Harrisburg, Pa. — Republican senator Pat Toomey knew that his effort to join with Democrat Joe Manchin in expanding background checks for gun purchases would anger part of his base. That’s why, after the bill lost last week, he decided to confront his critics directly — by speaking to the issue at the annual Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, the state’s largest gathering of grassroots conservatives.
“You know I supported term limits when I ran for Senate,” he told the crowd of 500 activists this weekend. “I still do. Some would say my effort with Senator Manchin represented my attempt to make sure they were imposed on me,” he joked. He then went on to explain that, while he understood his bill would not have prevented the tragedy at Newtown, Conn., last December, it might have made a difference in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings in which 32 people died. The Virginia government called gunman Seung-Hui Cho “dangerously unstable and a threat,” Toomey said, but that assessment never made it into the background-check system.
Toomey, a gun owner and until now the recipient of an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, went out of his way to assure conservatives he understood some of their anger and confusion. “We had a vote on Wednesday. I lost. I get that. I intend to turn my attention to my wheelhouse issues” – fiscal restraint and fighting Obamacare. Robert Costa wrote for the homepage today about Toomey’s efforts to build bipartisan consensus and maintian his conservative credibility.
“I think he did himself well by coming,” Jim Broussard, a history professor at West Lebanon College and author of a forthcoming biography of Ronald Reagan, told me.
“He can say to moderates that he was a thoughtful moderate, but since his bill didn’t pass, I doubt conservatives will remember it three years from now.”
But others aren’t so easily placated. “I fear that Senator Toomey is heading down the Rick Santorum path to defeat,” Joe Sterns, a former Toomey staffer, told the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
“He, like Santorum, was sent to Washington to drain the swamp, yet sometimes he feels more compelled to play with the alligators, even when doing so angers the coalition of Reagan Democrats and Republicans who elected him,” Sterns said. He also noted that Santorum angered conservatives by backing moderate Senator Arlen Specter for reelection in the 2004 GOP primary (over none other than Pat Toomey).
Toomey is certainly nervous about potential Democratic challengers in 2016, a presidential year in which turnout will be high. No GOP presidential candidate has carried the Keystone State in over a quarter century, and Democrats think they might have an attractive candidate in Kathleen Kane, the state’s new attorney general.
But Toomey also has to remember the passions the gun issue can stir up in Pennsylvania. Democratic senator Joe Clark angered Second Amendment advocates in 1968 by supporting that year’s gun control. That fall, he lost to a little-known Republican challenger named Richard Schweiker, who went on to become Ronald Reagan’s vice-presidential choice in his unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 1976.
Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who sits on the NRA’s board, says he believes Toomey can survive the controversy. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “It’s a little hard to argue that he’s gone and joined the other team. It’s not what I would have done, but I think he can hold his head up high and say he was trying to do something responsive and respectful of people’s [Second] Amendment rights.”