Kathy Barnette presents a different side

The surging Pa. GOP Senate candidate says she's pro-Israel and will take on intolerance, but she has a long record as a provocateur

Kathy Barnette, a longshot Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania who has suddenly leapt into contention ahead of Tuesday’s primary, has argued that America cannot “co-exist with the homosexual agenda” and that “two men holding hands” is “not normal.” Elsewhere, she has written that “pedophilia is a cornerstone of Islam,” amplified the conspiracy that former President Barack Obama “is a Muslim” and likened Islam to Nazism.

But the Kathy Barnette who spoke with Jewish Insider in a brief interview on Sunday presented a different front. Describing herself as an “unflinching friend to Israel, to Jews” and “to all law-abiding Americans,” Barnette, 50, pledged that she will be “unrelenting toward” those who “are racist or intolerant” if she is elected to the Senate.

Her critics might find such promises hard to believe. The author, conservative commentator and Army Reserve veteran has long espoused bigoted views that have recently drawn intense scrutiny amid her unlikely surge in the final weeks of the race.

“You are not a racist if you reject Islam, or if you reject Muslims, because they are not a race of people,” Barnette said in a 2015 speech. “They are a particular view. They are people that have a particular view of the world, and we have a right to discriminate against worldviews. We discriminated against Hitler’s Nazi Germany view of the world.”

Later that year, Barnette drew additional comparisons with Hitler when she suggested in a pair of previously unreported tweets that American gun control efforts were akin to Nazi tactics. “How long do you think we would be a free country if Obama takes our guns?” Barnette wrote, appending a poster of Hitler engaged in a Nazi salute above an incendiary message: “All in favor of ‘gun control’ raise your right hand.”

She concluded her tweet with two hashtags: “#Jewish #2A.”

The poster Barnette had appended to her social media post is the product of an obscure gun-rights nonprofit called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, whose late founder, Aaron Zelman, has argued that “gun control is an extremely destructive policy” that “helped clear the way for Nazi ascendancy in Germany.” The group, founded in 1989, has been characterized as a hardline version of the National Rifle Association.

Similarly, Barnette — a so-called “ultra-MAGA” conservative activist who is now polling neck and neck with two well-funded opponents — has in many ways positioned herself to the extreme right of a Republican field that is otherwise almost uniformly aligned with former President Donald Trump.

Last month, Trump endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician who for months has been locked in a costly ad war with David McCormick, the former hedge fund CEO. Barnette, who has been comparatively under-resourced, has derided both candidates as “globalists” and said she has “no intention of supporting” them if either wins the primary. 

“You can’t help but to see the David and Goliath kind of odds,” Barnette told JI. “I honestly believed that if Pennsylvanians knew they had a better choice, they would take it, and so that’s what they’re doing.”

Recently, Barnette received a boost from the conservative Club for Growth, which launched a $2 million ad campaign on her behalf. The push has lent some institutional support to an outsider’s bid that nevertheless appears to be resonating with voters across Pennsylvania.

Barnette — who would be the first Black Republican woman in the Senate — has weaved a compelling narrative on the stump, notwithstanding the growing number of controversies that have surrounded her candidacy in recent weeks. 

Born in southern Alabama, she has spoken of her childhood growing up on a pig farm “in a home with no insulation” and “no running water,” and describes herself as “the byproduct of a rape” whose mother was just 11 when she was conceived. Barnette served in the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve during the 1990s and received an undergraduate degree in finance from Troy State University as well as an M.B.A. from Fontbonne University. She is the author of Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America.

Barnette first ran for public office in a 2020 House bid but lost to the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA), by nearly 20 points. She has never conceded. The former “Fox & Friends” commentator is among seven Republican primary candidates vying to succeed Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who is retiring at the end of his current term. 

“I think a very clear choice has been presented to Pennsylvanians,” Barnette told JI. “That choice is between selecting a candidate who reflects our values — those values that have made America strong, have made America the greatest nation the world has ever seen. Or, the other choice is to select a candidate that will only bring more of the swamp.”

Her sudden rise has fueled concerns within Republican circles that the political newcomer — whose background remains somewhat of a mystery — could bring unforeseen baggage into the general election, which is expected to be among the most hotly contested Senate races in the country.

Over the past week or so, political reporters who had previously ignored Barnette’s campaign have begun digging into her past, unearthing a trove of potentially damaging information, including her comments on gay and Muslim people. Barnette has struggled to defend her anti-Muslim statements in particular. During a Fox News interview on Sunday, she said that the statements “now being presented are not even full thoughts” or “even full sentences.”

On Monday, NBC News reported that it had verified photos of Barnette marching to the Capitol on Jan. 6, alongside members of the Proud Boys. 

Her campaign said in a statement to NBC News that Barnette “has no connection whatsoever to the Proud Boys,” members of whom attacked the Capitol in an effort to overturn the presidential election results. Barnette’s campaign said had been “in DC to support President Trump and demand election accountability.”

