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Pennsylvania’s Senate Primary Shows What Happens When Frontrunners Forget to Play Defense

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In politics, tackling is the stuff of the thrill. Almost all of the best campaign anecdotes involve a candidate coming from behind by expertly knocking a rival flat on their back. The tactics vary. The well-placed nugget of embarrassing dirt. The salacious-sounding detail that, even after it’s been explained away, still stings as it lingers in voters’ minds. An onslaught of negative ads. An un-endorsement. It’s the stuff that lands the boss on Page One, powers fundraising pitches masquerading as “strategy memos,” and keeps the dream alive for a few more days.

While sharp-elbowed operatives revel in that stuff, the focus on tackling betrays a campaign’s most important job: blocking. Defensive maneuvers are decidedly less sexy, but they are what keep routine annoyances from becoming full-blown crises. Just ask Republicans in Pennsylvania, where today’s primary may all come down to fumbled blocks, ones that may give Democrats their best chance at a pick-up opportunity in the Senate this cycle.

Indeed, given the late surge of the underfunded and un-vetted Kathy Barnette, Pennsylvania Republicans may find themselves with a nominee ready to join the ranks of Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, and Corey Stewart as cautionary tales that could have been written well before polls opened.

Republicans had plenty of time to figure out who they wanted to vie for the Senate seat held by Sen. Pat Toomey, who announced his plans to retire in October 2020. For much of the interim, two candidates led the field, positioning themselves as a proxy fight between the party’s Trumpiest faction and its traditional country-club wing.

Dr. Mehmet Oz won former President Donald Trump’s backing based on his celebrity despite several advisers warning that, until recently, the Oprah-created TV personality didn’t even live in Pennsylvania.

David McCormick, meanwhile, cobbled together an elite coalition made up of friends from Wall Street, fellow alumni from George W. Bush’s administration, and social conservatives like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and potential future Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. He, too, was a transplant.

Once again, it was another battle for the future of the Republican Party, a theme that already this early in the primary season is starting to feel tired.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, roared Barnette, whom TIME’s Charlotte Alter profiles here. After running for the House in 2020 and losing by 19 percentage points, Barnette joined the crowded field for an open Senate seat. For over a year, her campaign got little attention, as did Barnette’s activism, which includes organizing three buses of supporters to visit Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, for a rally backing Trump’s Big Lie; her campaign says she did not participate in the violent riot at the Capitol but does appear in some footage very close to it.

Still, the story Barnette puts forward to voters seems compelling, including a breakthrough moment just hours after a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion suggested access to abortion may not be a constitutional right for much longer. Barnette told audiences that she was the product of rape, using it to explain her universal opposition to abortion. That resonated with many rank-and-file Pennsylvania Republicans, who at this point had been turned off after months of watching two rich carpetbaggers fighting over endorsements. In Barnette, a 50-year-old Black woman who had never held office and had mastered Trump’s gift of nursing grievances and owning the libs, they saw an appealing alternative.

Oz, McCormick, and the Republican Party suddenly realized they had failed to take Barnette seriously. Each party quickly started to find a deep record of problematic statements, an unverified biography, and plenty of signs that she could be what helps Democrats take back the seat in one of the few remaining swing states. No less than Trump himself said Barnette hadn’t been properly vetted and couldn’t win in November.

Other contests in Pennsylvania were also unfolding on Tuesday. Democrats were set to pick their own nominee for the Senate, with frontrunner John Fetterman in the hospital recovering from what he described as a minor stroke; Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcom Kenyatta were also in the mix. In the open race for governor, state Democrats had largely cleared the field—classic blocking—for incumbent Attorney General Josh Shapiro, so much so that Shapiro was running ads promoting a Republican candidate as the most pro-Trump in an effort to make him the nominee.

That Republican, Doug Mastriano, is running on a MAGA-infused Christian nationalist message evocative of Jerry Falwell’s rhetoric from the 1980s. Over the weekend, Trump made a last-minute endorsement of Mastriano, perhaps wanting to hedge his bets should Oz falter.

Ironically, that late Trump nod could serve to bolster Barnette, as she and Mastriano have been an unofficial team on the campaign trail, and it’s not entirely clear who is powering whom.

For her part, Barnette seems to delight in everyone—including the press—playing catch-up. “If you listen to the mainstream media, you would think I crawled from under a rock yesterday. I did not. We’ve been out here for 13 months,” she said.

As the dynamics of the race were still shifting last week, the deep-pocketed Club for Growth unexpectedly endorsed Barnette and began airing ads for her, not so much out of love for her by antipathy toward Trump. It was similar to the situation in Ohio two weeks ago, when the group spent heavily to help Josh Mandel’s unsuccessful bid to derail the Trump-backed J.D. Vance. The Club for Growth, the biggest outside group this cycle, quickly turned to Barnette as revenge.

So once again, tackling’s amusements continue to get top billing, but they may not be the biggest story in Pennsylvania tonight. With apologies to the metaphor, the winning team on the GOP side may be left after tonight without any defensive plans for the next fight. Tackling has its place, but winning is impossible if a team has no way to repel the sacks. And, judging from how much everyone has learned about Barnette in the last two weeks, the rules for this race haven’t yet been written, let alone read.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com