Kathy Barnette has gone from virtual nobody to virtual front-runner in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate contest — and now she’s facing the heat that comes with being on top.
With days until the May 17 primary, detractors are frantically trying to prevent her from pulling off one of the biggest political upsets of the year. A super PAC backing one of her opponents released an ad calling Barnette, who would be Pennsylvania’s first Black senator if elected, “Crazy Kathy.” Allies of her opponents are circulating old tweets, including one critical of former President Donald Trump.
Trump chimed in Thursday, reiterating his support for TV doctor Mehmet Oz’s candidacy while trashing Barnette — a sign of how real the threat is — but still expressing a willingness to support her if she ultimately wins.
“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” the former president said in a statement. “She has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted, but if she is able to do so, she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party — and I will be behind her all the way.”
Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment Thursday about the intensifying attacks from other Republicans.
Barnette’s late surge — and the last-minute scramble by her opponents to squelch it — has cast another chaotic sense of urgency over one of the nation’s top Senate races. The seat is being vacated by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, and both the GOP and Democrats see it as a place they can win.
The original front-runner, Sean Parnell, had Trump’s endorsement but dropped out after losing a custody battle for his children that made public accusations of abuse by his ex-wife. Oz and former hedge fund executive Dave McCormick rushed to fill the void and for months have saturated Pennsylvania’s airwaves.
But neither paid the low-funded Barnette much mind, allowing her to sneak into what polls show is a three-way tie for the lead. This week, she landed a major endorsement from Club for Growth Action, a conservative organization that quickly shelled out $2 million for pro-Barnette commercials — a financial commitment 12 times greater than what Barnette has spent on advertising.
While the Club ads could give Barnette a boost ahead of Tuesday’s primary, Oz and McCormick also risk throwing their own campaigns off message if they spend the final days attacking her.
“It’s getting late and at this point, her opponents can’t change tack,” said Samuel Chen, a Pennsylvania Republican political strategist who has not sides in the primary.
The best move, Chen added, might be to push opposition research — a political tactic that unearths past statements or previously unvetted parts of a candidate’s life — in hopes of scoring late-breaking stories that undecided voters will see before casting their ballots.
Indeed, operatives involved in the race are now calling attention to such things.
The “Crazy Kathy” ad, produced by a super PAC supporting Oz, features footage of Barnette talking about racism, including clips that appear to show her discussing “systemic racism” “particularly among police officers.” The video suggests she supported Black Lives Matter. The footage appears to be edited and it’s clear whether she made the statements as complete thoughts or offered other context.
A McCormick campaign official said Thursday that paid ads attacking Barnette were not planned as of now.
On Twitter, Oz supporter Ric Grenell, who served as Trump’s acting national intelligence director, has been highlighting her old tweets to his more than 840,000 Twitter followers. Also on Twitter, and in emails to reporters, an employee of McCormick’s consulting firm has flagged her campaign’s refusal to answer questions from two conservative media outlets that asked about her military experience and other parts of her past.
Oz, meanwhile, criticized Barnette without spending a penny during a Wednesday night appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program. Hannity, who has endorsed Oz and promotes him often on the show, introduced a segment with the celebrity physician by showing some of Barnette’s old tweets and declaring her unelectable in November.