Why didn't the GOP Establishment vet Barnette 13 months ago?

As Pennsylvania's May 17 primary election draws close, conservative media outlets have begun lobbing intense attacks at one candidate on the ballot.  And no, it is not Lt. Governor John Fetterman, the far-left candidate who is poised to secure the Democratic nomination.  Rather, their ire has been directed primarily at Kathy Barnette, a political commentator seeking the GOP nomination.

The headlines are downright vicious.  "Pennsylvania GOP voters should kick Kathy Barnette to the curb" is one example, courtesy of the New York Post editorial board.  Fox News host Sean Hannity devoted several minutes of his May 11 show to attacking Barnette's credentials.  Around that time, Breitbart switched from positive coverage of Barnette to multiple headlines critical of her campaign, while writing a multitude of pieces praising her opponent, David McCormick, including a stunningly anecdotal analysis (relying primarily on interviews with voters who attended a McCormick rally), which concluded that "[d]roves of voters in Pennsylvania's Republican U.S. Senate primary are reportedly switching their votes from Kathy Barnette back to businessman David McCormick just days before the primary election." 

Greg Kelly of Newsmax went farther, resorting to a wholly inappropriate personal attack, tweeting that Barnette, who is African-American, is a "CON WOMAN RACE CARD PLAYING SCAMMER."  Their main criticism?  Former President Donald Trump, who is backing Mehmet Oz, perhaps sums it up best with this statement: "Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats.  She has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted."  In other words, she hasn't faced sufficient scrutiny in the primary and would therefore be too risky to run in the general election.

Such criticisms are not entirely unwarranted.  Pennsylvania has typically been a highly competitive purple state.  Keeping the open Senate seat in GOP hands is essential for retaking control of the Senate.  Losing this seat would be even more disastrous in light of John Fetterman's embrace of far-left policies on issues such as abortion.  Meanwhile, Kathy Barnette was not treated as a serious candidate by the GOP establishment until her passionate anti-abortion statement in a May 4 debate, which coincided with a significant rise in the polls.  Since that time, opposition research has tried several (weak) lines of attack against her, including suggestions that she was not sufficiently pro-Trump in 2016 (neither was McCormick), was not truthful about her military service (an issue she appears to have satisfactorily addressed), and made insensitive anti-Islam tweets over five years ago (the same could be said for Trump). 

Of course, should she win the primary, it is entirely possible that more dirt could get dug up and derail her candidacy, confirming the worst fears of the GOP establishment.  However, it is both inappropriate and unfair for the Republican Party and conservative media to blackmail voters when they themselves were negligent.

Kathy Barnette is no Johnny-come-lately in the GOP primary: she announced her candidacy over 13 months ago, on April 6, 2021, which should have allowed plenty of time for vetting.  Recall that McCormick has been in the race only since January.  Dr. Oz didn't announce his candidacy until late November.  Unlike Oz and McCormick, Barnette also has previous experience running for office: she was unsuccessful in her 2020 congressional bid in Pennsylvania's 4th District, which can be forgiven since the district is reliably liberal.  Her experience as a political commentator has also put her squarely in the public eye.  As such, she has already faced public scrutiny, and there is no excuse for the other GOP candidates to have waited until the month of the primary election to begin conducting opposition research.

Moreover, it is notable that Barnette had closed the gap with Oz and McCormick nearly a month before the May debate.  By April 15, she had clearly separated from the rest of the pack, moving into third place in polling, just 7 percent behind the frontrunners.  Part of her rise since that time could be indicative of dissatisfaction with McCormick and Oz, with voters seeking a legitimate alternative.  This spike in momentum again should have warranted some opposition research, and once again, the GOP candidates were negligent.

On the eve of the GOP primary, the Senate race remains wide open.  If nothing else, the Barnette candidacy has been a fascinating and complex story.  She has become a frontrunner despite lacking the name recognition and the fundraising prowess of Oz or McCormick (Oz and McCormick have raised $15 million apiece, whereas Barnette has raised less than $2 million), and it is not yet obvious whether that would be a strength or a liability in the general election.  At the end of the day, however, issues are what really matter.  Pennsylvania Republicans should nominate the strongest candidate based on the issues.  That should have been the chief focus of conservative media outlets when analyzing the candidates, and their failure to do so is disappointing.

J. Allen Cartwright is a chemical researcher in the energy sector.  His interest is in the interplay of politics with cultural and scientific institutions, and he can be followed on Parler at @jallencartwright.

Photo credit: Twitter screen grab.

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