The mess facing Pennsylvania Republicans as Barnette Surges

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Politics, It is thrilling to tackle. A majority of campaign tales involve the candidate who comes from behind to knock down a competitor flat on their back. There are many tactics. A well-placed piece of embarrassing dirt. The salacious-sounding detail that, even after it’s been explained away, still stings as it lingers in voters’ minds. Untold negative ads. An un-endorsement. It’s the stuff that lands the boss on Page One, powers fundraising pitches masquerading as “strategy memos,” and keeps the dream alive for a few more days.

While sharp-elbowed operatives revel in that stuff, the focus on tackling betrays a campaign’s most important job: blocking. Although defensive maneuvers may not be as glamorous, they can help keep minor problems from spiraling into major crises. Just ask Republicans in Pennsylvania, where today’s primary may all come down to fumbled blocks, ones that may give Democrats their best chance at a pick-up opportunity in the Senate this cycle.

Indeed, given the late surge of the underfunded and un-vetted Kathy Barnette, Pennsylvania Republicans may find themselves with a nominee ready to join the ranks of Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, and Corey Stewart as cautionary tales that could have been written well before polls opened.

Republicans had ample time to decide who they would like to challenge for the Senate seat currently held by Senator Pat Toomey. Toomey announced in October 2020 that he will be retiring. For much of the interim, two candidates led the field, positioning themselves as a proxy fight between the party’s Trumpiest faction and its traditional country-club wing.

Dr. Mehmet Oz won former President Donald Trump’s backing based on his celebrity despite several advisers warning that, until recently, the Oprah-created TV personality didn’t even live in Pennsylvania.

David McCormick, meanwhile, cobbled together an elite coalition made up of friends from Wall Street, fellow alumni from George W. Bush’s administration, and social conservatives like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (potential future Arkansas governor) Sarah Huckabee Sanders. He was also a transplant.

It was once again a battle for the future Republican Party. A theme that is already feeling tired this early in primary season.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, roared Barnette, whom TIME’s Charlotte Alter profiles here. Barnette was defeated by 19 percentage points in the House 2020 race. She then joined the crowd for a Senate seat. For over a year, her campaign got little attention, as did Barnette’s activism, which includes organizing three buses of supporters to visit Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, for a rally backing Trump’s Big Lie; her campaign says she did not participate in the violent riot at the Capitol but does appear in some footage very close to it.

Despite that, Barnette’s compelling story seems to be convincing. This was just hours after a U.S. Supreme Court decision suggesting access to abortion is not a constitutional right. Barnette claimed that she was the victim of rape and used it to justify her opposition to all abortions. This resonated well with rank-and file Pennsylvania Republicans. They had spent months watching two carpetbaggers compete for endorsements. In Barnette, a 50-year-old Black woman who had never held office and had mastered Trump’s gift of nursing grievances and owning the libs, they saw an appealing alternative.

McCormick, Oz and the Republican Party realized suddenly that Barnette was not being taken seriously. Both parties quickly discovered a history of untrued biographies and problematic statements. They also found many other signs suggesting that Barnette could help Democrats win back the seat from one of the last swing states. No less than Trump himself said Barnette hadn’t been properly vetted and couldn’t win in November.

There were other Pennsylvania contests taking place on Tuesday. Democrats would pick their Senate nominee, and John Fetterman was hospitalized after suffering from a stroke. Rep. Conor Lamb (state representative) was also on the ballot. In the open race for governor, state Democrats had largely cleared the field—classic blocking—for incumbent Attorney General Josh Shapiro, so much so that Shapiro was running ads promoting a Republican candidate as the most pro-Trump in an effort to make him the nominee.

That Republican, Doug Mastriano, is running on a MAGA-infused Christian nationalist message evocative of Jerry Falwell’s rhetoric from the 1980s. Trump endorsed Mastriano over the weekend in an apparent attempt to protect his position should Oz fail.

Ironically, that late Trump nod could serve to bolster Barnette, as she and Mastriano have been an unofficial team on the campaign trail, and it’s not entirely clear who is powering whom.

For her part, Barnette seems to delight in everyone—including the press—playing catch-up. “If you listen to the mainstream media, you would think I crawled from under a rock yesterday. But I didn’t. We’ve been out here for 13 months,” she said.

The dynamics of the race were shifting last week and the Club for Growth, a deep-pocketed group, unexpectedly supported Barnette. They began to air ads for Barnette, but not out of love for Trump, but rather because they had antipathy towards Trump. It was similar to the situation in Ohio two weeks ago, when the group spent heavily to help Josh Mandel’s unsuccessful bid to derail the Trump-backed J.D. Vance. Barnette, which was the largest outside group in this cycle’s economic cycle, became angry at The Club for Growth.

So once again, tackling’s amusements continue to get top billing, but they may not be the biggest story in Pennsylvania tonight. We apologise for this metaphor. It is possible that the GOP winning side will be without defensive plans after tonight’s fight. Although it’s important to fight, winning is not possible if there are no plans for how the team can repel the sacks. And, judging from how much everyone has learned about Barnette in the last two weeks, the rules for this race haven’t yet been written, let alone read.

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