NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania—On a warm night in August, a live bald eagle spread its wings behind Kathy Barnette in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
Barnette, the Republican candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 4th District, was hosting a meet-and-greet at a zoo in a diverse suburb about an hour’s drive from downtown Philadelphia. The towns of Montgomery County typify the changing American suburbs that have been getting so much attention in 2020: This was once a GOP stronghold, but Hillary Clinton soundly defeated Donald Trump by 21 percentage points here. Since then, Democrats have grown their voter-registration edge, and even the county commissioner’s office is now run by a Democratic majority.
But you might not know from Barnette’s tone that she’s running in a district rated “solid Democrat.” She is campaigning, unapologetically, under the banner of Trumpism.
“If the purpose of all the chaos we see going on in our nation right now is to make people who look like me feel safer, it’s been a colossal failure,” Barnette, who is Black, said to a crowd of about 60 people seated on picnic benches at the zoo. She had now moved away from the eagle encampment and was standing, ironically, next to a pen of spotted donkeys. “The U.S. Constitution is nothing more than a [document] of law and order,” she continued, with a slight Southern drawl, which she carries from having grown up in rural Alabama.
“From a pig farm to Congress! From a pig farm to Congress!” she said moments later, leading a call-and-response cheer.
Barnette, 49, is a political outsider like President Donald Trump, and a candidate in his mold. Before she launched her congressional bid—her first entry into politics—she appeared as a commentatoron “Fox & Friends” and on local conservative radio. In February, she published a book making the case that Trump has been the greatest president for Black America since Abraham Lincoln (an argument Trump has made himself). During a summer of protest across the country, she at timesechoed the president’s rhetoric, telling supporters at a campaign office launch party in July that “your freedom is in peril” and referring to racial justice protesters as “thugs and mobs that shut down the conversation.”
In one sense, Barnette, who faces freshman incumbent Democrat Madeleine Dean, represents precisely the kind of diversity the Republican Party lacks—and has said it wants more of. The GOP has fielded a record number of female congressional candidates this election cycle, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, but only 10 of the Republican nominees this fall are Black women, including Barnette. Just one other Black female Republican has held a seat in the House—ever. “[A]s an African-American female, [she’s brought] an important perspective to the PAGOP,” the chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, Lawrence Tabas, said in a statement.
Yet, at a time when suburbs increasingly are turning blue, Barnette’s long-shot campaign also speaks to a big challenge for the GOP’s efforts to diversify: In 2020, its female congressional candidates are concentrated in harder-to-win suburban districts where Trump’s approval rating is slumping.
According to CAWP’s tracking, of the 94 Republican women who made it through primaries to become nominees for the U.S. House, only 13 are comfortably favored to win (meaning the Cook Political Report classifies their districts as “likely” or “solidly” Republican seats). Of those 13 candidates, only three nonincumbents are expected to win in suburban districts according to POLITICO’s count. As the party coalesces around Trumpism, it becomes harder for candidates to lure back the moderate suburbanite voters who live in counties like this.
“Just because we had something like 230 Republican women running [in primaries this year], it doesn’t matter if those seats aren’t winnable,” says Julie Conway, a longtime Republican consultant who runs VIEW PAC, which works to recruit and retain moderate GOP women in office. “The elephant in the room is always the president.”
With her odds low, Barnette has not registered on the national radar and has gotten little institutional support from those in her party—even for the symbolic value of her candidacy.Of the most prominent organizations dedicated to electing Republican women, only one, Maggie’s List, has endorsed Barnette, which happened after POLITICO Magazine reached out to a spokeswoman for this story. Barnette has not been endorsed by the president and has not been in touch with his campaign, she says, let alone been invited to appear at the Republican National Convention, as another underdog Black female Republican candidate was. Despite receiving the nominal support of state and county GOP party leaders, Barnette has been running a grassroots campaign.
The road to Washington, lonely and full of disbelievers as it might be for Barnette, hasn’t deterred her. “I was never going to sit back and wait for someone to deem me worthy to run,” she said in July. “I have the blood of slaves coursing through my veins. And I am here to tell the world that I am not a victim. I am a victor!”
A decade ago, Montgomery County was “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party,” says Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College. Not anymore. Democrats, many of them more and more socially liberal, “have literally taken over,” he says.
In 2020, voters in the wealthy, highly educated suburbs around Philadelphia are viewed as the Democratic presidential ticket’s best chance to win back the critical state of Pennsylvania, which Trump won by less than 1 percent of the vote in 2016. The most populous of these suburban counties is Montgomery County.
