With a beaming smile, Kathy Barnette shook hands and introduced herself on the patio of a country club in Montgomery County. “I’m Kathy and I’m running for the United States Senate,” she said.
But many already knew that. “People are hearing my story,” she told a voter Monday. “The momentum was incredible.”
Few would disagree.
With a tight budget and a personal story that begins on a pig farm in Alabama, Barnette has shot to the top of the crucial Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary, according to public and private polls. She has picked up steam late as she challenges her money-hungry rivals Mehmet Oz and David McCormick.
Their rise in the final days leading up to Tuesday’s primary has stunned campaigners from both parties and turned a Senate race on its head that could decide chamber control.
“Everyone knows that Oz is competing for this race. Everyone knows McCormick is running in this race and they’re holding their noses,” Barnette said in an interview on Monday. “If they break, the undecided, they will break in my direction. There is nothing [Oz and McCormick] I can probably tell those people…they haven’t said it because they’ve spent so much money.”
» READ MORE: From last year: She lost big in the Philly suburbs. She went on the hunt for voter fraud. Now Kathy Barnette is a rising GOP star.
Rival campaigns and news outlets scrambled to scrutinize Barnette and her backstory this week. She is so little known to top Senate representatives from both parties that they were unsure whether she would make a strong candidate for the general election.
And on Thursday, former President Donald Trump jumped back into the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary, warning that Barnette “will never be able to win the general election against the radical left Democrats.” But in the same statement, Trump, who has backed Oz, said Barnette could have “a wonderful future” in the GOP and that he would support her if properly screened.
Questions about some of Barnette’s connections to fringe elements on the right, her false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, and some of her earlier inflammatory comments begin to simmer – including a tweet from 2017 about the ban on Islam and a 2010 opinion piece claiming that the “gay AGENDA” seeks “domination”.
But in less than a week, it was also unclear if any of this would resonate with voters.
“She’s a huge question mark,” said a Washington Republican who was following the race closely.
And she’s picking up speed.
Wednesday earned her a major endorsement from the political arm of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, which also announced it would buy $2 million in television advertising to bolster her. A day earlier, anti-abortion advocate Susan B. supported Anthony List Barnette, and a Fox News poll showed she was effectively linked to Oz and McCormick, with all three polls falling within error of each other.
» READ MORE: Kathy Barnette is neck and neck with Oz and McCormick in the Pa Senate race, a poll says
Montgomery County’s Barnette argues that after hearing so much about Oz and McCormick on TV, undecided Republicans are looking for a more authentic alternative. Despite spending tens of millions of dollars on the race, the two men who have garnered the most attention have so far failed to win over a significant portion of the electorate.
“What [supporters] I find a sense of authenticity in me,” Barnette told The Inquirer. “They see me as one of them. And if our leadership is listening, they would pay attention.”
McCormick and two super PACs funded by his wealthy allies have poured more than $35 million into the contest, while Oz and his supporters have spent more than $18 million. Each man invested at least $11 million of his own money.
As of April 27, Barnette’s campaign had spent less than $2 million, according to the latest financial records.
But Oz and McCormick often skipped smaller public forums and relied on support from big names (including Trump for Oz and Texas Senator Ted Cruz for McCormick). Message and pugilist debate performances. She would be the first black and first woman elected to the US Senate from Pennsylvania.
“I knew I couldn’t compete dollar for dollar with these guys, but I think I have a better message,” Barnette said. “And all I did is just walk out of my house to deliver that message.”
She has become the clear alternative to two top rivals, each of whom have faced questions about their ties to Pennsylvania and their credibility as conservative or America First Republicans.
“These two guys never understood anyone, and she filled that void,” said Vince Galko, a Republican strategist from Pennsylvania who has advised a less prominent Senate candidate, George Bochetto.
She’s done it in part with a combative, unabashed style that has channeled the defiance that drove Trump.
A win for Barnette could be a sign of the GOP establishment’s inability to steer the party. And their momentum comes at the same time as State Senator Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) appears to be retiring in the gubernatorial race, worrying some Republicans the two could be political in two crucial campaigns this fall despite an unelectable ticket Environment that favors the GOP. The two sometimes fight together.
However, Barnette faces the challenge of turning her late swing into a win with relatively little money and closer scrutiny.
For example, in 2010 she wrote an online opinion piece for Canada Free Press denouncing “the homosexual AGENDA” on religious grounds.
“It is not equality that they pursue so rabidly,” she wrote. “This is domination! It is to the exclusion of dominance [sic] Voice in this country that judges their lifestyle as inherently immoral and perverted.”
On Tuesday, a reporter from Inside Elections reported Barnette’s History of Anti-Islamic Pronouncementsincluding mislabeling former President Barack Obama as a Muslim, linking the religion to pedophilia, and the 2017 tweet that Islam “should be banned in the US.”
Barnette and a campaign spokesman did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on these earlier statements.
» READ MORE: Trump’s swipe at David McCormick shows the risks for Republicans attempting a MAGA overhaul
Barnette pursued false allegations of voter fraud after losing a 2020 home race to US Rep. Madeleine Dean by 19 percentage points, organized buses to attend the Jan. 6, 2021 rally that preceded the Capitol attack, and remains doubtful voiced on the results of Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential election and became – along with Mastriano – a leading election denier in the state.
And Barnette has accepted confirmation from former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and dealing in conspiracy.
She downplayed her ties to Mastriano on Monday.
“I’ve been running alone for a long time,” she said. “I’ve done three events with him that I can think of, maybe four. So I didn’t walk on Mastriano’s ticket. However, I hold Senator Mastriano in high esteem.”
The two were presented as a ticket at times, however, and have scheduled a final rally together in Bucks County on Saturday.
As a longtime conservative commentator, Barnette has resonated in part through her distinct personal history. At a debate last month, she explained her staunchly anti-abortion views by describing herself as a “by-product” of being raped – that her mother was 11 when she was conceived and her father was 21.
On Monday in Lansdale, she shared growing up on a pig farm “below the bottom rung of the economic ladder,” with no insulation and no running water. She was the first in her family to attend and graduate from college, and later enlisted in the Army National Guard.
“She has a presence about her. She definitely grabs attention walking into a room or onto a debate stage,” Galko said. “She is fearless. She walks behind the moderator, she walks behind the person standing next to her.”
Barnette often says of the GOP establishment, “We have the best story to tell, we just keep picking people who are bad at telling it.”
» READ MORE: Is Mehmet Oz really a conservative? We looked at the records of the PA Senate candidate.
Monday’s stop at the Montgomery County High School enlistee dinner — she was asked to speak as a former member of the Army Reserve — came between interviews with Newsmax and conservative podcasters Diamond and Silk and ahead of a Tuesday drive to the Elk County campaign trail.
“We need people who aren’t part of the swamp,” said Judy Hummel, 75, a retired teacher who saw Barnette in Lansdale.
“She looks like our savior,” interjected her husband, Dan Hummel, an Army veteran.
He was stunned when Trump Oz, the famous surgeon widely known as “Dr. Ounce.”
“He doesn’t even live in the state,” Hummel said of Oz, who lived in New Jersey for decades before deciding to run for the Senate. Trump card.’ He had nothing to say for himself.”
Bob Kurtz, who lives in Bucks County, described himself as a moderate Republican who also likes some Democrats, including two of their Senate nominees, Lt. gov. John Fetterman and US Representative Conor Lamb.
But he plans to vote for Barnette.
“I don’t agree with her on everything, but mostly I stand behind her,” said Kurtz, a retired Philadelphia teacher who also served 28 years in the Army Reserve.
He didn’t think she had a real chance – until now.