Lancaster, Pa. — As he settles into a chair at the greasy spoon inside Lancaster’s tiny airport, Pat Toomey sips a steaming cup of tea. He stirs it as he looks out toward the runway, where GOP governors Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty, and Chris Christie are about to depart, on to other destinations after a busy morning on the trail.
Toomey, a former congressman from the Lehigh Valley, is locked in a tight U.S. Senate race against Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democratic congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs. In the final days of the campaign, Toomey has maintained a slim lead in the polls, but he has come out to central Pennsylvania this morning, with its strong conservative leanings, to pump up local Republicans, whose turnout he is counting on come Tuesday.
Sestak, a former admiral, was in Philadelphia on Thursday evening, rallying with former president Bill Clinton. Toomey tells us he is confident that he can win not only in deep-red Lancaster, but also in the state’s more moderate suburbs, which are chock full of labor-friendly “Reagan Democrats” and “Specter voters” — centrist, often pro-choice professionals. “We are going to do very well in the collar counties,” he predicts.
“Those voters are not ideological, they’re practical,” Toomey explains, making his case for what he hopes will be a broad coalition. “They know that you can’t borrow and spend your way to prosperity. They know that even bigger government is not the source of opportunity. But that’s what they’ve been getting out of Washington and what Joe Sestak favors.”
“They look at my background and they see a small-business owner, a guy who has created jobs, a guy who has been focused on getting government to live within its means for a long time,” Toomey continues. “I think that’s exactly what those folks want to hear.”
Toomey forecasts that in areas like Bucks County, Pa., a stone’s throw north of Philadelphia, “People who in the last couple of cycles may have voted for Democrats and even Barack Obama will be voting for me this time.” The enthusiasm gap in these purple regions, he says, is clear, as is the focus on the economy.
“The issue on the front burner for everybody this election cycle is figuring out how we can get this economy moving again and how we can get this government to live within its means,” Toomey says. “People look across the pond and see what’s happening in Greece and France, and what might be looming for Italy and Portugal, and ask if we’re heading in that direction. Well, the answer is yes, we are. Fortunately, it’s not too late, we’re not as far down that road, but that’s what’s on people’s minds. People want to make sure that we’re not creating a disaster for our kids and grandkids.”
After leaving Congress, Toomey ran the Club for Growth, a pro-market organization based in Washington. Democrats have long attempted to hang Toomey’s Club work as a heavy weight around his campaign. Yet this year, Toomey says, such anti-business tacks have fallen flat. “At the Club, our message was dedicating to maximizing economic growth and recognizing that that comes from economic freedom and limited government. In times like these, people understand the importance of both.”
Still, as Toomey makes the argument to disenchanted Obama voters, he knows that it is conservatives who remain his base. Toomey, who rose to statewide prominence in 2004 when he challenged then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in a primary, says that the “get out the vote” efforts of Keystone State conservatives, many of whom became active in politics thanks to his campaign six years ago, remain crucial.
“Conservatives are more organized now than they were in 2004,” Toomey observes. “This year feels different. Across the Commonwealth, the movement is stronger than any time before in my lifetime, and that, I think, is going to be very helpful to me.”
“I feel very good,” Toomey smiles, as he turns back to his campaign aides. “The momentum, the energy, the enthusiasm, and the intensity are all on our side. We’re not taking anything for granted, we’re going to keep pushing as hard as we can, but I think it’s going to turn out right.”