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Kathy Barnette’s rapid rise has Republicans shivering over potential upset and what it could mean for November

The unexpected development has even the most influential Republicans panicked, including former President Donald Trump himself, who tried to quash Barnette’s campaign by saying in a statement Thursday that she was not a candidate. viable in general elections.

“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the general election against the radical left Democrats,” Trump said.

Although Trump acknowledged that Barnette, whom he described as “not properly explained or verified”, is on the verge of “having a wonderful future in the Republican Party”, he reaffirmed his support for Oz and encouraged the GOP primary voters to stay with their chosen candidate.

“A vote for anyone else in the primary is a vote against victory in the fall!” he said.

During a Thursday night campaign stop, Barnette brushed off the searing assessment and smiled when asked about Trump’s pointed words, telling reporters, “I look forward to working with the president.”

When asked if the scathing reviews were a sign she was on the rise, Barnette replied, “I would agree.”

But like the former president, other Republicans are worried about the myriad unknowns surrounding Barnette, who until this week was barely a household name in Pennsylvania, let alone an attention-getting Republican candidate. national.

“She’s a giant walking question mark,” said a Republican agent working on Senate races. “There’s been almost no verification of her. … There’s a lot we don’t know about her, including basic biographical details.”

Oz told Fox host Sean Hannity on Wednesday that Barnette was a “mysterious person.”

“I see no way, no scenario in which she can win a general election,” he told Hannity, who was among those behind the scenes pushing Trump to endorse Oz earlier this spring.

A person close to Trump said the former president viewed the Oz-Hannity interview as “too blunt” and thought Oz’s attacks on Barnette would only drive his stock up.

“Some Republicans are certainly afraid”

The source of Barnette’s rise, however, is no mystery: The persistent activist outflanked Oz and McCormick on the right, using Trump’s now unpopular decision to back the TV doctor to rally the conservative base of Pennsylvania on his side and benefiting from an alliance with the main Republican gubernatorial hope Doug Mastriano. Barnette has effectively stepped into the void created by that popular anger and the singular focus that Oz and McCormick have had on each other for weeks.

What worries Republicans now is how much of a mystery Barnette’s personal and professional background remains and the limited window in which voters could be told of any liability she would have as a candidate in the November ballot.

“Some Republicans are certainly scared. The push happened quickly and kind of out of nowhere,” said a race-focused Republican aide to the Senate. “She is relatively unknown and uncontrolled.”

While Barnette’s campaign website describes her as a “veteran, former assistant professor of corporate finance, sought-after speaker and conservative political commentator”, little is known about nearly every aspect of her professional life.

The most thorough examination of Barnette’s personal life came in the form of a two-minute campaign ad released following the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion quashing Roe v. Wade, in which Barnette revealed she was “the byproduct of a rape”. after her mother was sexually assaulted and became pregnant at age 11.

Washington Republicans also circulated a Washington Examiner article titled “Who is Kathy Barnette,” which reports that a series of questions posed to Barnette’s campaign manager about the candidate’s background — including her military service — remained unanswered.

Still, not all Republicans are publicly concerned about Barnette’s rise.

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, chairman of the Republican National Senate Committee, told CNN he had no concerns about her emerging into the race – and he played down the idea that she would be more vulnerable during a clash in the general election. He said he also spoke with her.

“Everyone is going to attack everyone. But ultimately the voters are going to choose,” said Scott, who is neutral in the race.

And Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, the only U.S. senator to back Barnette, told CNN the candidate was “amazing” and dismissed the attack that Barnette hadn’t been properly vetted.

“Look around the Senate,” Ernst said in the hallways of the chamber. “I see a lot of people who I think should have been vetted. But no, I just think she’s amazing.”

“Just because you’re new to politics doesn’t mean we’re writing you off,” Ernst added. “I think she has a great story. It’s compelling.”

