The fight for the Republican Senate nomination in Pennsylvania has turned into a three-way race and an all-out war on Kathy Barnette, whose late surge has turned the contest on its head in the closing days of the campaign.
It is a dramatic twist in a five-person contest that for months was defined by the rock ’em sock ’em showdown between celebrity physician Mehmet Oz, who has the support of former President Donald Trump, and businessman David McCormick.
Mr. Oz, Mr. McCormick and their allies, including Mr. Trump and Fox News’ Sean Hannity, are now in a mad dash to dig up dirt on Ms. Barnette and cast doubt on her candidacy, warning “Crazy Kathy” comes with too much political baggage and will get buried in a general election.
“This thing is really a tight race between the three,” said Christopher P. Borick, a political science professor and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “Barnette in some ways has flown in under the radar and got herself in a position where she has become a viable alternative to Oz and McCormick.”
Mr. Borrick said the lingering question is: “Will she peak next week or has she peaked already?”
The race has been messy.
Sean Parnell, Mr. Trump’s original preferred pick, dropped out of the race after he lost a court fight over custody of his three children. The judge in the case said he believed accusations of abuse by Mr. Parnell’s estranged wife.
Mr. Oz and Mr. McCormick hoped to fill the void and funneled millions of dollars into television airwaves.
Mr. Trump’s endorsement boosted Mr. Oz, though the candidate has struggled to convince Mr. Trump’s supporters he is on their side.
The dynamic created an opening for Ms. Barnette, a conservative commentator and author of “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America.”
She says her rivals’ attacks smack of desperation.
“I’ve been running this race now for about 13 months, and if you listen to the mainstream media, you would think I crawled from under a rock yesterday. I did not,” Ms. Barnette said on “Fox News Sunday.”
She disputed accusations that she has exaggerated her military record and her nearly 10 years living in Pennsylvania. She said, as she has in the past, that the state’s voters have already vetted her even if the news media ignored her.
“I’ve been in a statistical tie for first place not just one week but for about four weeks,” Ms. Barnette said. “So I’ve been out here doing the hard work. The numbers have been showing it. No one paid attention to me. [News media] were too obsessed with the two men in this race and didn’t bother to take a look at what it is that we were doing.”
The winner of the race is expected to square off against either Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman or Rep. Conor Lamb in what is shaping up to be one of the most-watched and most expensive races in the midterm elections.
Mr. Fetterman is the favorite, according to polls.
The U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania could determine which party controls the upper chamber next year, raising the stakes of the race, as well as concerns that Ms. Barnette is risky because she comes with a lot of unknowns.
Ms. Barnette is running as a strong but unproven conservative. She embraces Mr. Trump and stands out for several reasons, including that she is a Black woman running against two men and running a shoestring campaign.
What spurred an uptick in recent attention — and what distinguishes her from most elected leaders and wannabe politicians — is that Ms. Barnette is presenting herself to the public as the “byproduct of rape.”
“My mother was 11 years old when I was conceived,” she said in a recent debate. “My father was 21. I was not just a lump of cells. As you can see, I am still not just a lump of cells. My life has value.”
The powerful personal story has resonated with social and religious conservatives, who could play a major role in a competitive contest.
Fox News reported Friday that the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List was launching a $300,000 digital ad campaign on behalf of Ms. Barnette.
“Kathy’s remarkable personal story is absolutely meant for this time in history as Americans grapple with the reality we have lived with under Roe for the last 50 years: abortion on demand up until the moment of birth, for any reason,” said SBA List spokesperson Mallory Carroll. “Kathy’s story underscores why we fight for every human life.”
Ms. Barnette’s rivals, meanwhile, are looking to chop her down. “The problem is nobody knows what she stands for, who she is, and it is very risky,” Mr. Trump said in a recent call for Mr. Oz. “She may have a great future, but she is totally, totally an unknown, and we can’t have that.”
Mr. Trump, in a separate statement, said Ms. Barnette “will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats.”
The Oz campaign has dubbed her “Crazy Kathy Barnette” and “Pennsylvania’s wackiest Senate candidate.” They also have said she wants to erect a statue of former President Barack Obama, which, according to NBC News, appears to be in reference to a Change.org petition started two years ago by “Kathy Barnette.”
Ms. Barnette’s rivals are raising doubts about her biography, including her service in the Army reserves and when she moved to the state. They say she is telling two different stories about whether she voted for Mr. Trump in the 2016 primary race or didn’t vote that year, as reports suggest.
Honor Pennsylvania, a super PAC supporting Mr. McCormick, has run an ad asking: “What do we really know about Kathy Barnette?”
“She supported the George Floyd protests and opposed Trump saying, ‘I was not a Trumper,’” the narrator says in the spot. “We can’t trust Kathy Barnette for Senate.”