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How Barnette Could Throw The Pennsylvania Senate Primary To McCormick
Is the late surge of a MAGA-fied Black female actually a spoiler instead?
Sometimes the most salient piece of a narrative doesn’t forge into focus until the very end of the writing process, when your story is supposed to be set and done.
This phenomena occurred to me this week as I was polishing off a piece for McClatchy Newspapers about the spiciest current story in campaign politics: The brisk rise of Kathy Barnette in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary.
Barnette’s polling surge — which materialized just over a week out from next Tuesday’s primary election — can largely be tied to her snappy performance in a debate last week, in which she delivered memorable lines about her opponents sucking and her personal story of being born out of rape.
Barnette is compelling on a stage and in an interview. And yes, being Black female and conservative enhances her magnetism.
If polls are accurate, despite being vastly outspent, she’s now in striking distance of upsetting Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick, the two wealthy front-runners who have dominated the race’s arc until this final week.
Now it’s Barnette’s momentum that’s fueling the story. But as I was finalizing the paragraphs in my piece — which you can in its entirety HERE — an oddity occurred to me.
Neither Oz nor McCormick were bothering with Barnette. Surely their internal polling had to be telling a similar picture of the last three public surveys: Barnette was on the move in a fluid three-way race.
So why weren’t they doing anything to stop her? At least overtly?
Yes, the main plotline was Barnette’s rise. But if her rise was indeed real, where was the opposition?
I couldn’t get an answer from the campaigns on the record.
But pollsters and other operatives I connected with posed two theories.
A) That engaging Barnette is too big of a risk in potentially elevating her just when casual voters begin paying attention. An attack would be seen as more of a reason for hardcore, anti-establishment conservatives to rally around her even more fervently and supply her with more energy. Barnette doesn’t have the resources to reach all of Pennsylvania’s 11 media markets. Let her lie with her 22%; that’s enough to get close but not win.
“Their decision is likely out of fear that they may amplify her recent surge, and make it worse,” said Jim Christiana, a former Republican state legislator who now runs a marketing and public relations firm in the Pittsburgh area. “Their plan seems to be hope, and pray, that she does not have the resources to amplify her message throughout the next 7 days.”
… AND/OR …
B) Barnette’s largely splitting the MAGA vote with Oz, therefore McCormick has no reason to stop her mojo. Let her eat into that disaffected, rural, Trump-loving base as much as possible. That subtracts from Oz and allows McCormick to squeak through between the two of them and eek out a victory on the calculus of traditional (Toomey) Republicans + a divided Trump faction.
Berwood Yost, Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research Director, warned that Barnette is splitting the hardcore Trump vote with Oz, potentially aiding McCormick. “If Oz and Barnette split that vote, that’s going to be an advantage for McCormick,” Yost said. “McCormick’s getting more of that traditional Republican vote. That gives him a path.”
These two theories are the undervalued undercurrent of this race, even as hazy as they are. Barnette’s ability to pull off the upset of the cycle are astutely debated on this podcast Star Spangled Gamblers, which I highly recommend giving a listen to on your favored platform.
Polls and the betting pool still has Oz narrowly ahead, which explains why his campaign is likely buying into Theory A: Leave her alone.
But this is shaping up to be as tricky of a primary finish as OHIO.
The safe bet is still Trump’s OZ.
The risky but most rewarding money is on BARNETTE.
The spoiler outcome favors MCCORMICK.
Remember, 3-ways are never uncomplicated.