The Pennsylvania Republican primary for Senate wasn’t supposed to be this complicated.
Last year, former President Donald Trump endorsed Sean Parnell, a decorated former Army Ranger, in the contest. That should’ve been that.
But in November, Parnell suspended his campaign amid a child custody dispute in which his estranged wife accused him of abuse against her and their children—leaving the field wide-open. It’s six months later, the primary is on Tuesday, and the race still remains up in the air, in one of the Democrats’ Senate pickup opportunities, no less. And national Republicans are worried about a doomsday scenario unfolding in the race’s final stage.
When Parnell dropped out, rich people from across the Eastern Seaboard who wanted to be senators began to take a look at Pennsylvania.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, a surgeon and TV show host who has long lived in a New Jersey mansion the size of a midtier moon of Jupiter, crashed at his Pennsylvania in-laws’ place, announced that he had long been a Pennsylvanian, and declared his candidacy. Perhaps he could get by on celebrity.
Another salt-of-the-earth, workaday Pennsylvanian, Dave McCormick—CEO of Connecticut-based Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund—joined the race in the beginning of the year. Perhaps he could pull a Glenn Youngkin, another finance executive who swooped into the Virginia governor’s race relatively late, buried the primary field in money, and successfully rode a sweater-vest-dad vibe to general election victory in a swing state.
The two, and their outside allies, have spent tens of millions of dollars obliterating each other.
The attacks against Oz focus on how he only began pretending to be a conservative the day he filed for election. He previously held a more relaxed posture toward the right to an abortion. He once danced with Michelle Obama on his TV show. He—gasp—tweeted about racial disparities in the medical system. I’m quite partial to this ad, from a super PAC supporting McCormick, showing California liberal stereotypes celebrating Oz:
Elsewhere, there’s been talk about his relationship with Turkey. Oz holds both American and Turkish citizenship, the latter of which he retained by serving in the Turkish army for a couple of years. He also voted in the 2018 Turkish election.
He’s said he would renounce his Turkish citizenship were he elected to the Senate. But the McCormick campaign keeps pressing this. Last week, a key McCormick endorser—former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—held a press briefing about the “national security” concerns of Oz’s heritage. One could argue that this is all scaffolding around the central point Oz’s opponents are trying to reinforce to GOP primary voters, which is that Oz is Muslim.
McCormick, meanwhile, is a rich finance guy, so he’s going to get attacked on China—and you’d better believe those ads have menacing gong sounds in the background. This ad, about how much McCormick loves China, has even got the split screen of McCormick and a photo of Chairman Mao going, too. And, like Oz, McCormick (and his “woke hedge fund”) also denounced racism and “structural bigotry” in 2020.
Trump endorsed Oz in April, a move that “stunned” his advisers and a great many people in Pennsylvania Republican politics. Why anyone, in the year 2022, would be “stunned” that Trump chose to endorse someone he recognizes from TV, over someone who meets certain loyalty tests or ideological commitments, is beyond me.
But this would prove to be a difficult sell to a MAGA base that isn’t buying what Oz is attempting to sell, no matter how many times Oz puts on hunting gear. At the rally Trump held for Oz last week, for example, Oz was repeatedly booed.
So if the base isn’t jibing with Trump’s endorsee, but also is taking heed of Oz’s and Trump’s attacks on McCormick as “the candidate of special interests and globalists and the Washington establishment,” who’s “ripping off the United States with bad trade deals and open borders,” is there a third option that might emerge?
Oh, is there ever.
Kathy Barnette tells a powerful life story. She was conceived when her mother, at 11 years old, was raped by a 21-year-old man. She says she grew up dirt-poor on a pig farm in Alabama, but rose to be the first in her family to complete college, and she served in the armed forces. While the well-funded McCormick and Oz campaigns have largely been waging a broadcast campaign, Barnette has been putting in the work.
“She’s been to every event, she goes to every debate, she doesn’t miss an opportunity to get earned media,” Vince Galko, a Pennsylvania Republican strategist, told me. “Her hard work is paying off at this point.”
