The leak of a draft decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn abortion rights has sparked a crisis of confidence in the court, protests by liberals and is now propelling an outsider candidate to within sight of a seat in the US Senate.
Kathy Barnette is an ultra-conservative who was running a distant third a few weeks ago, but now has a chance of winning the Republican nomination for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania. She has been boosted by her anti-abortion position, which has become a campaign issue after the court’s decision was first published by Politico.
A Barnette victory would stun her two better-funded opponents – the television doctor Mehmet Oz and the former hedge fund boss David McCormick. But it would also call into question the authority within the Republican party of former President Donald Trump, who has given Oz his full-throated backing. And it could foreshadow abortion rights as a decisive issue in November’s midterm elections.
Jessica Taylor, an analyst at the Cook Political Report, said: “From the public and private polling I have seen, her surge is real. This would be a stunning come-from-behind victory if it happens. ”
The Pennsylvania Senate race is being seen as a test of Trump’s influence over party members, and until recently had been dominated by Barnette’s two high-spending opponents.
According to the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission, Oz and McCormick have each spent around $ 14mn on the campaign, while Barnette has spent just $ 1.6mn. She has been boosted in recent days, however, by the conservative group Club for Growth, which is spending $ 2mn on television adverts supporting her.
Six weeks ago, Barnette was languishing on just 7 percent in the polls, according to RealClearPolitics. With four days to go until polling day, she was in second place on 21 per cent, just behind Oz on 23 per cent and just ahead of McCormick on 20 per cent.
The surge began soon after the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft decision on Roe vs Wade, boosted by a viral video in which she described how her abortion views had been shaped by having been conceived through rape.
“It definitely made me become very adamant about the sanctity of life – of all life, regardless of their conception, or how they arrived,” she said after describing how her mother became pregnant after being raped aged 11. Her message has been taken to indicate support for some of the more extreme anti-abortion bills being promoted in Republican states which would ban abortion even in cases of rape or incest.
Barnette’s video has been coupled with a diligent ground campaign, in which she has appeared at dozens of local party events, even when her more high-profile opponents have not.
“Kathy was the only one who came to our event on March 2,” said Gary Smith, who runs a group called the Constitutional Republicans of Western Pennsylvania. “She is down to earth – like your neighbor, or the lady at the grocery store, or your church, or library.”
Rick Rathfon, president of the Clarion County Republicans, said: “She has got a great back-story, and she is pretty conservative. I like here. ”
Her anti-abortion message has helped crystallize Republican voters’ concerns about the conservative credentials of the other two candidates – whether because of McCormick’s Wall Street background or Oz’s background in entertainment.
Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon who had his own television show, has been attacked by opponents for his Turkish heritage, as well as previous statements in support of tighter gun control and criticizing parts of the pro-life movement.
“All of us were scratching our heads when Trump endorsed Oz,” said Laura Schisler, a Trump supporter from just outside Pittsburgh. “My only thought is that maybe he was trying to get Never-Trumpers to vote for someone else.”
Many Republicans in the state describe Oz and McCormick as “carpetbaggers” – candidates who seek election in places with which they have no connection.
At a primary debate last month, Oz accused McCormick of being pro-China, pointing to business deals he made while chief executive of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. McCormick in turn accused Oz of “phoniness”.
Having focused mainly on each other during the course of the campaign, supporters of Oz and McCormick have begun to turn their fire on Barnette.
Trump issued a statement on Thursday saying: “Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats.” A committee supporting Oz is running advertisements calling her “crazy Kathy”.
Amid the heightened scrutiny, some party supporters are asking questions about her background, including when she moved to Pennsylvania and what happened during the 10 years she says she spent in the armed forces. Last week, the conservative publication the Washington Examiner ran a piece with the headline “Who is Kathy Barnette?”
Others have pointed to some of her more extreme statements, such as a 2015 tweet in which she said “Pedophilia is a Cornerstone of Islam,” or her previous embrace of “Save the Children” – a movement promoted by advocates of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and not the international charity of the same name.
While a Barnette victory will undermine the assumption that Trump’s endorsement is the deciding factor in Republican races, the former president has also made clear he would be happy to support her after next week given her conservative views.
But it would also boost the flagging morale of Democrats, who are expecting heavy losses at November’s midterm elections. Party officials believe that Barnette’s views and inexperience will make her far easier to beat than either Oz or McCormick.
Brendan Boyle, a Democratic Congressman from Philadelphia, said: “Kathy Barnette describes herself as ‘Super MAGA’ [a reference to Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, Make America Great Again] and she is right. She would be the GOP candidate who would give us the best chance to win the seat. ”