Sensing a threat in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race, former President Donald Trump issued a warning Thursday that surging Republican candidate Kathy Barnette would upend the GOP’s chances of holding the seat in November and urged voters to back his pick, celebrity heart surgeon Mehmet Oz.
Axios described the reckoning as “a belated ‘oh s–t’ moment.”
Barnette “will never be able to win” in a general election matchup against Democrats, Trump said in a statement, adding that Oz “is the only one” who can defeat the Democratic nominee.
Later, on a telephone townhall with Oz, Trump criticized Barnette for losing a 2020 congressional race — by nearly 20 percentage points, albeit in a heavily Democratic district — and said he had never heard of her.
Trump said that Barnette “has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted.”
For example, Barnette’s website mentions her acceptance into a military academy… but it doesn’t say whether she actually attended or graduated.
“And the problem is, nobody knows what she stands for, who she is and that’s very risky because you’re going to win this with Oz and you’re not going to win it with any of the other candidates,” the former president continued.
The seat is opening up with the retirement of second-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and is regarded as perhaps the most likely opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat this year in the closely divided Senate.
Toomey, the outgoing senator, echoed Trump’s concerns.
“There’s a lot … voters don’t know about her,” Toomey told Axios on Wednesday. “A lot.”
Trump’s attacks reflected an 11th-hour behind-the-scenes scramble by Trump allies and rival campaigns to discredit Barnette, even though she has campaigned as a supporter of the former president.
In opposing Barnette, Trump has found an unlikely ally: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Compared to Trump, McConnell appears to share similar concerns. The Senate Republican leader has become worried about a repeat of the election cycles from 2010 and 2012, Axios reported.
During those elections, the Senate Republicans lost easy races after nominating unelectable candidates.
In 2010, the Republicans tried to fill Delaware’s vacant seat by nominating Christine O’Donnell, a communications professional known for her absurd T.V. advertisement denying accusations of witchcraft. Two years later, the Senate Republicans tried to unseat an incumbent Democrat by recruiting Todd Akin, a former representative from Missouri known for his infamous comment about “a legitimate rape.”
In addition to concerns about electability, McConnell has reason to fear an unmanageable, ungovernable caucus of Senate Republicans.
Barnette has already bristled at the idea of McConnell serving another term as party leader.
“People should not go to D.C. and the only way to get them out is when they die,” she said at a Senate debate.
Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary had been primarily an expensive duel between Oz, best known as the host of daytime TV’s “The Dr. Oz Show,” and McCormick.
Then, a surprise Fox News poll released Monday suggested a tight, three-way race with Barnette, who, if elected, would be the first Black Republican woman to ever serve in the U.S. Senate.
The poll found 22% of GOP primary voters supported Oz, with McCormick and Barnette bunched together at 20% and 19%. About one-fifth of voters, or 18%, said they were undecided.
Despite Trump’s attack on Barnette, elements of the party’s establishment were more accepting of Barnette, acknowledging that many Republican voters weren’t sold on Oz or McCormick.
She had a strong showing at recent TV debates, a fearless personality and “can win people over,” said a Republican strategist, Vince Galko.
Before Thursday, Trump had been silent about Barnette, only attacking McCormick.
That changed swiftly after key endorsements for Barnette in recent days that perhaps reflect concerns in some conservative and pro-Trump circles that Oz doesn’t sufficiently reflect their views on abortion, guns or the social issues.
Earlier Thursday, Barnette made the rounds of conservative broadcasters, suggesting on “The Water Cooler with David Brody” that Trump is attacking her because he knows she’s going to win.
“It sounds like the president knows what’s going to happen on next Tuesday,” Barnette said.
The Horn editorial team and the Associated Press contributed to this article.