Kathy Barnette nearly pulled an upset in GOP primary. Why she believes her future is bright
Kathy Barnette was helping Black Philadelphia voters switch registration from Democrat to Republican when someone shared the news that Donald Trump had endorsed her opponent.
"I felt sad because I'm out here doing the hard work," she said. "But I kept a stiff upper lip."
Though disappointed her upstart campaign for U.S. Senate wasn't boosted by the man who championed the "America First" message she'd been carrying for a year on the campaign trail, Barnette said she awoke to a surprise the next morning: about 13,000 new Twitter followers overnight.
"What I saw was that (Dr. Mehmet) Oz got the endorsement, but I was getting all the benefit. I was an authentic conservative," she said.
And while her GOP primary bid ultimately fell short, the rise of this Black Republican populist seems objectively remarkable given the money and fame she competed against, lending itself to natural questions about additional future political prospects.
Since announcing her campaign in April of 2021, Barnette has been on something of an extended road trip. Her initial plan was to put in 900 miles per week. She said that quickly increased to 1,000 and even 1,500.
If she couldn't compete with the wealth and celebrity of frontrunners Oz and hedge fund CEO David McCormick on the airwaves, she was determined to beat them on the ground.
"I had to look at, 'What do I have?'" Barnette said Tuesday during a telephone interview from, where else, the road. "(My opponents) have a very large checkbook and they can spend endless amounts of money. I was looking at, 'What am I bringing to the table?'"
"I believe I have the ability to tell who we are as Americans. I knew that I was operating from the perspective of what Pennsylvanians wanted: someone who cares about their country and who would fight for them."
She entered the U.S. Senate race as an outsider with no political experience beyond an unsuccessful 2020 run against U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery). Her push for public office, she said, was driven by her will to oppose "draconian" business shutdowns and school masking policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barnette told voters she'd grown up on a pig farm in southern Alabama, living in a home without insulation or running water. She said she became the first in her family to earn a college degree, served in the Army Reserves and worked in the financial industry, most recently focusing on homeschooling her children.
As the U.S. Senate campaign continued, her audience grew. Initial events saw gatherings of approximately 20. She estimated that they drew hundreds, even a thousand-plus, before the end.
She acknowledged her minority status in a GOP historically led by white, affluent men. But she said she felt valued by Pennsylvanians — that she'd walk into the room as an unknown Black woman, walk out of the room as a leader and fellow sister in a fight for the future of her country.
"I knew something was changing," she said.
"People wanted the conservative message. And I saw it was translating across political affiliations."
The momentum may have been palpable within the Barnette camp at that time. It became national news weeks later.
Less than a week before the May 17 primary, a Trafalgar Group poll said that 23% of likely Republican indicated that they would vote for Barnette.
It was a 5-point jump from her numbers in April. This placed her squarely in the hunt: 2 points behind Oz and one up from McCormick.
Barnette had no sooner arrived when the critiques cascaded.
NBC confirmed that she'd been photographed marching near the far-right Proud Boys group toward the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Her campaign stated in response that she hadn't supported or participated in any destruction of property that day.
Prominent Republicans began to criticize her as well. Barnette's status as a little-known outsider, an asset at the outset of her campaign, was cast as a liability in a potential matchup against fellow populist John Fetterman, who was the presumed and eventual Democratic nominee.
"Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats," Trump declared in a mass email from his Save America PAC. "She has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted, but if she is able to do so, she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party — and I will be behind her all the way.
"Dr. Oz is the only one who will be able to easily defeat the Crazed, Lunatic Democrat in Pennsylvania. A vote for anyone else in the Primary is a vote against Victory in the Fall!"
Fox News commentator Sean Hannity went further.
In television segments just before the primary, Hannity discussed years-old tweets from Barnette's account that implied homophobia and an aversion to Islam. Hannity said these posts would cripple her in a general election, and also questioned the legitimacy of her biography.
"They try to degrade me, but they can't degrade me," Barnette said, adding that she'd been misleadingly tied to the contradicting ideologies of both Black Lives Matter and white supremacy within a matter of days. "They degraded themselves."
"I crawled from underneath a rock for many years to get to ground zero. To see people so recklessly try to sully my journey for their own benefit is beyond despicable and shameful."
Oz and McCormick finished in a virtual tie that took weeks to sort out. McCormick finally conceded to Oz on Friday, who held a lead of about 900 votes.
Barnette had finished third with 331,692 votes, 6 points behind the winner.
According to CNBC, Barnette's campaign had invested $197,000 in advertising. Oz and McCormick had spent a combined $20 million.
To Barnette, the U.S. Senate primary is already in the distant rearview.
"I knew that my candidacy was an unlikely candidacy. I knew I don't have the friends who sit in high places to take me through this process," she said. "And yet I believed very early on that if the people of Pennsylvania knew they had a better option, they would have the good sense to take it."
She didn't rule out a vocal endorsement for Oz against Fetterman, but noted that the TV star has to earn the respect of the voters.
"He has to do the hard work," Barnette said. "The weight of this nation are now on his shoulders, not mine."
"Donald Trump won this (primary) for him, but I don't believe Donald Trump will be able to win this election for him alone."
She didn't offer an opinion on why Trump hadn't endorsed her.
"Donald Trump is not Jesus," she said. "Because he's not Jesus, he gets to be wrong."
"We are in trouble as a nation. However I may feel about how I was treated, I am a grown woman. I'm not a petty person."
Looking ahead, Barnette said she's concerned primarily about government overreach, how it can impact the availability and cost of basic goods.
"This goes beyond just the talking points. These are the very real issues that the people of Pennsylvania and America are about to be contending with," she said.
"There's something very insidious that is taking place. Intentional or not intentional, it is real."
Regarding her recent primary run, Barnette said she enjoyed meeting and learning from people of different backgrounds.
"This recurring truth that I could not escape was that this journey was not just about me," she said.
"I wanted that win more so for Pennsylvania than for myself towards the end. It was truly about Pennsylvania, and I think you only gain that sort of respect and reverence if you spend the time with them that I did."
If nothing else, she added, she hopes "people have since realized ... that I embellish nothing in my life."
"You don't have to embellish how I grew up. I spoke as plain and as exact as I could," she said.
From a political standpoint, she hasn't announced which route she plans to take.
According to Barnette, there's a gulf between GOP officials and the average conservative. She believes Republicans need new leaders.
And her road trip Tuesday was for a meeting "with influential donors on what's next."
"I was running at a breakneck speed," she said. "I had blinders on for the overwhelming majority of those 13 months."
"I am like a woman who just gave birth to a 9-pound baby and then is asked, 'Are you going to have more children?'" she added with a laugh.
She noted, perhaps tellingly, that she has more than one child.
Bruce Siwy is a Pennsylvania state capital bureau reporter for the USA Today Network. He can be reached at email@example.com.