‘A David and Goliath fight’: Is Kathy Barnette a sleeper Senate candidate or a spoiler?

David Catanese
McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

As Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick continue to sling arrows at each other in the final week of Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary, a third candidate, Kathy Barnette, is showing signs of potentially pulling off what would amount to a momentous upset.

Despite being drastically outspent on the airwaves, Barnette – a former political commentator and Black woman with a talent for snappy stage lines – is polling neck-and-neck with the pair of hundred millionaires who were widely assumed to be in a two-man race just days ago.

“This is such a David and Goliath fight. The formidable odds – and we’re surging,” Barnette told McClatchyDC in an interview. “Look at me, no one has rolled out a red carpet. I am the best thing that has happened to the Republican Party. And yet, they would like to pretend this race is just these two very wealthy men.”

FILE - Kathy Barnette takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., Saturday, April 2, 2022. Several prominent conservative groups are getting involved in Pennsylvania's race for U.S. Senate and backing candidate Barnette as an alternative to Mehmet Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon endorsed by former President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

While Oz, McCormick and their outside allies have dumped nearly $50 million into the race – much of it trashing each other on television – Barnette has relied on legwork, driving 1,500 miles a week to reach voters face-to-face on the ground.

A Trafalgar Group survey conducted over the weekend showed Barnette in a dead heat with the front-running Oz, who is campaigning with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement. The poll found Oz with 24.5% compared to Barnette with 23.2% and McCormick with 21.6%.

A Fox News poll that taken late last week and into Saturday similarly found Barnette bunched up with Oz and McCormick. Oz captured 22% to McCormick’s 20% and Barnette’s 19%.

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“Even though Oz got Trump’s endorsement, Barnette has more momentum,” said Chris Anderson., one of the Fox News pollsters.

That Barnette is even within striking distance of the two heavyweight candidates owes to her personal charisma and considerable political skills.

It also demonstrates her ability to connect with Trump supporters even as Trump himself chose to back Oz, who has changed his positions on some issues to align with the MAGA movement.

“He is not Jesus, so he gets to be wrong,” Barnette said of Trump. “And on this endorsement, he’s wrong. We’re not a cult. It was never us aligning with President Trump and his values. It was Trump aligning with our values. He was talking about what we were thinking.”

Another poll, conducted by Franklin & Marshall College at the beginning of May, had Barnette in third place, but only 6 points behind Oz and 4 points behind McCormick.

Kathy Barnette, Mehmet Oz, moderator Greta Van Susteren, Carla Sands, David McCormick, and Jeff Bartos, (left to right) pose for photo before they take part in a debate for Pennsylvania U.S. Senate Republican candidates, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Grove City, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Berwood Yost, Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research Director, warned that Barnette is splitting the hardcore Trump vote with Oz, potentially aiding McCormick.

“If Oz and Barnette split that vote, that’s going to be an advantage for McCormick,” Yost said. “McCormick’s getting more of that traditional Republican vote. That gives him a path.”

To which Barnette responds: “Oz needs to drop out, so we don’t split the vote.”

But Yost also noted the deluge of advertising has also made a significant amount of Republican primary voters question if Oz and McCormick are liberals.

“The advertising has been more confusing than clarifying for Republicans,” said Yost.

On Tuesday, Oz released his newest ad that highlights Trump’s blistering critique of McCormick at his in-state rally last week. McCormick’s latest spot uses audio of Trump’s prior praise of him in order to counter Trump’s decision.

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Tellingly, neither of them have focused their ad dollars or much of their rhetoric on Barnette, who has spent just under $2 million during her entire race and just $151,000 on television and radio. That could indicate that they view Barnette as less of a threat to ultimately win the primary, than to overperform with conservative voters in rural, less populated areas.

The hands-off approach is not without risk.

“Their decision is likely out of fear that they may amplify her recent surge, and make it worse,” said Jim Christiana, a former Republican state legislator who now runs a marketing and public relations firm in the Pittsburgh area. “Their plan seems to be hope, and pray, that she does not have the resources to amplify her message throughout the next 7 days. Lastly, they’ve both probably convinced themselves that Kathy is taking votes away from their opponents and not them.”

But it’s the large slice of undecided voters who will ultimately determine this unsettled primary and some analysts believe that’s why Barnette is at a disadvantage.

“She would be a disruptive force in terms of skewing the results, but I still don’t think she would ultimately pull it through,” said Charles McElwee, the editor of RealClear Pennsylvania, on the Star Spangled Gamblers podcast. “When you consider the number of undecided voters, I think those voters are really choosing between either McCormick or Oz.”

Barnette’s fuel, at this late point, is pure political momentum.

If she falls short, she said it will be a sad acknowledgment that to run in the Republican Party “all you need to be is the richest person in the room,” a narrative she feels plays right into the hands of the left.

“If either of these two people, who are walking around like they are Trump-card carrying members of the patriot party. Yeah, McCormick walking around in faded blue jeans looking like Opie from Ka-Skokie, that’s not who he is. If that’s able to sell, I’m going to be more hurt for the people and for the country than for myself,” she said.