Primary races deliver a Trump test for GOP
Pennsylvania race will show how the former president’s endorsement plays in a swing state
In Pennsylvania, where a crowded field of candidates vies for a coveted U.S. Senate seat, a dark horse might be emerging in the closely contested Republican primary.
“I don’t know anything about Kathy Barnette,” East Carolina University professor Brad Lockerbie said as he outlined this month’s contentious primary races. He’s not alone. Barnette, a military veteran and political commentator, has never held elected office before. Millionaire candidates such as Dr. Mehmet Oz, who scored an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, and former hedge fund CEO David McCormick have far outspent her. But recent polls find the trio in a three-way tie for the Republican spot on the ballot for U.S. Senate.
The race demonstrates ideological divides within the Republican Party as it comes to terms with Trump’s ongoing influence. The results in Pennsylvania’s primary next week will test how the former president’s endorsements and anti-endorsements affect close races in swing states.
Of the four states that have held primaries so far this month, Trump-endorsed candidates have overwhelmingly won, with a handful of exceptions. In Ohio, a nod from Trump pushed Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance over the edge in his primary race for U.S. Senate. This week, U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, who is running for reelection against another incumbent, thanked his top-tier supporter at his nomination victory speech on Tuesday night, saying, “Donald Trump loves West Virginia, and West Virginia loves Donald Trump!”
Peter Wielhouwer, associate professor of political science and director of the Institute for Government and Politics at Western Michigan University, said that Ohio’s result indicates the former president will retain his influence on the party, but it also revealed internal fights among Republicans.
“So far these campaigns are revealing fractures in the party,” Wielhouwer said. “From a political perspective, if [Trump-endorsed] candidates lose high profile races, then he probably wouldn’t run again. But if he wins a critical mass of prominent endorsements, it shows his base might support him in 2024.”
Some establishment Republicans worry Trump’s picks are too far to the right to defeat Democratic opponents in November. That would put a congressional majority in jeopardy. But an endorsement from Trump isn’t necessarily a guarantee of victory in the primaries, according to Lockerbie: “Even though President Trump’s batting average is looking pretty good so far, it’s a mixed bag for him at this point.”
On Tuesday, the Trump-favored Nebraska governor candidate, Charles Herbster, failed to win his primary. Instead, wealthy pig farmer and University of Nebraska regent Jim Pillen won with nearly 34 percent of the vote. Herbster during his campaign was accused by multiple women of past inappropriate touching, while Pillen earned the endorsement of the sitting governor and the state party. Similarly in Georgia, GOP governors are hitting the campaign trail in support of Gov. Brian Kemp, who ran afoul of Trump for rejecting 2020 election fraud claims in the state. According to recent polls, Kemp is the clear favorite for the May 24 primary.
Trump’s criticism of McCormick in Pennsylvania likewise does not appear to have hindered the millionaire candidate’s chances compared with television personality Oz. Despite the anti-endorsement, McCormick has built a Trump-style “America First” platform to appeal to voters.
That worries the Democratic Party. Addressing continued inflation on Tuesday, Biden told Americans his planned legislation will eventually improve the economy. He warned that “ultra-MAGAs”—a reference to Trump’s motto of “Make America Great Again”—want to exploit people’s economic frustration to gain a majority at the polls in November. Without specifically mentioning Trump, Biden said such a group would enact an extreme agenda.
Candidates such Kathy Barnette in Pennsylvania embrace the “ultra-MAGA” label. In an April debate, Barnette not only aligned herself with Trump but described his base as composed of true conservatives, appealing to the former president’s supporters even without his endorsement. “Our values never shifted to President Trump’s values,” she said. “[He] shifted and aligned with our values.”
The strategy appears to have helped. While Oz and McCormick spend millions on attack ads in the state, Barnette has pushed her pro-life position and conservative endorsements. If she wins the nomination and midterm election, she would be the first black Republican female senator from Pennsylvania. Lockerbie said he would consider it one of the most surprising political upsets he’s seen.
“Kathy is one of us, she’s not a millionaire,” Penn Hills Republican Committee chairman Brent Rambo told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “[Oz and McCormick] have been beating each other up on TV, and I think people are looking for an alternative.”
In a statement on Thursday, Trump directed his attention to Barnette. “Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” he said, claiming only Oz has the qualifications to make it through the midterms. But he did not dismiss Barnette altogether: “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.”