While Democrats are trying to run up the margin of victory for Joe Biden in the suburbs, Republicans have focused their appeal on the white working-class voters elsewhere in the state, says Harrisburg-based veteran GOP strategist Chris Nicholas. Compared with the Biden campaign, the Trump campaign has deployed more resources and surrogate visits to specific blue-collar parts of Pennsylvania in the west and northeast, Nicholas says.
That geography makes it challenging for down-ballot suburban Republicans like Barnette. Thanks also to newly redrawn congressional districts, which took effect in 2018, the Pennsylvania state map has bifurcated into clearer red and blue districts. “With maybe three exceptions, there have not been a lot of hot congressional races in the state,” Nicholas says.
Even as Democrats now have a 2-to-1 registration edge in Montgomery County, Barnette’s campaign hopes her life story will appeal to moderate voters. Barnette calls herself “the product of a rape,” born to a mother who was 12 years old. Growing up in Alabama, “Being a black conservative was the equivalent of being a black unicorn—a mythical creature,” she writes in her book, Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America.
Raised by her mother on a pig farm, Barnette attended high school and college in Alabama, and enlisted in the military reserves. She worked as a corporate financial analyst at A.G. Edwards, then at JC Penney in the early 2000s, before a job transfer brought her to Pennsylvania six years ago. Along the way, she married and began to focus on homeschooling her two children. Then, Barnette started posting videos on Facebook that were critical of the Black first family. In 2014, Michelle Obama made a comment suggesting Black Americans should go to the polls and then celebrate by eating fried chicken, which got picked up widely in the media. “I felt offended, so I did a quick little video,” Barnette says. “From there, someone from Fox called me.”
Barnette began appearing on “Fox & Friends,” becoming a semi-regular guest. Over the past few years, she has appeared on segments tackling issues like school lunches, security moms and Colin Kaepernick. She is introduced on the program, varyingly, as a radio host, mother of two or military veteran. Barnette has also been a host and frequent guest within the small orbit of conservative radio in Philadelphia.
It wasn’t until finishing her book last November that Barnette considered running for office, which she describes as a spontaneous decision. “I wasn’t on anyone’s radar. I wasn’t attending any of their meetings. I wasn’t trying to wiggle my way in,” she says. “The opportunity presented itself to me because this is my nation, and we are in trouble. We have a group of leaders who are bent on literally redefining what it means to be an American. And will there be anything left for my children to inherit?”
Barnette has embraced Trump’s politics on everything from immigration to Covid-19 to the police. “I have lost most of my Black girlfriends,” she told me by phone over the summer. “I will never support the dangerous agenda to abolish or defund the police. We’re living in a culture where only one side seems to be free to have whatever conversation they want. And because I’m Black and conservative, it must mean that I want to be white or I’m an Oreo.” At times, she is even more polemical. “The only thing most blacks have to lose in leaving the Democrat plantation is their pride over staying longer than they should have,” she writes in her book.
At the zoo, at least a few moderates seemed drawn to her charisma and message. “People are ashamed of the Republican Party because Trump is generating negative news coverage,” said Doug Bench, a lawyer from King of Prussia who identified himself as a “Bloomberg Republican.”
He was impressed with Barnette’s stumping. “There are a lot of people like me who love capitalism and love the free market. They just wish that we could stop talking about hating immigrants,” Bench said. “But the discussion that Kathy has about the American Dream and realizing it—that’s the message of the Republican Party, and that’s what it should be.”
Gender imbalance in the Republican Party is nothing new. The GOP enacted a plan to recruit more female candidates after the 1992 elections, when a then-record number of Democratic women were elected to Congress. In 2010, there was the short-lived “mama grizzly” movement ushered in by vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. And after the 2018 midterms, when a record number of women helped Democrats retake the House, the Republican National Committee launched to a new candidate-recruitment plan revolving around women, led by Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana (who is not running for reelection herself).
The GOP today is providing more and more systemic support for recruiting and retaining women, but these initiatives are still dwarfed by Democratic efforts. Elevate PAC, the group started in 2018 by Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York to support Republican women, has gained national attention and a bevy of funders. This cycle, the PAC has spent more than $450,000 in contributions nationwide, according to OpenSecrets, while the liberal group Emily’s List has contributed more than $7.5 million to races.
