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The latest on the Pennsylvania Republican primary for Senate

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Five states held primaries today with notable races for governor and the U.S. House, but top billing has to go to open U.S. Senate contests in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In North Carolina, the matchup is now set, with Republican Ted Budd set to face Democrat Cheri Beasley in November. And the Associated Press has just called the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary for John Fetterman.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea is in Pennsylvania. He's here now for an update. Hey there.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hey, good evening.

KELLY: Hey. So start where you are on this fine evening in Pennsylvania. This is an open Senate seat. It would be a big pickup for Democrats. Tell me more.

GONYEA: Well, let's start with Fetterman. No surprise that John Fetterman will be the party's nominee. He had a solid and persistent polling lead the whole campaign, all primary campaign. Fetterman, though, had a plot twist this week. He's been battling some health issues. Today, he announced he's getting a pacemaker put in after revealing over the weekend that he suffered a stroke - a minor stroke, but a stroke nonetheless - last Friday. So right at the end of the campaign, he's knocked off the trail. He says he'll be fine and has suffered no cognitive issues.

KELLY: Well that is good news. Beyond the health issues, who is he as a candidate?

GONYEA: He's the sitting lieutenant governor of the state. He backed Bernie Sanders in 2020, so he's a progressive. The first thing you notice about him - he's 6 foot 9. He has a shaved head, a chin beard, and he campaigns in basketball shorts and Carhartt gear, a hooded sweatshirt. So he has this persona of an anti-politician.

And, you know, even though he backed Sanders, he campaigned in heavily Trump areas as well over the past couple of months. He defeats Congressman Conor Lamb, a moderate Democrat who is seen as a rising star but who never really got any traction. And ultimately, most of the action and attention has been on the Republican side in Pennsylvania.

KELLY: Right, where we are suddenly looking, I gather, at a three-way race.

GONYEA: Absolutely. It was initially a battle between two very wealthy candidates - celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Oz, and former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick. But recently, a third candidate has surged in the polls and is right in there in the mix. She is Kathy Barnette, a conservative commentator, largely unknown. Now she has the glare of the spotlight. Some days it's gone well, some days it's gone maybe not so well. Other candidates are attacking her, mining her Twitter feed, finding things that they hope will be embarrassing and will sway voters. She says the knives are out.

But here's the thing - Barnette is a huge Trump supporter. She says Trump was wrong not to endorse her. He endorsed Oz. She told an audience in Scranton last night that conservatives don't need to settle for the likes of Oz or McCormick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHY BARNETTE: And I have worked very hard to make sure that you don't have to hold your nose this time and vote for the lesser of two evil. I am your best chance at ever getting anyone in office who will actually fight for you.

GONYEA: And, you know, with abortion so much in the news because of that leaked Supreme Court draft, she has talked openly about her life. And her mother became pregnant with her when she was 11 years old, a rape victim, and had a child who was Kathy - now Kathy Barnette running for Senate. And that's really caught on with a lot of Republican voters.

KELLY: Wow, OK. What about the other two who were expected to be the neck-and-neck frontrunners, Oz and McCormick?

GONYEA: Oz has the endorsement of Trump. He's leaned heavily into that. His poll numbers went up a bit when Trump endorsed him, but they didn't spike like Trump endorsees in other places have enjoyed. And Trump has been, you know, calling into tele-town halls on Oz's behalf, but Oz is fighting the perception that he's not a true conservative. And Dave McCormick is kind of the establishment figure in the race. But again, there are enough of those that he's been hanging in there as well.

KELLY: All right. And meanwhile, over in North Carolina, we've got the results - as expected, as we mentioned, Ted Budd and Cheri Beasley, who are going to face off. That is NPR's Don Gonyea bringing us the latest on the primaries. Thanks so much, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.