealth’s most outspoken proponents of the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Mastriano, who polls have as the lead Republican in the gubernatorial primary, has reciprocated the endorsement, backing Barnette and the two have since campaigned together.
‘Because you are a liberal’
Even as Barnette has opted not to make her primary opponents the focus of her campaign, she has routinely accused Oz and McCormick of being fake conservatives who, to win a Senate seat, moved to Pennsylvania for the primary. Both top Republicans have roundly been accused of being carpetbaggers: Oz, until recently, lived in New Jersey, and McCormick used to reside in Connecticut.
The strategy has clearly gotten under their skin — especially Oz.
At a March forum, Barnette was persistent in her attacks of Oz, charging that the race was “not a talk show” and that Pennsylvania voters “need people who understand what the issues are and who don’t simply sit in a room, learn our talking points, and then come back and parrot them to us.” She went on to argue that Oz spent his entire career trying to be a “liberal working beside Oprah and Michelle Obama.”
Oz erupted at the comment, given the rules of the forum stipulated candidates were not supposed to attack each other. Oz, trying to turn the situation on Barnette, used his closing to ask, “You should all ask yourselves, why is everyone attacking me?”
Barnette, undeterred, interrupted: “Because you are a liberal.”
It’s that combativeness — something that many Trump supporters associate with the former President — that has won over many of Pennsylvania’s most conservative voters, along with the desire to show up.
“She came across as the real deal,” said Donna DePue, vice president of the Wyoming County Council of Republican Women, a group Barnette spoke to in late April.
Barnette’s campaign, her supporters say, has exposed a lack of base excitement for either Oz or McCormick, an issue that was exacerbated by Trump’s decision to — wrongfully, in their eyes — back the TV doctor.
“That helped her. I hear very few people in this county or the surrounding rural counties who are excited about Oz or McCormick, neither one of them. They are very disappointed that President Trump endorsed him,” said DePue, who added that while Republicans will support either candidate in the general, it may be reluctant.
That was clear when the Susquehanna County Farm Bureau recently sent all Senate candidates an invite for their spring meeting. Barnette was the Senate candidate to accept the invite, said David DeLeon, president of the farm bureau in the Northeastern Pennsylvania county.
Barnette showed up at the event and spent around an hour with the group, socializing with members and giving a speech about her rural upbringing and her views on politics.
DeLeon, who plans to vote in the Democratic primary, said while they sent letters to each candidate, they only got a return to sender from one — Oz — a first for the group.
“If you had asked me (could Barnette win) two weeks ago, absolutely not, no chance. Today, there is a chance now, absolutely,” DeLeon said. “All I see on television all the time is McCormick and Oz, McCormick and Oz. … There is the opportunity for the two big money boys to split down the middle and it allows someone to sneak up.”
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