Dave & Oz’s Thelma & Louise Moment

Tina Nguyen
May 11, 2022

For the past several weeks, the two leading candidates in Pennsylvania’s G.O.P. Senate primary, David McCormick and Mehmet Oz, had been locked in something like a statistical dead heat. McCormick, the Gulf War-fighting ex-hedge fund C.E.O., has been trailing just slightly behind Oz, after the celebrity heart surgeon picked up an endorsement from Donald Trump. The race has since taken a particularly ugly turn, with Trump and Oz hitting McCormick for his hedge fund’s ties to China, and McCormick allies smearing Oz, a Muslim dual U.S.-Turkish citizen, for serving in that country’s military and voting in a 2018 election there.

And yet, incredibly, while these two carpetbaggers and aspiring centimillionaires have been pounding each other into the dirt over who is the more authentic populist in advertising campaigns—for a total cost that’s already eclipsed $50 million—a third, largely unknown Senate candidate has made a late-breaking run to snatch the election, which is next Tuesday, from both of them. “If I had to bet,” the Pennsylvania superlawyer (and political scion) Shanin Specter told me earlier this week, “Kathy Barnette is poised to either win or come close.”

Barnette—a Black Army veteran from Alabama, one-time author, and D-list Fox News contributor—has spent an infinitesimal fraction of what Oz and McCormick are currently dropping on their races, and virtually none of it has been on television ads. Nevertheless, I’ve been fielding increasingly excited (and sometimes panicked) texts and phone calls from Republicans following her steady ascent over the past several days, from about 12 percent, to 15 percent, to 21 percent in the polls. On Tuesday, Barnette got two major nods: the Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent pro-life group, gave Barnette their endorsement. (During last week’s debate, shortly after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade reversal was leaked, Barnette revealed that she was conceived by a pregnancy caused by rape.) And the influential Club for Growth suddenly dropped a $1 million ad buy on Barnette’s behalf—a massive cash infusion and vote of confidence for a candidate who’s only spent $120,000 so far on her race. In the latest poll, also released on Tuesday, Barnette appears to have just edged out McCormick and has Oz within her sights, both inside the margin of error. Meanwhile, in a Politico story (again, on Tuesday), Steve Bannon called Barnette “ultra-MAGA”—a badge of honor ever since Joe Biden attempted to coin it as an epithet. (Watch for “ultra-MAGA” to become the new “deplorable.”)  

It’s too soon to say what Barnette’s late surge might tell us about the state of the broader G.O.P. electorate in 2022. Voters are fickle, and each state and local race has its own peculiarities. But unlike the Ohio Republican Senate primary, in which J.D. Vance won out over two other bona fide populist candidates, the Pennsylvania race is an electoral experiment that would be hard to replicate anywhere else. Even when you control for all the most absurd exogenous factors—huge inputs of money, television celebrity, dubious populist credentials, and the political access to pull Game of Thrones maneuvers in Mar-a-Lago—the G.O.P.’s two leading Senate candidates were always coastal elites playacting MAGA realness. 

But Pennsylvania’s mix of blue-collar workers, purple-state politics, high-income suburbs, rust-belt culture and disillusioned unionists might see through all of that. Indeed, Pennsylvania voters might decide that neither McCormick nor Oz are worthy MAGA advocates, and instead turn to someone with far less visibility or funding but who genuinely embodies the base’s election-doubting, constitution-waving, anti-establishment sensibility. “There was always the potential for someone else to run up the middle, with that amount of money being spent on negative ads between Oz and McCormick. And now it looks like it’s happening,” one Republican figure watching the race closely told me Monday, before any new polls or endorsements had dropped. “It appears the surge is based solely on voters looking for an option besides Oz and McCormick.” 

I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard much about Barnette until recently. When the MAGA candidate Sean Parnell, the early frontrunner, dropped out of the race last September, her name wasn’t mentioned as a viable alternative. Even in the hierarchy of obscure MAGA internet figures and activists, she’d ranked fairly low. But as time went on, a curious phenomenon emerged: McCormick and Oz racked up endorsements, pulled in millions, and spent gobs of money on television ads, yet neither of them could notch a distinct advantage against the other. Barnette, meanwhile, hovered reliably in third place until she hitched her star to state Senator Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial candidate popular in the online Christian nationalist movement, who’s appeared on QAnon-booster podcasts and who worked to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Barnette’s popularity surged when she secured his endorsement. 

