A pair of fringe conspiracy theorists have seized the momentum to be the Republican Party’s nominees for governor and senator in Pennsylvania—a prospect that’s alarming to Republicans who think they’ll lose the general election, and even more concerning for democracy if they win it in the nation’s largest swing state.
Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial front-runner Doug Mastriano and surging GOP Senate candidate Kathy Barnette have a lot in common.
They both made their names in politics by pushing wild conspiracy theories, including unfounded claims that Democrats rigged the 2020 election.
They were both in Washington during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
And they both have strong chances to win their primaries on Tuesday.
“We have a double-nightmare scenario where two fringe candidates could emerge as the nominees. A lot of the party leadership is in full panic mode,” one Republican former congressman told VICE News.
Mastriano, a state senator, is the clear front-runner to be Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial nominee, with a double-digit lead over his nearest opponents in a crowded field. Barnette has rocketed up in the polls in recent weeks into a three-way statistical tie with TV doctor Mehmet Oz and businessman David McCormick, the race’s big-spending onetime frontrunners, according to recent public surveys as well as private polls shared with VICE News.
Despite desperate 11th-hour attempts to stop Mastriano and Barnette, Republicans involved in the race admit they both appear to have the edge heading into Tuesday’s primaries, though Mastriano looks much more like a sure thing.
That’s alarming to Republicans, who worry the pair may be fatally flawed candidates who will lose in November, in spite of a great political environment for the GOP.
“The environment is so good, I do think whoever wins, it’d be a mistake for national strategists to look at this and say ‘oh, the [general election] race is over,’” said Pennsylvania GOP strategist John Brabender, who’s working for one of Mastriano’s opponents and isn’t involved in the Senate race.
“But they’re not fully vetted. There is some worry that somebody’s going to win with well under 50% of the vote and after the primary we’re gonna find out we have a big problem.”
Still, the national political environment is so toxic for Democrats that Mastriano and Barnette could win this fall, in spite of their extreme and conspiratorial views, putting one hardliner in charge of Pennsylvania’s government and the other in the U.S. Senate, with a national platform.
A MAGA star is born
Mastriano and Barnette have found common cause as the hardest of the hardcore MAGA conspiracy theorists, endorsing each other and regularly campaigning together across Pennsylvania.
The pair were little-known activists until recently. But their involvement in pushing and legitimizing conspiracy theories about the 2020 election got them on the radar of former President Donald Trump, made them local MAGA stars—and gave them a real shot at winning their primaries.
Until the 2020 election, Mastriano was a back-bench state senator. But he quickly emerged as one of Trump’s most steadfast toadies in the state, claiming without real evidence that President Joe Biden’s 82,000-vote win in Pennsylvania was fraudulent, working to try to block Biden’s election win from being certified, and later pushing for an Arizona-style audit.
Barnette played a similar role: In 2020, she lost a House bid to Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean in a heavily Democratic district by more than 20 percentage points. She quickly connected with conspiracy theorists from across the country who were pushing false claims that there was evidence the election had been rigged, and went door-to-door in her district to try to prove it, while making numerous appearances on conservative TV shows to push false claims about the election. To this day, she hasn’t conceded.
Both were in Washington to support Trump and to protest Congress’ certification of Biden’s election win on Jan. 6.
Barnette organized two buses to bring people to the rally. Mastriano attended, too, and though he initially claimed that he didn’t “go beyond police lines” that day, video later emerged that appears to show him strolling toward the Capitol moments after rioters pushed police back from their initial line of defense.
And the pair have a long history of controversy.
Mastriano has repeatedly aligned himself with the QAnon conspiracy movement, including a recent appearance at a QAnon conference where he argued that America is a Christian nation, mocked “this myth of the separation of church and state,” and promised the audience that he, and they, are “taking our country back.”
Event organizers listed Barnette as a featured speaker for that event, but she didn’t end up attending.
She’s made plenty of time for other controversies, though: Barnette has called Islam a “theocracy” and said it should be banned in the U.S. comparing it to Nazism and Stalinism; claimed that “pedophilia is a cornerstone of Islam”; and repeatedly pushed the lie that former former President Barack Obama is Muslim.
