Kathy Barnette, a candidate seeking the Republican nomination for the open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, seems like a natural fit for the MAGA media. Her campaign’s website plays up her role as a political commentator and is festooned with photos of her posing with Fox News personalities and appearing on the network’s sets. Indeed, Barnette built a public profile with regular appearances on Fox & Friends, the insipid morning show that also jump-started former President Donald Trump’s political career.
But with Republican leaders reportedly panicking in the wake of new polling that shows Barnette pulling even with the Trump-endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick in the primary, right-wing media figures like Fox’s Sean Hannity and Newsmax TV’s Greg Kelly are doing everything in their power to halt her rise. Both hosts ran lengthy segments on Wednesday night warning their viewers that her candidacy is too risky, armed with opposition research gleaned from her social media channels.
Hannity and Kelly are both backing Oz in the primary; Hannity brought on the candidate himself to discuss the oppo drop, while Kelly settled for a surrogate. They also might worry about the impact on Trump’s reputation if the candidate he endorsed falls short, especially Hannity, given his role in advising Trump to make that endorsement. Notably, their criticisms of Barnette run afoul of their own and their networks’ past promotions of the candidate.
Hannity argued Wednesday that Barnette puts the GOP’s chances of holding the seat at risk because she “has never been vetted.” After telling his viewers that she “has a very troubling history of attacking Donald J. Trump,” Hannity read from and displayed on-screen a series of her tweets from the 2016 presidential campaign criticizing the former president.
Adding that “more resurfaced tweets are even more disturbing,” he highlighted her past statement describing former President Barack Obama as “a Muslim” as well as an anti-gay remark. In those cases, Hannity appears to be condemning her for comments not too different from some of his own past commentary.
Hannity went on to praise Oz, whom he deemed “battle-tested,” saying he’s “been vetted and he can win in November” and adding that “Pennsylvania voters have a serious choice to make and the stakes could not be higher.” He then brought on Oz to respond, and the candidate used the opportunity to slam Barnette’s “homophobic comments” and called her “the best chance for Democrats to capture the Senate seat.”
The Fox host’s criticisms of Barnette are a stark reversal from his previous praise. He noted during the segment that he previously hosted Barnette, but that hardly does the appearance justice. When Hannity brought her on for a Fox interview after she announced her campaign in April 2021, he told her, “You would be the first African American woman as a Republican in the Senate. From all I could see, I hope that happens.”
Indeed, as late as April of this year, Hannity was saying on his radio show that while he was endorsing Oz in the race, he had “nothing bad to say” about Barnette. He went on to call her “a star,” adding: “I look forward to … supporting her in a future race. She's got a very bright future and I think the world of her.”
Hannity’s prime-time colleague Laura Ingraham seemed to allude to his broadside on Barnette on the next hour Wednesday night, when she commented, “Boy is the GOP oppo on her flowing.” She then interviewed McCormick, whose candidacy she appears to favor in the race.
Like Hannity, Newsmax’s Kelly also targeted Barnette’s MAGA bona fides on his Wednesday program, calling the candidate “a phony” who “was unvetted by the press.” But rather than arguing that she has made bigoted comments, his angle was that Barnette’s commentary on race shows that she is exessively left-wing.
Kelly aired video of Barnette, who is Black, highlighting the presence of slave cabins during a visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation and arguing for a “balanced view of history.” Kelly commented, “She sounds woke!”
During a second segment, Kelly said Barnette “sounds like woke liberal Mayor Bill deBlasio.” He then aired a video of her saying that “systemic racism is very important to me” because she has a Black son and wants him to be treated fairly by the U.S. justice system. Kelly also aired a video of her saying she wanted to ensure that “George Floyd received justice,” adding, “I would have been out there right along beside each and every one of you who were protesting in Minneapolis.” Kelly went on to comment that Minneapolis “was on fire” and “nearly destroyed,” before airing video of a fiery scene.
Kelly also interviewed former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an Oz surrogate, to praise the candidate.
Kelly’s complaint that Barnette hasn’t been vetted might hold more water if his network hadn’t repeatedly hosted her and even sponsored a debate for the Pennsylvania Senate candidates she participated in.
Nothing Barnette did raised eyebrows for Hannity or Kelly until it became clear that her success could cost the Republican Party a Senate seat. But now that she’s in position to win a primary (and perhaps lose a general election), they are going to work.