Though he has long lived in the Allentown, Pa., suburbs, Toomey grew up in a working-class Catholic home in Providence, R.I. His parents were Democrats, and, according to Philadelphia magazine, “a portrait of John F. Kennedy hung from the wall in the family kitchen.” He earned a scholarship to an elite private school and then went on to Harvard before landing on Wall Street, where he worked as an investment banker. After spending a year in Hong Kong working in the capital markets, he moved home to start a sports bar with his brothers. A few years later, he decided to run for Congress.
Ever since, Toomey has been one of those Republicans whom conservatives have happily supported. He is a fiscal hawk and pro-life, and he was unafraid of angering President George W. Bush and his allies when he decided nine years ago to challenge Specter. He came within a few thousand votes of beating the veteran incumbent, and his decision six years later to go for a rematch was one of the reasons that Specter flipped parties during the primary campaign. During his time at the Club for Growth, he wrote blunt editorials about Republican hypocrisy on spending and taxes, and supported the primary campaigns of conservative outsiders.
Toomey is well aware that his work on gun control might threaten his popularity with some conservatives, who question his willingness to blend pragmatic politics with tea-party principles. But he’s ready for the heat. “You know this isn’t the first time in my career that I’ve gotten media scrutiny,” he says with a smile, referring to the first Specter race. “We’ve had more calls to my Senate office over the past week than I’ve had during any other time during my term, and the majority of them have been negative. There has been encouragement, too, but I know people are concerned.”
Pennsylvania operatives say Toomey may catch flak from conservatives, but in the vote-rich and moderate counties surrounding Philadelphia, he probably has won some new fans, which is an important development. After all, Pennsylvania is looking increasingly blue; though once purple, it hasn’t backed a Republican presidential nominee since 1988. To win reelection in three years — a presidential-election year — he needs to woo those hundreds of thousands of suburban centrists who elected Specter to the Senate for decades, but who have since drifted to the left. Toomey has never been loved by those voters, and in 2010, a Republican wave year, he won by only two percentage points.
But as he woos the moderates, he’ll have to heal the conservative wounds. On Friday, Toomey defended his amendment as he spoke to conservatives at a Pennsylvania leadership conference, and he was careful about how he discussed it. “I totally understand that my Democratic colleagues have a profoundly misguided political philosophy,” he explained. “But even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and again.” According to a PoliticsPA report, the reception to Toomey was warm but hardly rousing. “I want you to know, I intend to turn my attention back to my usual wheelhouse,” he added. “I’m going to focus on pushing back a government that is the main reason we have a miserable economy.”
Nevertheless, for all his conservative bona fides through the years, and despite his perfect rating from the American Conservative Union, Toomey might face a primary challenge in 2016. The NRA obviously isn’t pleased with his push for expanded background checks, though it endorsed him in 2010 and has long awarded him an “A” rating. The Campaign for Liberty, a libertarian group, recently called Toomey “Benedict Toomey” for doing the bidding of liberal Democrats. Last week, Saturday Night Live comedian Bill Hader parodied Toomey as “a Republican who is willing to make the slightest compromise [and likely] to lose his job.”
“As you’d expect, I’m in bed during Saturday Night Live, so I woke up on Sunday, went to my computer, and watched it,” Toomey says. “I thought the guy who played me was pretty good, actually. But the best thing about it was when my wife turned to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re much better looking than the guy who played you.’”
For Toomey, it was a moment of levity in a trying week. Angry calls were flooding his office, and the NRA was trying to destroy his bill. Soon after, the Senate defeated it — in spite of the many days he had spent whipping his colleagues. “Look, I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “This was tough, but all along, I never said this plan was going to be a panacea. I was just trying to make things better around the margins.” These days, that’s where he works.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.