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PHILADELPHIA — Voters head to the polls Tuesday to choose their party nominees in a high-profile Pennsylvania Senate race that has had some shocking last-minute twists, from the stroke suffered by Democratic front-runner John Fetterman to the late surge by far-right Republican Kathy Barnette.
Fetterman, 52, announced Sunday that he was resting after a stroke and is “well on my way to a full recovery.” He added: “Our campaign isn’t slowing down one bit, and we are still on track to win this primary on Tuesday, and flip this Senate seat in November.”
His rivals, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, responded quickly to wish him well, with Kenyatta saying he looked “forward to seeing him back on the campaign trail soon.”
Meanwhile, in the ultra-competitive Republican primary, Barnette has surged into a statistical three-way tie for the lead with Trump-endorsed television doctor Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund executive David McCormick, according to a recent Fox News poll that found her support doubling since March, sending waves of panic through the GOP establishment.
With Oz and McCormick struggling to convince voters they’re the true pro-Trump “America First” candidates, Barnette has depicted herself as a grassroots underdog facing two multimillionaires with weaker ties to Pennsylvania.
Barnette has benefited from the leaked Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, seizing the moment to attract social conservatives by highlighting her compelling personal story: Her mother was raped at age 11 and gave birth to Barnette at age 12. An emotional video of Barnette discussing her roots and her stance — outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape or incest — is resonating here.
Tanya Murgia, who attended a Barnette event, said that she is “very pro-life” and that after having researched the candidates, she believes Barnette is “one that stands out as really the only viable option for me as a conservative Catholic.”
Rob Karch said he went into a Barnette event in Southampton undecided and came out ready to vote for her Tuesday.
“She’s a hometown kind of girl, she’s a grassroots kind of girl, and I think that I want to give her a shot,” Karch said.
Barnette clashes with Oz and McCormick
The contest has split the Republican establishment and its activist base. While Oz has the backing of former President Donald Trump, McCormick has won support from other prominent Republicans, including Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Barnette is endorsed by Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group.
The Barnette bubble could be enough to win her the primary. But her rivals are working overtime to pop it by Tuesday, bombarding the airwaves with TV ads and giving interviews portraying Barnette as an unvetted and unelectable novice who would squander a winnable seat for Republicans.
“Barnette combines the inconsistency of Mehmet Oz with the cluelessness of [Vice President] Kamala Harris,” said McCormick campaign strategist Matt Wolking of Axiom Strategies. “Chuck Schumer and John Fetterman will have a field day with her past statements and drive a truckload of TV ads through the holes in her claims about her record and biography.”
Trump said in a statement that Barnette “will never be able to win the General Election.” In an interview, Oz said Trump “was pretty clear that Kathy Barnette is a very risky proposition,” adding: “You don’t know much about her. She’s not been transparent. And every time she answers a question, she raises a lot more.”
McCormick attributed Barnette’s last-minute rise to the nature of politics in the commonwealth: “Pennsylvania has always been a state where people start to focus late. And I think what you’re seeing is people are really focused on this election now.”
Barnette’s newfound front-runner status has brought a flurry of opposition research, resurfacing past homophobic and anti-Muslim tweets. Barnette said the criticisms lack context: “I believe it is very unfair to take a snippet.” But when she was shown a tweet on her verified account saying, “Pedophilia is a cornerstone of Islam,” Barnette told NBC News, “I don’t think that’s me. I would never have said that. I would have never said that, because I don’t believe that.”
Barnette rose to prominence with her push to overturn the 2020 election based on fabricated claims of voter fraud. She has repeatedly questioned the results on the campaign trail. Asked whether Joe Biden was fairly elected, she said, “I believe there’s a lot of questions around that.”
Senate control up for grabs
The larger prize is the Senate, which Democrats control 50-50 with Harris’ tiebreaking vote. A net gain of a single seat would enable the GOP to capture the chamber, put Biden’s agenda on ice and give Republican leaders veto power over his executive and judicial nominations.
For Democrats, the open seat vacated by Republican Pat Toomey arguably represents their best chance to flip a seat in what is shaping up to be a bleak midterm election environment for the party in power.
And the prospect of Barnette as the GOP nominee has jolted Democrats.
“We’re not going to sleep till the second week of November,” said John Scott, 48, a Philadelphia-based litigation consultant who is active in Democratic politics. “To the extent that she’s their rising star — that’s a huge deal.”
Gini George, an organizer and educator in Philadelphia, said she’s supporting Fetterman in the primary because of his policy positions and because she believes he has the best chance of victory in November.
“I believe in everything he stands for,” she said.
Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., who hasn’t endorsed in the Senate primary, said Saturday that Fetterman appears to have “a very big lead” and that he’ll “strongly support him” this fall if he’s the nominee. He attributed Barnette’s rise to perceptions of Oz and McCormick as “complete and total phonies.”
“I’ve always believed most voters can smell a phony a mile away,” he said, adding that it’s “perhaps not that surprising” that Republican voters see Barnette as the “true MAGA candidate.”
But Boyle said a Democratic victory is far from assured, even if the GOP candidate is Barnette, citing Trump’s victory in the 2016 election as having shaken his confidence about who is electable. He added that the Trump-endorsed far-right candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, also shouldn’t be taken lightly by the Democratic nominee-in-waiting for governor, Josh Shapiro.
“On paper it appears as if they’re weak candidates,” Boyle said. “But I would be really careful about thinking that they can’t win.”