The challenge is even greater for Black women: Among female House nominees of either party, Black women are raising only about one-third of what their white female counterparts are raising—an average of $716,814 per race for Black women, compared with more than $2.1 million for white women, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Barnette, for her part, has raised nearly $900,000 this year—half a million dollars less than her opponent, freshman incumbent Madeleine Dean, has raised, according to the latest Federal Election Commission campaign filings. Maggie’s List is the only endorsement Barnette boasts from groups that support Republican women running for Congress. Conway of VIEW PAC says her group supports only moderate candidates, particularly incumbents. A spokesperson for Elevate says the group endorses only candidates who have a clear path to victory and who have raised at least $200,000 in their first full quarter in the race.
The range of outcomes for GOP women this year is vast, but there will likely be a slight uptick in Republican women’s representation in the House from the 13 women who are currently in the GOP caucus. None of the 10 Black women running as Republican nominees are in districts favored to be won by Republicans or even toss-up districts, according to Cook Political Report ratings.
“What you’re seeing is somewhat in response to 2018. Republicans saw all these women across the aisle who didn’t wait for party officials to jump in, and they won,” says former two-term Republican congresswoman Barbara Comstock of Virginia. “It’s also part of a long-term effort.”
Conway, who runs the 23-year-old VIEW PAC, agrees that Republicans now are paying more attention to gender parity. But she says, “There’s a long way between talking about the importance of electing Republican women and actually doing something to accomplish that goal.” She criticizes Republican outside groups for backing men over women in primaries out of a faulty belief that women can’t go all the way. “It’s really quite frustrating,” she says.
Yet, some members of the party believe that building a sustainable pipeline of female candidates in the GOP is impossible with Trump in the White House. “It’s going to be very challenging [for GOP women] this year because of the president,” Comstock says
Comstock was elected in 2014. Within four years, all but one of the women in her caucus’ freshman class were ousted—as she was—plummeting the number of Republican women in the House to its lowest point since 1994. Comstock represented a suburban district similar to Pennsylvania’s 4th, traditionally the types of places where GOP women have had success. But the shifting dynamics of the suburbs now make those seats harder to win for the party.
“The attitude has traditionally been, ‘Let [women] have the really tough seats, but the guys will take the solid red seats,’” says Comstock, who joined the board of VIEW PAC after leaving office.
When Republican women run in more difficult races, they are more likely to lose, and lose big, which in turn hurts their chances of attaining financial backing, credibility and media attention in the future. “Oftentimes, Republican women run once, and then they’re done,” Comstock says.
As the party pivots away from the suburbs, the GOP is leaving more candidates like Barnette to fend for themselves. But if she minds, Barnette isn’t letting on.
“Do you really think Montgomery County Republicans took me out of a crowd? No, in fact they had someone else in mind,” she says of the local party apparatus. (Liz Harvey, chair of the Montgomery County GOP, says another candidate was considering running but stepped aside to avoid a primary fight. She called Barnette a “unique candidate” and said she doesn’t think Barnette has gotten the local media attention she deserves as the county’s first Black female congressional nominee from either party.)
“You go through life, and people will often try to define you and tell you who you are and tell you if you’re worthy enough,” Barnette continues. “I’ve had to learn the art of defining myself and my own value.”
In July, before the zoo event, Barnette was out campaigning in the working-class suburb of Pottstown, handing out ice cream tickets in the parking lot of a Friendly’s. Next to a socially distant sign-in station, where people could add their names to volunteer for the campaign, a guitarist belted out “Proud to Be an American” to a mostly white crowd. They included a pastor, a state representative, and some senior citizens who were shaking hands and wearing Trump reelection gear (“#Repeat45”). Barnette wore a mask and bumped elbows with voters.
As a pro-Trump insurgent who simultaneously has to appeal to centrists, Barnette offers a message that sometimes comes across as oxymoronic, or at least muddled.
“People feel some type of way on both sides,” she said to a young married couple outside the Friendly’s. “But they’re not going to accomplish anything if you demean or ridicule any side. We have to find some way in this country to have civil conversations in this country.”
When she wrapped up with the couple, she grabbed a microphone to speak to a few dozen people standing outside the Friendly’s as the sun beat down on the blacktop.
“I grew up in a home with no insulation, no running water and an outhouse in the back,” Barnette said. “We just found the photo of my great-great-great grandma. She was born in 1846. She was a slave. And I grew up in that same house.”
“We have those among us who’d tell us that there is nothing good about America, that America is inherently and systemically at its core racist. As a Black woman married to a Black man raising Black babies, I am here to say that is a lie!”
The young couple walked into the Friendly’s before the speech was over.