She also has along track record of homophobia, writing in a 2010 op-ed that the “homosexual agenda” was “immoral and perverse” and bent on “domination.” In later statements she called Caitlyn Jenner “deformed” and “demonic” for being transgender, and claiming that “many homosexuals LEAD with their sexual preference.”
“What is all this 11th-hour shit supposed to do?”
Both Mastriano and Barnette are benefiting from crowded fields, where they can win with a much smaller percentage of the vote.
Barnette has come out of nowhere in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, and is suddenly in a three-way tie in the polls with the race’s two longtime frontrunners, Trump-backed TV doctor Mehmet Oz and businessman David McCormick.
Her rise came after Oz, McCormick, and their allies spent a combined $60 million on TV ads, much of it spent tearing each other down on what one GOP strategist called a “murder-suicide.” Barnette has quietly skated by, spending less than $150,000 on ads while building her name ID with appearances on conservative outlets. The right-wing Club for Growth has sprung into action to help her, making a last-minute $2 million ad buy to boost her campaign this week.
Polling released early this week sent Republicans into a panic: Allies of both Oz and McCormick flooded journalists with haphazard last-minute opposition research dumps with some of Barnette’s wildest comments, while national Republican strategists wincingly braced for impact.
“The long knives are coming out at this point, and I had the best day of my life today,” Barnette gleefully said at a Thursday night rally.
Her surge is ominous to many Republicans who worry about losing the seat and facing a tougher path to Senate control—including Trump, who threw his support to Oz last month.
“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump warned in a Thursday statement. “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.”
But it’s clear that Trump and his allies have lost a good chunk of the MAGA base in this race. Fox News host Sean Hannity’s Friday tweet promoting a segment about how Barnette can’t win was quickly ratioed by right-wing activists.
There’s plenty left to find out about Barnette—including details of some basic claims she makes in her own campaign biography. Barnette says on the stump and in her campaign bio that she’s a former adjunct professor of corporate finance who worked for “two major financial firms in corporate America,” but she and her campaign have refused to say where exactly she actually worked.
“The seat is completely gone if she’s the nominee,” warned one GOP strategist who’s working for one of Barnette’s opponents, comparing Barnette to Christine O’Donnell, whose infamous “I’m not a witch” ad helped her blow a winnable Delaware Senate race in 2010.
Mastriano has maintained a steady lead in public and private polls, even though he’s never been above 30% in a survey. Most polls have former GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, and businessman Dave White are all bunched up in the mid-teens.
The Pennsylvania Republican establishment is mounting a desperate last-minute attempt to stop Mastriano. In the past week, two candidates who were polling in the single digits dropped out and backed Barletta, as did a bevy of establishment-leaning Republican congressmen and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
It’s probably too little, too late. “What is all this 11th-hour shit supposed to do?” asked one national Republican who’s keeping close tabs on the race.
And all that effort was likely knocked back by the GOP’s most important endorsement. Trump threw his support to Mastriano Saturday morning.
“There is no one in Pennsylvania who has done more, or fought harder, for Election Integrity than State Senator Doug Mastriano,” Trump said in a statement. “He has revealed the Deceit, Corruption, and outright Theft of the 2020 Presidential Election, and will do something about it.”
Democrats aren’t just hoping Mastriano will win—they’re airing ads for him. The Democratic Governors Association is running a TV ad that calls Mastriano “one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters” and highlights his fights to audit the 2020 Pennslyvania election and to outlaw abortion in the state—possible attack lines in a general election, but clear selling points in the primary.
The Republican Governors’ Association has yet to reserve airtime in Pennsylvania, unlike many other swing states with governor’s races on the ballot this year, and sources tell VICE News that the organization is much less likely to spend significant resources in the state if Mastriano is the nominee.
The national atmosphere is so bad for Democrats right now—Biden’s poll numbers are underwater nationally, and one Democratic strategist involved in a number of statewide races told VICE NEWS that they’re “absolute dogshit just about everywhere” in the states—that even with fringe conspiracy candidates like these two could have a shot in the general election in Pennsylvania, which Biden won by just 82,000 votes in 2020. But Republicans are hoping they don’t have to find out the hard way.
“If there's a Mastriano-Barnette ticket, everyone knows there’s almost no path forward to winning the governor’s race—and the Senate seat is in great jeopardy too,” warned the former GOP congressman.
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