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The Pa. Republican Senate candidates debated without the front-runners. Here are 5 takeaways.

The underdogs are jockeying to show Republicans that they’re an alternative to Oz and McCormick, the celebrity surgeon and hedge fund CEO who have each spent millions of dollars on TV ads.

From left, Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidates Kathy Barnette, Jeff Bartos, George Bochetto, Sean Gale, and Carla Sands during Tuesday's debate at Dickinson College in Carlisle.
From left, Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidates Kathy Barnette, Jeff Bartos, George Bochetto, Sean Gale, and Carla Sands during Tuesday's debate at Dickinson College in Carlisle.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Mehmet Oz and David McCormick weren’t in the room, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they were.

The front-runners in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate race were a favorite topic Tuesday night among the five candidates in the second debate of the primary, with most taking shots at the two men who didn’t show.

The candidates who did are jockeying to show Pennsylvania Republicans that they’re an alternative to Oz and McCormick, the celebrity surgeon and hedge fund CEO who have each spent millions of dollars to inundate voters with TV ads ahead of the May 17 primary. (Oz and McCormick did participate in a Monday debate.)

The most recent polls show the second-tier candidates include Montgomery County real estate developer Jeff Bartos, conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, and former U.S. ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands. They were joined on stage by Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto and Montgomery County lawyer Sean Gale, who have been polling in the low single-digits.

While the candidates squabbled over their conservative credentials, they were largely in agreement on major issues like energy, taxes, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The race to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not seeking reelection, is one of the most closely watched in the country and could tip control of the Senate.

Here are five takeaways from the debate at Dickinson College in Carlisle.

They lobbed attacks at Oz and McCormick

Oz and McCormick were brought up at least eight times, starting with opening statements, when Bartos waved to our “friends at home,” saying to Oz and McCormick: “Sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” He referred to the front-runners — who both recently bought homes in Pennsylvania — as “political tourists.”

Sands took a shot at Oz for serving in the Turkish military and called him a “MINO” — pronounced “minnow” — which she said stands for “MAGA In Name Only.”

» READ MORE: 4 takeaways from Pennsylvania’s first Republican Senate debate

And Bartos and Barnette both went after McCormick and his hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, with Barnette raising the firm’s ties to China, saying: “How in the world are you gonna be tough on China when China is the reason why you’re so rich?”

Bartos pointed out that Bridgewater mandated U.S. employees get the coronavirus vaccine before returning to work.

2020 election conspiracies abound — again

For the second night in a row, several of the candidates questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election or implied it was improper, in some cases citing false conspiracy theories and debunked statistics.

Each of the candidates were asked if they would have voted to certify Pennsylvania’s 2020 electoral votes, and only Bartos said he would have.

Several candidates described Act 77 — the state law that expanded mail voting and was passed with bipartisan support — as “unconstitutional,” including Bochetto, who blamed Trump’s loss in Pennsylvania on the law. The act was declared unconstitutional by a Pennsylvania court in January, but remains in place as the state Supreme Court considers an appeal.

» READ MORE: She lost big in the Philly suburbs. She went hunting for voter fraud. Now Kathy Barnette is a rising GOP star.

Barnette said there was “legal fraud” and “irregularities,” despite the results of the election being upheld dozens of times by courts across the country. Trump’s own Justice Department found no evidence of fraud that would have changed the outcome.

Then Barnette was asked about her own failed 2020 campaign — she lost a race for U.S. House in the Philadelphia suburbs by almost 20 points, and then went on a hunt for voter fraud that made her a familiar face in the national election denial movement.

Barnette said she “never said” that she won that election, but “that it was wrong” because of expanded access to mail voting.

There was general agreement on policy

The candidates largely agreed on major issues, with most saying they wouldn’t support any legislation that increases taxes, further regulates the purchase of firearms, or makes it harder for gas-drilling companies to expand their footprint in Pennsylvania.

All described themselves as anti-abortion, but they had minor differences in terms of when exceptions should be granted. Bochetto said only to protect the life of the mother. Bartos added the “rare, rare circumstances” in which a pregnancy results from rape or incest. Gale said “no exceptions.”

And most of the candidates appeared to support U.S. troops defending NATO allies if Russia’s attacks were to go beyond Ukraine.

“The word of the United States is critical,” Bartos said. He and others noted the U.S. is duty-bound by NATO’s Article Five to defend member states.

They attacked Barnette over ‘identity politics’

In perhaps the most contentious moment of the debate, Sands and Gale both criticized Barnette, the only Black Republican running for Senate, accusing her of emphasizing her race on the campaign trail.

The dust-up began when Sands said Barnette “lost her last election by 20 points in a red wave year playing the same cards that she’s playing now.”

“I would love for you to tell me what card am I playing?” Barnette responded. “This is your second time saying it. What card am I playing?”

Sands began to say, “We both recently did a seminar together —,” when Barnette cut her off by saying, “Yeah, nobody cares.”

Sands finally clarified what she meant about Barnette: “She claimed that because she’s a woman, a minority, and has a great personal story, she will win in November,” Sands said. “I think she is in that river in Egypt. It’s called the denial.”

Gale echoed Sands’ criticism.

“It’s very disingenuous for Kathy Barnette to pretend that she’s not running a campaign purely based on identity politics,” Gale said. “Her whole campaign is that she’s going to be the first Republican Black woman in the Senate.”

Barnette brushed Gale aside.

“Listen, they’re punching up right now,” she said, citing a recent poll that showed her ahead of the other candidates on stage. “They’re losing, so they’re looking for a viral moment.”

Little fondness for McConnell

None of the candidates said they would support Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) for majority leader if Republicans retake the Senate.

Gale led the charge, saying McConnell hasn’t delivered on conservative promises.

“Mitch McConnell has been a failure,” Gale said. “I’m going to lead the effort to oust Mitch McConnell as the leader of our party.”

Bartos said he would prefer Sen. Tim Scott (R., S.C.) for majority leader. Barnette said she would vote against McConnell. And Bochetto said, “I think we need new blood,” and criticized McConnell’s handling of Trump’s second impeachment trial.

» READ MORE: Sign up for our Election Newsletter for exclusive news and analysis on Pennsylvania's big 2022 elections

But Sands dodged the question and seemed to bristle when pressed.

“I think it’s the wrong question,” she said. “I think the question is: Am I going to take out Chuck Schumer as the leader of the Senate? And the answer is yes.”

After the moderator asked Sands for a yes-or-no answer, she responded, “Asked and answered.”

“No, you didn’t,” Scott LaMar of WITF said.

“Asked and answered, thank you very much,” Sands said, without clarifying whether she would vote for McConnell.