Kathy Barnette takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., on April 2, 2022.
Matt Rourke—AP
May 16, 2022 9:22 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, before Kathy Barnette became a true contender to win the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary, Jackie Kulback, the GOP party chair in Cambria County, had a quick question for the candidate.

“I said, ‘Hey, Kathy, somebody’s here and asking me where you went to college,” Kulback says. “Anybody else would have zipped back with a one word answer,” she adds. “I got nothing.”

Barnette, a conservative commentator and author of Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America, has been avoiding questions from reporters since she started rising in the polls. (In response to a request from TIME, her campaign provided an FAQ that said that Barnette graduated from Troy State University and worked at Bank of America Capital Asset Management.) But ignoring Republican county chairs while campaigning in a primary is another story. “That kind of raised the red flag,” says Kulback, who isn’t affiliated with a campaign in the contest. “That’s really disconcerting.”

Kulback isn’t the only one who feels like Barnette came out of nowhere. For months, Pennsylvania’s fiercely contested GOP Senate primary has been billed as a race between Mehmet Oz, the Trump-endorsed former celebrity doctor, and David McCormick, the former CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds, who has enlisted the support of former Trump officials and some establishment Republicans. But in recent weeks, Barnette has surged in the polls, turning one of the most watched (and most expensive) primaries in the nation into a tight three-way race.

As Oz and McCormick spent months battling on the airwaves, spending tens of millions of dollars attacking each other with often-negative ads, Barnette gained steam. “I honestly believe this is murder-suicide between McCormick and Oz,” says Matt Beynon, a Republican strategist and top advisor to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. “They’ve poisoned the well for each other so badly that it’s allowed Barnette to rise.”

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After polls in early May showed that Barnette had pulled into a near-dead heat with the front runners, voters began searching to learn more about her, according to Tyler Brown, a Republican consultant and president of Hadron Strategies. By the weekend before election day, her search traffic far outpaced her competitors. “Going into election day, Kathy Barnette owns the information space,” Brown said. “The race is gonna hinge on her.”

A van is festooned with campaign billboard for Pennsylvania Senate candidate Kathy Barnette ahead of a Republican leadership forum at Newtown Athletic Club in Newtown, Pa. on May 11, 2022. (Michael M. Santiago—Getty Images)
A van is festooned with campaign billboard for Pennsylvania Senate candidate Kathy Barnette ahead of a Republican leadership forum at Newtown Athletic Club in Newtown, Pa. on May 11, 2022.
Michael M. Santiago—Getty Images

But even members of her own party knew little about her. And as she rose in the polls and attracted more media scrutiny, a picture emerged of a so-called “ultra-MAGA” outsider. She’s aligned herself with Doug Mastriano, the Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate who has crusaded on the lie that the 2020 election was corrupted by widespread election fraud, and Teddy Daniels, the Lt. Governor candidate who has been accused of domestic abuse.

Born to a 12-year old mother whose pregnancy was the result of a rape, Barnette was raised on a pig farm in rural Alabama. One emotional campaign video explains how her personal history led her to oppose all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. Barnette has a history of anti-gay and anti-Muslim comments, and has tweeted the conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama is a Muslim. (Obama isn’t; he’s Christian.) She has also widely touted the lie that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 Presidential election (there wasn’t) and marched alongside Proud Boys in Washington on January 6.

All this has spooked mainstream Republicans. And conventional wisdom might suggest that Barnette’s record—as well as the unanswered questions about it—would make her a weak candidate in a November general election. Trump himself said that Barnette “will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats.”

But in the post-2020 GOP, scandalous allegations and offensive comments can be worn like a badge of honor—if Republican voters even believe what’s reported. “In the short term, it oddly may help,” says Beynon. “The base Republicans’ reaction is that if you’re being attacked by the media, you’re somebody I should actually like.”

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In the meantime, Barnette’s rise as the Trumpiest candidate who wasn’t endorsed by Trump has raised questions about the value of the former President’s endorsement. “It’s nice to have, but do you need it to win? I don’t think so,” says Kulback. Barnett has also benefited from a late $2 million ad blitz from the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group that has made a show of opposing Trump’s picks in some key primaries amid reports of a rift with the former President.

If Trump-endorsed candidates lose in a number of statewide races this primary season, it could hint at that the former President’s grip on the GOP base may be loosening. “A loss would hurt his brand big time,” says Rob Gleason, who ran the Pennsylvania GOP from 2006 until 2017 and is supporting McCormick. “If his candidates don’t win, then how’s he gonna win?”

But the fact that Barnette’s surge caught everyone by surprise could foreshadow success. Barnette is an outsider in a party that now prizes unconventionality more than almost anything else. “Only outsiders are gonna win Republican primaries, period,” says Brad Todd, a Republican strategist and co-author of The Great Revolt. “The current Republican primary electorate is determined to pick people who come from outside the political system. Your first job is to prove your bona fides as an outsider.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter at [email protected].

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