Few weeks back, just before Kathy Barnette emerged as a real contender to win Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary, Jackie Kulback was the GOP chair for Cambria county and had a quick question.
“I said, ‘Hey, Kathy, somebody’s here and asking me where you went to college,” Kulback says. “Anybody else would have zipped back with a one word answer,” she adds. “I got nothing.”
Barnette, conservative commentator. There’s nothing to lose, everything to gain: Becoming Black and Conservative in AmericaSince she began rising in the polls,, has avoided answering reporters’ questions. TIME asked her campaign for an FAQ. It stated that Barnette was a graduate of Troy State University, and that she worked as a Bank of America Capital Asset Management. However, it is a different matter for Barnette to campaign in the primary while ignoring Republican county chairmen. “That kind of raised the red flag,” says Kulback, who isn’t affiliated with a campaign in the contest. “That’s really disconcerting.”
Kulback isn’t the only one who feels like Barnette came out of nowhere. For months, Pennsylvania’s fiercely contested GOP Senate primary has been billed as a race between Mehmet Oz, the Trump-endorsed former celebrity doctor, and David McCormick, the former CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds, who has enlisted the support of former Trump officials and some establishment Republicans. Recent polls have shown Barnette’s rise, making it a close three-way race.
Barnette gained momentum as Oz and McCormick waged months of war on the airwaves. They spent tens to millions of dollars attacking one another with sometimes-negative ads. “I honestly believe this is murder-suicide between McCormick and Oz,” says Matt Beynon, a Republican strategist and top advisor to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. “They’ve poisoned the well for each other so badly that it’s allowed Barnette to rise.”
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Tyler Brown, president of Hadron Strategies and a Republican consultant, said that Barnette pulled in close to the top three candidates after polls were conducted in May. Her search traffic had surpassed that of her rivals by the weekend leading up to election day. “Going into election day, Kathy Barnette owns the information space,” Brown said. “The race is gonna hinge on her.”
Before the Republican Leadership Forum at Newtown Athletic Club, Newtown, Pa. in May 2022, a van is decorated with campaign banners for Kathy Barnette (Pennsylvania Senate candidate).
Michael M. Santiago—Getty Images
However, even her own party didn’t know much about her. And as she rose in the polls and attracted more media scrutiny, a picture emerged of a so-called “ultra-MAGA” outsider. She’s aligned herself with Doug Mastriano, the Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate who has crusaded on the lie that the 2020 election was corrupted by widespread election fraud, and Teddy Daniels, the Lt. A Governor candidate has been charged with domestic abuse.
Barnette was born to an 11-year-old mom whose 12-year-old daughter was raped. Barnette was raised by pig farmers in rural Alabama. A campaign video that explains her personal background and why she opposes all abortions (even in the cases of incest or rape) is one example. Barnette, who has made anti-gay comments and anti-Muslim statements in the past, has tweeted that Barack Obama used a conspiracy theory to claim Barnette was Muslim. (Obama isn’t; he’s Christian.) She has also widely touted the lie that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 Presidential election (there wasn’t) and marched alongside Proud BoysWashington, January 6,
This has scared the mainstream Republicans. And conventional wisdom might suggest that Barnette’s record—as well as the unanswered questions about it—would make her a weak candidate in a November general election. Trump himself said that Barnette “will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats.”
But in the post-2020 GOP, scandalous allegations and offensive comments can be worn like a badge of honor—if Republican voters even believe what’s reported. “In the short term, it oddly may help,” says Beynon. “The base Republicans’ reaction is that if you’re being attacked by the media, you’re somebody I should actually like.”
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In the meantime, Barnette’s rise as the Trumpiest candidate who wasn’t endorsed by Trump has raised questions about the value of the former President’s endorsement. “It’s nice to have, but do you need it to win? I don’t think so,” says Kulback. Barnett has also benefited from a late $2 million ad blitz from the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group that has made a show of opposing Trump’s picks in some key primaries amid reports of a rift with the former President.
If Trump-endorsed candidates lose in a number of statewide races this primary season, it could hint at that the former President’s grip on the GOP base may be loosening. “A loss would hurt his brand big time,” says Rob Gleason, who ran the Pennsylvania GOP from 2006 until 2017 and is supporting McCormick. “If his candidates don’t win, then how’s he gonna win?”
But the fact that Barnette’s surge caught everyone by surprise could foreshadow success. Barnette is an outsider within a party that values unconventionality above all else. “Only outsiders are gonna win Republican primaries, period,” says Brad Todd, a Republican strategist and co-author of The Great Revolt. “The current Republican primary electorate is determined to pick people who come from outside the political system. Your first job is to prove your bona fides as an outsider.”
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