Donald Trump is not happy about the shape of the Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania. His fame and celebrity thirst led him to endorse TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz, an accomplished surgeon who gave it all up for the easy cash of peddling snake oil. But now it looks like Oz may lose his primary, dealing an embarrassing blow to Trump's fragile ego. Worse, Oz may not even lose to the generic Republican candidate, David McCormick, a walking MAGA-hat whose bland white guy looks can pass as "normal" to low-info swing voters. (I like to call this "pulling a Glenn Youngkin.") No, the surging candidate is Kathy Barnette, a hard-right commentator and crank in the style of Christine O'Donnell or Todd Akin — in other words, weird enough to pull in national attention, but with extreme views that could sink her in a general election race.
"Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats," Trump ranted in a statement released Thursday. He complained that she "has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted," and argued that "Oz is the only one who will be able to easily defeat the Crazed, Lunatic Democrat in Pennsylvania."
Politico describes Barnette's poll surge as "somewhat puzzling." It's not, however, if one has been carefully following how much the backlash to the #MeToo movement and rising anger at feminism has been fueling Trumpism. Trump won in 2016 thanks to a widespread sexist tantrum over a woman, Hillary Clinton, winning the Democratic nomination for president. Trump reinforced the misogyny message throughout his campaign, starting with mocking a female journalist for menstruating and ending with an absurdly insincere apology for the "Access Hollywood" tape in which he can be heard boasting about sexual assault.
Barnette's entry into the Misogyny Olympics is outrageous even by MAGA's low standards. She's been circulating a video and a story about how her mother was raped at 11 years old in 1971. While the subsequent birth of Barnette is treated like a beautiful sacrifice on her mother's part, it is worth noting that she didn't exactly have many choices as a Black child in Alabama before Roe v. Wade.
As feminist writer Jessica Valenti noted in a recent newsletter, "people talk about abortion as if something is ending," but in reality, access to abortion secures opportunities for women. Citing how her abortion made possible her marriage, daughter and career, Valenti wrote, "Anti-choicers like to pose hypotheticals about the remarkable baby a woman could have if she just didn't get an abortion: What if they cured cancer? None ask if that woman herself might change the world." When we're talking about rape victims who are literal children, it's even more stark; their entire futures can depend on having access to abortion.
Barnette calls the rape "horrible" in the video, but — by the anti-choice logic she's appealing to with her messaging — if forced childbirth is a beautiful thing because it results in "life," wouldn't that make forced impregnation beautiful as well? Indeed, MAGA circles went nuts last week over an event at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, where one speaker declared, "Not your body, your choice. Your body is mine and you're having my baby." It's why the anti-choice movement also opposes birth control. People who are compelled by the idea that a person wouldn't be here if a woman had ended a pregnancy will likely find other potential roadblocks to giving birth, including preventing pregnancy via contraception or a woman's right to refuse sex, suspicious as well.
Barnette's appeal to the MAGA base isn't exactly mysterious. The anti-choice crowd has always romanticized stories of women submitting to extreme levels of oppression. It puts an ennobling gloss on what is actually a deeply sadistic attitude towards women.
As much as he may loathe admitting it, Trump's objections to Barnette echo concerns that have already been expressed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In April, McConnell gave a speech noting that Republicans are in a good position for the midterms unless they "screw this up" by running "unacceptable" candidates. As Russell Berman noted in the Atlantic later that month, McConnell is likely thinking of "the GOP's missed chances in 2010 and 2012," where lunatic candidates lost races they could have otherwise won. In at least two cases, it was because of "defending their opposition to abortion even in cases of rape."
Well, Barnette isn't just opposed to abortion rights for rape victims. She's built her entire campaign around it. Anti-choicers like to leverage stories by people who claim they are products of rape because they know it shuts down some arguments. That doesn't mean those stories win people over, though. "Being forced to give birth to a rapist's baby in junior high is good, actually" is a bad campaign slogan, no matter how many personal testimonies you put behind it. Republican strategists desperately want the campaign to be about anything but forced childbirth, but Barnette may make that impossible in Pennsylvania.
Clearly, the GOP powers-that-be are worried about Barnette.
Plus, that's just one of her many truly fringe positions. Reporters haven't even really started digging and the research on her bigoted statements has started to pour out in volumes, documented at length on her own radio program. She compared being Muslim to "Hitler's Nazi Germany view of the world." She compared same-sex marriage to marriage between "one older man and a 12-year-old child." (Which is notably similar to the configuration that led to the forced childbirth she celebrates.) "Two men sleeping together, two men holding hands, two men caressing, that is not normal," she claimed. She bemoaned LGBTQ rights as a "barrage to normalize sexual perversion."
It's a race that's expected to get a lot of national attention because Pennsylvania is a swing state. Barnette sticks out from a crowded field of MAGA-heads because of her race and gender, but also because, as Trump suggests, there's a great deal not known about her yet. That opens the door to investigations into her background. Clearly, the GOP powers-that-be are worried about Barnette, because they're placing opposition research about her in the right-wing press not unlike the ongoing campaign to destroy Madison Cawthorn, the extremist MAGA congressman from North Carolina. Unlike states where the local media has been thoroughly destroyed, Pennsylvania still has some popular local newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia Inquirer, which make it harder for shady politicians to avoid press scrutiny.
Barnette sticks out from a crowded field of MAGA-heads because of her race and gender, but also because, as Trump suggests, there's a great deal not known about her yet.
It's a tough year for Democrats, who are taking the blame for inflation and general American malaise, but the public is starting to get quite angry about issues like the upcoming overturn of Roe v. Wade. All this makes her a very bad candidate for the GOP in this race.
But if Barnette is a bridge too far, as Trump fears, he only has himself to blame. His electoral success in 2016 — even though he never once won the popular vote — emboldened the GOP base to believe they could win elections by running any troll they want. Trump hasn't exactly done much work to discourage this idea. He's backed Herschel Walker in Georgia, who lied about graduating college and is accused of threatening to kill his ex-wife. He's backed a Nebraska gubernatorial candidate with eight sexual assault allegations. Prior to endorsing Oz, Trump's man in the Pennsylvania senate race was Sean Parnell, whose wife accused him of beating her and punching a door into a child's face. Trump has no discernible objection to candidates with ugly attitudes about violence towards women. His cold feet around Barnette might change a few minds. But in a GOP primary system that is mostly a race to the bottom, it's not a surprise someone like her is pulling ahead.