In Pennsylvania, a Hard-Right Candidate’s Star Rises


SOUTHAMPTON, Pa. — Kathy Barnette’s opposition to abortion could not be more personal.

Her mother was raped and gave birth to her at age 12. “It wasn’t a choice. It was a life. My life,” an emotional campaign video starts.

Ms. Barnette — a hard-right conservative locked in a seven-way Republican primary for an open Pennsylvania Senate seat — is suddenly surging in the polls, statistically tied for first place with two ultrarich men. And one of them has the lone thing more valuable than money or name recognition in a G.O.P. primary: a Trump endorsement.

As the election approaches on Tuesday, Ms. Barnette, 50, a Black mother of two who has never held office and whose life story has moved many white anti-abortion conservatives, poses a late threat to the two presumptive favorites, David McCormick, a retired hedge fund manager, and Dr. Mehmet Oz, a television celebrity endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump.

Ms. Barnette, who has publicly espoused homophobic and anti-Muslim views, has been propelled mainly by her strong debate performances and her rags-to-riches story. Not even the news on Thursday that Mr. Trump had questioned elements of her past and declared that only Dr. Oz could defeat Democrats in November seemed to bother her.

Hours after Mr. Trump’s statement, Ms. Barnette spoke at a Republican Party dinner.

“They’re coming out with long knives at this point,” she told the audience in Southampton, about a half-hour drive north of Philadelphia. “Right? And I had the best day of my life today.”

Later, talking to reporters who were mainly barred from the event, she said she interpreted Mr. Trump’s comments as “favorable.” The former president had said that she would “never be able to win” the general election in November, but that she had a “wonderful future” in the Republican Party.

“We know that President Trump does not mince words,” she said. “I think that letter was favorable. And I look forward to working with the president.”

In campaign videos and in front of voters, she explains that she spent at least part of her childhood living on a pig farm in southern Alabama, in the “one stop sign” town of Nichburg, in a house without insulation, running water or an indoor toilet.

“But this country allowed me to be able to create a different narrative for myself,” she told Republicans at a campaign forum on Wednesday held by a group that is dissatisfied with Pennsylvania’s mainstream G.O.P. and hopes to elect a slate of more conservative candidates to the state committee.

“But that country is about to come to a close,” she warned in a singsong stump speech that blended the confidence of the pulpit and the intimacy of the confessional. “So we need good people now to stand up and begin to fight for the greatest nation that has ever existed.”

Her vision of what that might look like is unambiguous.

She opposes gun control and abortion rights and proposes limiting the federal government’s involvement in the health care industry. She has ridiculed the Muslim faith in online posts and promotes Mr. Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. In a 2010 essay, published online by the Canada Free Press, she argued that the gay rights movement — which she called “immoral and perverse” — sought “domination” and should be thwarted, citing the Bible as justification.

“Make no mistake about it, homosexuality is a targeted group in the Bible, right along with cheats, drunkards, liars, foul-mouths, extortionists, robbers, and any other habitual sin,” she wrote.

In an interview, she said she had no plan to move toward the center if she wins next week.

And to the line of people who hovered nearby at campaign events on Wednesday and Thursday hoping to snap a selfie with Ms. Barnette, her outspokenness and her life story were primary selling points.

“She’s authentic,” said Dr. Anthony Mannarino, an eye surgeon who said his parents moved to the United States from Italy when he was 2, and neither of them had any formal education beyond the fifth grade.

“It doesn’t look like she drove up from out of town to take a Senate seat,” Dr. Mannarino added, taking a swipe at Dr. Oz and Mr. McCormick, both of whom moved back to Pennsylvania relatively recently from out of state. Ms. Barnette refers to them as carpetbaggers.

“I want a regular person,” Dr. Mannarino said. “I want somebody who knows how much a hamburger costs and fills their own gas tank.”

Ms. Barnette, the author of “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America,” left Alabama after graduating from college, and has been living in Pennsylvania for eight years, according to her campaign manager.

She and her husband, Carl, own a four-bedroom home in Huntingdon Valley, a Philadelphia suburb, according to property records. For six years, she said, she home-schooled her son and daughter while appearing as a conservative commentator on “Fox & Friends.”

“She’s a new face in government,” said Conrad J. Kraus, a real estate broker and builder who lives around the corner from Ms. Barnette and handed out fliers advertising a neighborhood open house for the candidate on Sunday. A Trump flag hangs on his tree. A doormat reading “Don’t Blame This Family. We Voted for Trump,” welcomes visitors.

“A fresh face,” he said on Thursday, predicting a win. “I like that.”

The Barnettes have also owned property in Texas, property records show, and her book biography on Amazon indicates that she has lived in Virginia.

In the 1990s, she spent seven years in the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve, attaining the rank of specialist, said Madison Bonzo, a U.S. Army spokeswoman. She earned a degree in finance from Troy State University in Alabama in 1997, according to the school, making her the first person in her family to graduate from college. She went on to get an M.B.A. from Fontbonne University in Missouri.

She has been a registered Republican since at least 2015, and in a new video she said she never voted for Barack Obama, rebutting claims that she had once supported him, after a Change.org petition surfaced that indicated she hoped to erect a statue in his honor.

Her first time running for office, in 2020, was a flop. She lost a House race by 19 percentage points to the Democratic incumbent, Representative Madeleine Dean. She never conceded the race, said Timothy D. Mack, Ms. Dean’s spokesman. Yet she began her Senate campaign almost immediately afterward.

She has mastered Mr. Trump’s knack for sticking to a simple campaign message, distilling the financial effect of the complicated economic forces causing a rise in inflation to a one-syllable word: squeeze.

“People feel squeezed right now,” she said this week. “How many of you feel that something has gone wrong?”

She is competing in a primary for a seat held by a Republican senator, Pat Toomey, who announced he would retire after voting to impeach Mr. Trump. (Senator Toomey told Axios that there was a lot “voters don’t know” about Ms. Barnette.)

After a Washington Examiner article published on Wednesday raised questions about her upbringing, her military experience and her academic degrees, she used it as fodder at a campaign stop later that day.

“How long did I say I’ve been running for Senate? Thirteen months. And today the media just found out about me,” Ms. Barnette said, eliciting laughter.

But in rooms filled almost entirely with white voters, it was Ms. Barnette’s staunch opposition to abortion that seemed to matter most.

Christine Heitman, a 50-year-old software engineer, said she respected the difficult choice Ms. Barnette’s mother made to carry her pregnancy to term, noting that even opponents of abortion often make room for exceptions in the case of rape or incest. Ms. Barnette’s success, Ms. Heitman said, is proof of the sanctity of life.

“It sounds like she had a worthwhile life, even though she was dirt poor,” Ms. Heitman said.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.





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