Barnette has surged late in recent polls, despite having spent a fraction of what McCormick, Oz, and their allies have. And she’s getting substantial air support as she looks to close out an upset: The Club for Growth, a conservative PAC, booked $2 million worth of ads on her behalf last week, something that came as a surprise to the Barnette campaign itself. Barnette’s rise has also coincided with that of Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, with the two working in support of each other.
Both Barnette and Mastriano, a hard-right Christian nationalist who was enough of a presence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to be subpoenaed by the select committee over it, are sparking a proper Republican freakout about how they could blow two important races in a strongly pro-Republican cycle.
Mastriano, at least, is a known quantity at this point, as he’s been a contender throughout the race. Barnette has been largely ignored until now, though. And the early digging on her suggests a proper vetting could be quite revealing—and not a task they want to hand off to the Democratic Party in a general election.
It may not surprise you to learn that Barnette is a big stolen-election believer, and not just the 2020 presidential election. She lost her own congressional race in 2020 to Rep. Madeleine Dean by 19 points, and then literally knocked on door after door to determine whether it was stolen. She did not concede.
She also has a fascinating Twitter history. One 2016 tweet reads, “Just confronted a Muslim today…” and links to a since-deleted Facebook video. I both want to know what was on that video and really don’t want to know what was on that video.
Most intriguingly, much of the biography she tells is difficult to corroborate. Washington Examiner reporter Salena Zito, in a story on Barnette, listed the basic biographical questions that the Barnette campaign refused to answer. They were:
1. The name of her hometown
2. Where was she an adjunct professor and when?
3. When was she in officer candidate school?
4. What financial institutions did she work at and when?
5. When did she move from Virginia to Pennsylvania? (She says in her book bio from 2018 that she lived in Virginia, so what year did she move to Pennsylvania?)
6. And a confirmation that the college she graduated from was Troy State University.
(Troy State University did confirm to the New York Times that she earned a degree there in 1997.)
Trump, in a statement on Thursday, said that Barnette “will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats because” she “has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted.” Ever recognizing which way the MAGA wind may blow, though, Trump hedged, explaining that if she can properly explain those things, “she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party—and I will be behind her all the way.”
Whoever emerges from the Republican primary will likely face Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who’s had a bizarrely smooth ride against Rep. Conor Lamb, the sort of candidate (relatively moderate, prosecutor, Marine, complains about “the Squad”) that the national Democratic Party designs in a lab to clear Senate primary fields. (Fetterman said on Sunday that he had suffered a stroke over the weekend, but said: “I’m well on my way to a full recovery.”)
Both Barnette and Mastriano are the candidates Democrats want to face in November, and are putting their money behind it. Consider the “clever” ad from Democrats’ likely gubernatorial candidate, Josh Shapiro, “attacking” Mastriano by saying “if Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.” In other words, he’s trying to elevate Mastriano among the Republican base and draw him as a general election opponent, figuring he’s the weakest one. Democratic strategists would, similarly, feel giddy if they got to face Barnette in November instead of McCormick.
Sometimes this all pans out! In 2010, another terrible midterm year for the Democratic Party, they held on to their Senate majority because Republicans nominated unelectable candidates in states like Delaware, Colorado, and Nevada. Republicans blew a couple like this in Missouri and Indiana in 2012, too.
In 2016, though, Republicans nominated Donald Trump for president. Despite Democrats’ excitement at this colossal miscalculation, he was elected president of the United States. Trump’s four years in office culminated with an attempt to overturn an election that he had lost.
It was Biden’s win in Pennsylvania that clinched his Electoral College victory. Democrats were fortunate, when Trump’s postelection efforts to overturn the results were underway, to have a Democratic governor in Pennsylvania who wasn’t subject to Trump’s pressure, and a Republican senator in Pat Toomey who stood stalwart against Trump’s claims of mass fraud in the state.
So maybe Democratic candidates would coast against Barnette and Mastriano, in spite of red-wave conditions. Or maybe Mastriano and Barnette would take office, and the attempt to overturn Pennsylvania’s presidential election result in 2024 would turn into more than just an attempt.