Folsom, Penn. — Over the course of a 30-minute Republican campaign event here Friday, none of the speakers — not the handful of state officials or the congressman or the two United States senators — made any mention of Donald Trump. There was no call to rally around the Republican ticket, nor was there any acknowledgement that there is even a presidential race happening.
“We need to keep the majority in the United States Senate, and if you send Pat Toomey back to work in our majority, we will do great things for America under his leadership,” McCain said, adding later: “America needs Pat Toomey in the United States Senate. Not just me, not just the people of Pennsylvania, but the people of Arizona and the people of this country.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that Toomey, Pennsylvania’s Republican senator, was the only person on the ballot in November.
Forty-two days out from the election, Toomey still finds himself on awkward footing when it comes to Trump. He has not yet committed to voting for the GOP nominee, much less endorsed. “I’m still wrestling with what to do there,” he told reporters as he headed to his car after Friday’s event. “There’s no question I would never support Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. But, like a lot of Pennsylvanians, I’m really not happy about the choices that we have.”
Pennsylvania has emerged as one of the most hotly contested states in the country, with dead heats in both the presidential race and the Senate contest, where Toomey faces Democrat Katie McGinty. Both campaigns are spending prolifically, and outside spending on the race is poised to exceed the record set in North Carolina’s 2014 Senate contest. Since it’s a presidential year, both candidates’ fortunes are tied to the names atop the ticket, and this is a dicier prospect for Toomey than it is for McGinty: Trump is making a serious play for Pennsylvania, but the last time a Republican presidential nominee won the state was 1988. What’s more, Trump’s unpredictability and penchant for controversy remain potential land mines for any down-ballot Republican.
That means split-ticket voters are crucial part of Toomey’s campaign strategy. He will need some Hillary Clinton voters to cross over to his column if he is to win. And here in the Philadelphia suburbs, say operatives on both sides of the aisle, is one of the places he is most likely to find them.
“It’s a ticket-splitting area, no question about it,” says Michael Puppio, chairman of the Republican party of Springfield Township, in Delaware County. And that’s what make it so important to Toomey’s reelection hopes. Delaware, Montgomery, Bucks, and Chester are the four so-called collar counties that ring the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia. They are predominately white, affluent, and well-educated, with more than a one-third of the population over age 25 possessing at least an undergraduate degree. By and large, Republicans run their local government. But, with the exception of Chester County, a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won these Counties in recent years. Trump struggles to appeal to voters with college degrees, making these collar counties a bigger hurdle for him. But Toomey, with the right message, could appeal to those voters — and must.
And so Toomey was here at VFW Post 958 in Delaware County, where he’s not the only one with doubts about Trump.
Split-ticket voters are crucial part of Toomey’s campaign strategy. He will need some Hillary Clinton voters to cross over to his column if he is to win.
On Friday, about 50 people were crammed into the single-room building to see Toomey and McCain. It was 90 degrees outside and only slightly cooler indoors, where fans hung idly on the ceiling, doing nothing to break the heat. The two senators stood side by side at the front of the room, their backs to a giant American flag and a column of yellow-and-blue Toomey for Senate signs that had been plastered up all over the slatted-wood walls of the building. They were part of a line of men in dark suits: a bevy of state and local politicians; the post commander, whose VFW officer cap partially covered the tattoos on his shaved head; a congressman. The crowd, needless to say, was much less dressed up for the occasion, wearing polo shirts, shorts, and even overalls.
In their remarks, Toomey and McCain spoke about the specific issues of the district and to the issues of the veterans in attendance. McCain lauded Toomey for working on “balancing the budget and stopping the deficit,” backing VA reforms, improving health care for veterans, attempting to reduce veteran suicides, and supporting national-security efforts, particularly against ISIS.
McCain also talked about Toomey’s efforts to prevent sexual predators from working in public education, “where your tax dollars are at work.” This was no accident: Education taxes are an issue of particular importance to voters here. In Pennsylvania, property taxes help fund education. Voters in this part of the state pay a proportionally higher rate of property taxes while receiving a proportionally smaller piece of the school budget than those in Harrisburg and other regions that have seen their populations decline in recent years.
This was no rallying cry to the Republican cause — it was a local pitch, the type of appeal Republican candidates have been making all across the nation, heavy on competence and meaningful accomplishment and devoid of partisan bomb-throwing. McCain repeatedly referred to Toomey as a “workhorse” throughout his remarks.
Democratic ads, in large part, have worked to make a different case: that Toomey’s positions are no different from any hard-line Republican’s. An ad from Senator Harry Reid’s Senate Majority PAC features video footage of Toomey touting his A rating from the NRA. Majority Forward, a group allied with Senate Majority PAC, is running an ad attacking him for his positions on abortion. “Because he’s not a flamethrower, people don’t think he’s as conservative as he is,” says Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director Sadie Weiner. Democratic ads aim to change that — especially in these suburban areas.
But Toomey is getting some help from an unlikely coalition of allies. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC, Independence USA, has endorsed the senator because of his work to increase background checks for gun buyers, and it’s running ads in the Philadelphia market featuring the daughter of the principal who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. Republicans evidently feel that Toomey’s efforts to strengthen background checks, undertaken along with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, will play well in the Philadelphia suburbs. Toomey’s campaign put up an ad Friday morning touting the endorsement of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who became a highly visible advocate for certain gun-control policies after she was shot at a constituent-service event in 2011.
Toomey’s work on background checks, however, was not mentioned at this event, where an army-green Jeep decked out in American flags — with a gun mounted on top and several others artfully secured to the sides — sat in the parking lot.
The collar counties are where the election could be won or lost. Toomey is not likely to win them outright, but he needs to keep his losses slim enough to stay in the game.
“Pat doesn’t need to win the county,” says Delaware County GOP Chairman Andy Reilly. “But he needs to be competitive. He can’t be blown out.”
It makes sense, then, that Toomey campaigned this week with the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, a throwback to a different era in Republican politics, rather than the current GOP nominee, who was just 20 miles away in Chester County the day before.
Though Toomey never mentioned Trump, he used his introduction of McCain to draw a point of separation between himself and the man he will have to outrun on the ballot here in November. Last year, Trump seemed to call into question John McCain’s status as a war hero, saying: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” Toomey, introducing McCain, said of his Senate colleague: “He is a hero to me, as he is to everybody in this room — and rightly so.”