In her Senate campaign, Barnette has joined forces with another hardline conservative in Pennsylvania who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6: Doug Mastriano, a state senator and Republican frontrunner in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial primary. The two candidates have had an informal alliance throughout the race, including cross endorsements and appearances at campaign events. 

While Mastriano received an endorsement from Trump on Saturday, his extreme views have also fueled speculation that he will be vulnerable in the general election. The 58-year-old gubernatorial hopeful represents the embodiment of what experts have described as a resurgent strain of Christian nationalism, whose practitioners have deployed Jewish ceremonial objects such as shofars, or rams’ horns, while conjuring the Israelites of the Bible. 

Such appropriation was on display during Mastriano’s campaign launch in January, when a man wearing a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, blew several long blasts from a shofar to open the proceedings. 

Jewish organizations in Mastriano’s district have condemned the event as “disturbing and offensive,” charging in an open letter that he had been exploiting sacred rituals “for personal political gain.”

Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment from JI at the time of the event.

In the interview with JI, Barnette sought to cast herself as an ally to the Jewish community, noting that she began forming relationships with Jewish voters in the Philadelphia suburbs when she ran for Congress two years ago and has “made a lot of friends along the way.”

“From 2020 to now,” she said, “I’ve spent a lot of time with people who are Jews, and their concerns are the same as everyone else, except with perhaps a greater emphasis on the importance of Israel and the importance of the security of Israel and the threats Israel faces.”

Barnette said she had visited Israel in 2019 on a nine-day trip hosted by Christians United for Israel and walked away from the experience with an increased appreciation for such concerns. “You don’t fully grasp that unless you have gone up and you’re physically there and you see how important that is,” she recalled of an excursion to the Golan Heights on the border with Syria. “Otherwise, it just becomes something that you read about and try to debate. It’s something very different than going there and understanding the security risks.”

The visit was also personally fulfilling, according to Barnette. “What a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I am a Christian. I’ve been a Christian since the age of about 19. I’ve studied the Bible, Old and New Testament, and it was so amazing to now come off the pages of the Bible and actually walk in real-time, in 3D, in Israel.”

Barnette suggested that she had traveled through settlements in the West Bank but said she could not remember the names because the trip had been “some time ago.” Still, she expressed approval for the “resources Israel has put into developing those parts of the areas that are primarily occupied by Muslims.”

Such sentiments — which erroneously cast all Palestinians as adherents of Islam — are reminiscent of past statements in which Barnette has more explicitly derided Muslims. But her remarks also indicate a lack of interest in Palestinian engagement. Barnette explained that she is “skeptical” of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “because of the history,” but did not offer further clarification.

“I believe President Trump has shown us a way of securing peace,” Barnette said, praising his administration for brokering the Abraham Accords, which she had referred to as the “Solomon Accord” before correcting herself. “I don’t think most people would have believed that could have happened, and yet it did,” she said of the diplomatic agreements that have recently normalized relations between Israel and a number of Muslim-majority nations in the region. “You saw some very significant Arab nations come together and be unified in that, and so I think that that is the path forward.”

Barnette said she rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and is supportive of continued U.S. security assistance to Israel. “I will be one of Israel’s most ardent friends,” she told JI. 

But Israel may be an exception: Barnette said she would examine foreign aid to other countries on a “case-by-case” basis. “I recognize that America is the leader of the free world, and with that comes great responsibility,” she told JI. “I believe, under this current administration, we are teaching our enemies not to fear us, and we are teaching our allies that we could be treacherous. That does not bode well for us, because I believe the world has become a much more dangerous place because of the weakness in this administration and the ‘America last’ approach that this administration has adopted.”

Barnette has said she would have voted against the $40 billion aid package for Ukraine that passed the House last week and is currently advancing through the Senate. “I believe we need to be very thoughtful and deliberate about who we are providing aid to,” she told JI, noting that she is in favor of “certain cases” but would otherwise prioritize an “America First approach.”

“We can walk and chew gum and be able to be an ally to our friends around the world but make sure America is strong again, make sure America is energy-independent,” she told JI. “I think one of the lessons we’ve learned from what is happening in Russia and Ukraine is that energy is freedom, energy is everything, and us being energy-independent and not relying on our enemies, so to speak, is very important.”

Barnette said she has heard similar concerns from a diverse cohort of voters as she has campaigned across the state over the past year. “When you’re talking about energy independence or the lack thereof, when you’re talking about inflation and gas prices,” she said, “the issues we’re contending with now do not just impact one group over the other.”

“Violence,” Barnette added, “has become an increasing concern for a variety of people, whether I’m talking to Chinese Americans in Chinatown, that’s a significant issue, and likewise with Jewish people, Black people, and all of that.”

Barnette vowed to speak out against “those who want to inflict harm” if she secures the Republican nomination tomorrow and is elected to the Senate this fall. “I will be unflinching,” she said, “in making sure that a spotlight is placed on them.”

Barnette made no indication, however, of whether she is willing to turn that spotlight on herself.

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