Skip to content
High-Profile Republicans Split on Pennsylvania Senate Primary
Go to my account

High-Profile Republicans Split on Pennsylvania Senate Primary

The race to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Pat Toomey was already tight. Kathy Barnette’s late surge has made it even tighter.

In the week leading up to Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary, GOP candidate for U.S. Senate Kathy Barnette was flying high. So were her endorsers. 

“It’s a one-woman race and I have just—I appreciate Kathy so much, and I’ve been with her for months now,” Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said last week of Barnette, who experienced an unexpected polling surge last week in the Republican primary battle for retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat. Before last week, Barnette had spent the entirety of the race with single-digit support from voters.

But last week’s polling-induced adrenaline rush didn’t last long. In a matter of days, reporters quickly uncovered photos of her marching alongside the right-wing Proud Boys group on the morning of January 6, 2021 (though no evidence suggests she breached the Capitol), and a series of anti-Muslim and tweets she wrote several years ago. “We must stop interacting with them as if they r rational human beings. There is nothing rational about Islam,” she tweeted in 2015. “Obama is a Muslim. Doing Muslim like THINGS!” she wrote in 2016. 

Days after the reports surfaced, Ernst didn’t seem as bullish on Barnette’s chances as she did last week. “We’ll see how it plays tomorrow, won’t we?” Ernst, the vice chair of the Republican Senate conference, told The Dispatch Monday evening when asked about the reports. 

Barnette’s last-minute polling spike upended what most election analysts had initially seen as a two-man match-up between Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Donald Trump-endorsed celebrity television host, and Dave McCormick, an Army veteran and former hedge fund CEO. 

Oz and McCormick raised $15 million and $16 million respectively as of the FEC’s latest filing deadline April 15, but drawing from their war chests for multi-million dollar ad blitzes has worked in Barnette’s favor. “Sometimes in these crowded primaries, being one of the frontrunners is dangerous,” said J. Miles Coleman, an elections analyst with Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “Oz and McCormick have spent a lot of time tearing each other down, which created an opening for one of the other candidates.” Barnette, meanwhile, has raised just $1.7 million, although she got a recent fundraising boost from the conservative Club for Growth.

Coleman suspects there’s a nontrivial feeling among Republican voters that Oz and McCormick’s conservatism feels “forced” and that it’s clear that Barnette is more of a “true believer.” In 2020, Barnette didn’t concede her loss in a Pennsylvania U.S. House race and insisted that the election was rife with voter fraud. Her campaign has won support from Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the frontrunner Republican candidate for governor whose campaign also revolves around Trump’s stolen election narrative.

And in the wake of this month’s Supreme Court leak showing Roe v. Wade will likely be overturned, Barnette’s also won support from pro-life advocates and organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List, who empathize with her personal connection to the issue. At age 12, Barnette’s mother gave birth to her after she was raped.

The initial estimation of Barnette as a non-entity in the race by both reporters and the GOP frontrunners has allowed some of her more controversial comments to stay under the radar. In 2015, for example, she said on her radio show: “Two men sleeping together, two men holding hands, two men caressing, that is not normal.” Her campaign has also come under fire for rebuffing reporters’ questions about her professional and military background.

She brushed aside the comments over the weekend. “They’re not even full sentences. And yet, people take it and they begin to build their own narrative around it,” she said on Fox News host Shannon Bream’s show on Sunday. “What I can say—although I can’t provide a lot of context to that because it’s a half thought and everything is not there for me to be able to speak to it—what I can say is that I love my country.”

The Barnette campaign did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

High-profile Republican lawmakers and organizations are divided on the race, which, come November, will be seen as a must-win seat for the Senate GOP in a 50-50 Senate. Trump’s endorsement of Oz won the television support from Fox News host Sean Hannity, who regularly gives the candidate airtime on his popular show. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are throwing their weight behind McCormick, who they likely see as an establishment yet sufficiently-MAGA candidate who can win in a general election. 

Some say that intra-party divisions on the candidates have splintered the race into a three-way dead heat. “Lack of leadership in the Republican Party in PA led this to happen,” one Republican operative involved in the race for Toomey’s seat told The Dispatch in a text message. “No endorsement from the party gave the runway for a multi-candidate split where the most radical actors could have success.”

Toomey hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race either, although he’s suggested in recent interviews that he’s troubled by Barnette’s campaign. “There’s a lot that they—voters don’t know about [Barnette],” Toomey told reporters in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. “A lot.”

Even former President Trump has waded into the nationwide discussion, telling his supporters that Barnette “has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted,” and that she “will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats” in November. 

But others are keeping their opinions to themselves. “The voters do a better job of choosing the right candidate for their state than people in Washington,” GOP Sen. Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told Politico recently. “Nobody supported me in 2010.”

If Barnette wins Tuesday’s GOP primary, she will likely face off in November against Democratic frontrunner John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor who suffered a stroke last weekend and has maintained a double-digit polling lead for months.

Democrats are watching closely. “It’s a bizarre primary. Both of them are, Senate and governor,” Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said in an interview Monday evening. “An extreme party has become much more extreme. We’ll have to see who is nominated, but I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.