Democrats believe that Mastriano and Barnette are both radioactive, and easily beatable, in a general election. (G.O.P. power brokers have launched a last-ditch effort to kill Mastriano’s candidacy, and Salena Zito just published a column encouraging voters to ask more questions about Barnette.) Ironically, the very qualities that make most candidates electable—money, political experience, proximity to power—can also be serious turn-offs for Republican populist voters. Hence the lingering distrust in MAGA world, not just for McCormick, but for the Trump-endorsed Dr. Oz, too. The unanswered question in Pennsylvania was whether the broader network of nationalist-populist media influencers would hold their nose and support Trump’s pick, or whether they’d go looking for a pure, grassroots candidate who better reflected their values. With Barnette, we appear to have an answer. As the candidate herself argued during the primary debate last week, “MAGA does not belong to President Trump.” On the contrary, she argued, “It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.” 

Still, the race is hardly over, and both the Oz and McCormick camps—long aware of their own MAGA deficiencies—have been trying valiantly to paper over them. Oz, accused by Daveworld of past apostasies on trans issues and abortion, got Trump to blast McCormick as a “globalist” turncoat who “managed money for communist China” as Bridgewater’s C.E.O. (At his rally with Oz, Trump seemed to delight in needling McCormick for trying to purchase his MAGA reputation by hiring former Trump staffers like Cliff Sims and Hope Hicks.) McCormick’s team has fired back, with the help of Mike Pompeo, by raising questions about Oz’s Turkish citizenship.

But Barnette’s aggressive rise—she is currently beating McCormick in a recent Fox News poll and trails Oz by 1.4 percentage points—now raises a host of fascinating questions over what, exactly, money can buy on the right these days. Beneath all the negative energy in the race, a few key trends are emerging.

It may turn out, for instance, that even a vast paid media war chest, and all the expensive G.O.P. consultants in the world, cannot defeat the purity of a tried-and-true, if belt-tightened, MAGA message. Compared to Oz and McCormick dropping eight-figure amounts into TV, Barnette had not bought a single advertisement prior to her surge, relying instead on online campaigns and word-of-mouth endorsements from online MAGA influencers. “Never has so much been spent to promote so little,” Specter told me.

Trump’s endorsement, as many have speculated, also appears to be waning in relevance. It helped Vance in Ohio, but doesn’t appear to have had the same magical effect in Pennsylvania. Can Trump simply declare that someone is now MAGA, and expect voters to willfully follow along, or will they begin to employ their own smell test? 

And if he can’t, what kinds of endorsements matter? McCormick has sought to counter Trump’s endorsement of Oz with an army of local Pennsylvania power brokers—party chairs, state legislators, Rick Santorum—as well as national alumni of the Trump menagerie, like Pompeo, Sarah Sanders, and Ted Cruz. The most powerful elected official who has endorsed Barnette is Iowa senator Joni Ernst. Are any of those names really more meaningful, in today’s multipolar media environment, than Barnette’s support from online commentators like Pizzagate podcaster Jack Posobiec, who called her “O.G. MAGA”?

This race is also starting to determine what sort of abject racism, itself a hallmark of MAGA politics, works most effectively. It’s been a few years since anti-Muslim sentiment has been a top-tier conservative priority. (Many on the right mysteriously stopped harping about sharia law and ISIS when Trump took office.) But the emphasis that allies like Mike Pompeo are placing on Oz’s Turkish citizenship (packaged as a national security issue) is a subtle bet that it might still resonate. From a messaging standpoint, Oz has certainly handled the allegation poorly: He can’t reasonably claim to never have been involved in Turkish politics, when there is a photo of him casting a Turkish ballot. But Pompeo’s attack would have been more devastating had Oz held a passport from a currently unpopular foreign adversary like, say, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or China. I’d wager that MAGA activists are more upset that Oz hosted Dave’s old boss, China enthusiast Ray Dalio, on his podcast. 

Conversely, the conservative movement has sought to boost Black candidates for decades, betting that if Democrats stake out more progressive positions regarding gender identity, policing and abortion—“woke politics,” in other words—then older Black voters will reject the party and pivot their way, especially if they’re presented with the right candidate. Barnette, with her hazy-but-compelling life story and improbable grassroots rise, may be the unicorn they’ve sought.