Barnette’s ties to Pennsylvania are also largely unknown, and his book and campaign website are sparse on basic biographical information about the potential senator. As Barnette ran unopposed in a 2020 Republican congressional primary only to lose to Democrat Madeleine Dean by 19 percentage points for a congressional seat in suburban Philadelphia, the list in her 2020 book, “Nothing To Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America,” said she lives in Virginia.

The book figures prominently in Barnette’s stump speech. The contestant writes that she “grew up on a very small farm in southern Alabama in a one stop town.” The house, she writes, had no running water and had an outbuilding. In another passage, she writes that “for the majority of black people in Nichburg, Alabama and surrounding areas, the goal of each day was sheer survival.” Those who support Barnette and have heard her speak often cite her personal history – rural upbringing, college, military service and work as a commentator – as the reason they support her.

“I was very impressed with her life story,” said Donna DePue, vice president of the Wyoming County Council of Republican Women, a group that hosted a luncheon for Barnette. “She was never taught to believe she was inferior. She came across as the real deal. She’s not a disgusting RINO and I liked her sincerity.”

“I keep telling people that President Trump isn’t as politically upright as some parts of this populist movement – Kathy Barnette is a manifestation of that. It’s MAGA vs. ultra MAGA in Pennsylvania,” he said. former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was scheduled to host Barnette on his “War Room” podcast on Thursday afternoon.

Barnette also ably explained how she, a candidate in line with Trump and his values, failed to win the former president’s endorsement, saying during a recent debate that “MAGA doesn’t belong to President Trump.” because “our values ​​have never, ever changed”. to President Trump’s values” and it was “President Trump who changed and aligned with our values”.

The explanation has worked for many Republican activists, who see Oz as the antithesis of the MAGA movement.

In response, the campaigns of Oz and McCormick and associated super PACs quickly worked to stop Barnette’s surge. American Leadership PAC, an Oz-supporting super PAC, released a video on Wednesday calling Barnette “crazy” and “the wackiest candidate in Pennsylvania” and linking her, a black Republican, to efforts to defund the police.

“Her momentum is tied to her relationship with State Senator Doug Mastriano. Her supporters have her back. … Mastriano’s supporters will follow him off a cliff,” said a Republican operative in Pennsylvania. “[I] I feel like most will stick with her even during the attacks.”

Mastriano’s rise caused panic in Republican circles. State Sen. Jake Corman withdrew from the gubernatorial race on Thursday and endorsed former U.S. Representative Lou Barletta. Mastriano is one of the Commonwealth’s most vocal supporters of the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

However, Republicans watching the response to Barnette’s rise believe it may be too late for either operation to slow his rise. And the current answer may be the extent of efforts to stop it, given that the primary is only days away.

A source close to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely tied to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said the group has “no intention of getting involved in this primary.” The central goal of the super PAC is to elect a Republican majority in the Senate, which has sometimes meant getting involved in primaries to push the candidate it sees as the most eligible — an open question on Barnette. But the timing of his ascension effectively paralyzed the group and the others.

For Republicans, the prospect of Barnette’s victory on Tuesday now turns to a general election with the largely unknown candidate spearheading one of their most high-profile Senate campaigns. Republicans are excited about their chances of retaking the equally divided Senate in November, fueled by President Joe Biden’s plummeting polls and a favorable environment for the Republican Party.

But 2022 wouldn’t be the first time an unexpected Republican candidate has doomed those odds. Top Republicans are eager to avoid turning winnable races into net losses as they did in 2010 and 2012, when unselected far-right candidates won the primaries but struggled in the general election.

A string of Republican operatives told CNN on Thursday that while Barnette might make their job harder in Pennsylvania, she will have a chance in what will likely be a good year for Republicans.

“It’s absolutely crazy, but it still seems too early to say she would be a surefire loser in an overall,” one of the agents concluded. “She could explode on the tarmac two weeks after the primary ends. Or she could win.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Manu Raju and Michael Warren contributed to this report.

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