Magazine | September 12, 2016, Issue

Toomey’s Travails

Senator Pat Toomey talks with constituents in State College, Pa. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Will the Trump-resisting Pennsylvania senator retain his seat?

Central Pennsylvania — As Senator Pat Toomey walked into a packed room at the Morris Family Restaurant in Bloomsburg, Pa., an old man sitting in a corner shouted: “If you don’t support him, I don’t support you!” Harvey Eckert, a retired federal employee, pointed to his red baseball cap with the familiar words: “Make America Great Again.” Toomey heard Eckert’s booming voice but kept moving between rows of tables where local Republicans ate omelets and hash browns. On the opposite side of the room, the GOP senator made his pitch for reelection, talking about economic growth, national security, and law enforcement, his voice competing against the clatter of forks, knives, and breakfast plates.

When he finished, Toomey took questions — and the first one came in the form of a statement from David J. McElwee, a gun dealer in a red blazer: “It’s very important to us that you support the Republican nominee.” He handed Toomey an envelope. It contained a letter in which McElwee pledged to vote for the senator, “but that is all.” And so instead of discussing the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, a new transfer of terrorists out of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, or the dilemma of sanctuary cities (topics Toomey had raised in his brief remarks), the senator found himself explaining his views on the subject that has dominated American political life for the last year: Donald Trump.

The scene took place on August 16 — Toomey’s first stop on the third day of an eight-day RV trip across the Keystone State — in what promises to be one of the closest Senate elections of 2016. Most Republican officeholders have endorsed Donald Trump for president, even when they’ve done it grudgingly. Toomey, however, has refused. “I’m not alone among Republicans with reservations,” he said at the Morris Family Restaurant. Toomey mentioned Trump’s long history of supporting Democrats, his calls for government-run health care, and his suggestion that his sister belongs on the Supreme Court, even though she’s a liberal. “Hillary Clinton is not acceptable to me,” Toomey added, apparently to avoid potential confusion. On this point, at least, his audience was in complete agreement.

Ever since 2010, when Toomey won his first election to the Senate by just two percentage points, Democrats have marked him for defeat. Just as Trump probably needs to carry Pennsylvania to become president, Democrats almost certainly must beat Toomey to capture a majority in the Senate. It won’t be easy: Toomey has never lost to a Democrat. And although Toomey has compiled a conservative voting record — the American Conservative Union gives him a lifetime score of 93 — he has also developed a reputation as a Republican who can work with Democrats to break the Washington gridlock that most people say they despise. On guns, he has called for expanded background checks, to the satisfaction of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (who endorsed Toomey for reelection on August 1). On gays, he favored repealing the ban on out-and-proud military personnel. On budgets, he has shown a willingness to fight deficits by erasing tax breaks. In other words, Toomey is the kind of Republican senator that a ticket-splitting mom in suburban Philadelphia might support.

Toomey also has made at least one painful concession to Trump’s populism: Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 17, the senator walked away from a history of backing free-trade agreements and came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the pending twelve-nation pact that Trump has opposed with vigor. “TPP is not a good deal for Pennsylvania,” wrote Toomey. “I cannot support it.”

On the matter of Trump himself, however, Toomey hasn’t budged — and he’s hearing about it from rank-and-file Republicans who don’t understand why their GOP senator refuses to get behind their GOP presidential nominee. Toomey hasn’t ruled out an endorsement: “I’m hoping Donald Trump can become a candidate I enthusiastically support,” he said in Lewisburg, after speaking to Republicans at the Cherry Alley Cafe. “I’m not there yet.”

As he wrestles with the anxieties that so many conservatives have felt about Trump, Toomey will choose between sticking to a principle that puzzles people whose votes he needs and making a compromise that he probably fears will haunt him later. His decision, and the question of whether he runs ahead of or behind Trump on November 8, will shape the post-election recriminations of 2016.

The 54-year-old Toomey was born in Rhode Island, worked on Wall Street, and moved to Pennsylvania in 1991 to open a restaurant in Allentown. In 1998, he ran for Congress from the Lehigh Valley region, winning a seat that a retiring Democrat had held for three terms. Toomey went on to serve six years, keeping a term-limits pledge to serve no more. Yet he didn’t drop out of politics. In 2004, he took on Arlen Specter, a longtime Republican senator with a liberal voting record, for the GOP nomination. In an insurgent bid that prefigured the tea-party eruptions of several years later, Toomey lost by just 17,000 votes out of more than a million cast. Along the way, he became a kind of conservative folk hero. In May 2008, he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal with a provocative headline: “In Defense of RINO Hunting.” (As most conservatives know, “RINO” is an old putdown, standing for “Republican in Name Only.”) When Toomey announced a new challenge to Specter in 2010, the RINO incumbent switched parties and lost the Democratic primary. Meanwhile, Toomey coasted to the Republican nomination and won the general election.

This year, Toomey faces Katie McGinty, a Democrat who has never held elective office. She has worked for a series of officeholders, though, starting out as an environmental-policy adviser to Al Gore in the Senate. Later, she moved into Bill Clinton’s administration and then served as Pennsylvania’s environmental secretary. She supports Obamacare and abortion rights, wants to boost the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and promises not to reform Social Security or Medicare. She has made mistakes that a more experienced candidate, previously vetted by the press and the public, might have avoided, such as claiming to be the first in her family to go to college. In June, a pair of BuzzFeed reporters revealed that she has an older brother who graduated from La Salle University before she was even out of high school. McGinty’s résumé also has the whiff of insider politics: She has bounced between government posts that required her to write and enforce environmental regulations and the boards of corporations that must live by those rules. Shortly after she joined Iberdrola USA, the company received $10 million in stimulus spending from the state to build a wind farm.

Most recently, McGinty was chief of staff to Pennsylvania’s governor, Tom Wolf. In this post, she collaborated in proposing a $4.6 billion tax hike, or what Toomey delights in calling “the biggest tax increase in Pennsylvania history.” It failed, thanks to a state legislature with a GOP majority — proof that even though Pennsylvania hasn’t given its electoral votes to a Republican since 1988, it’s still a swing state where Republicans can win.

Through June, polls showed Toomey holding a steady lead over McGinty. In July, however, the Center for Responsive Politics revealed that liberal groups had dumped more than $10 million into anti-Toomey attack ads: “the most outside money benefiting Dems” of any Senate race in the country, according to reporter Ashley Balcerzak. The latest surveys of likely voters have put McGinty a few points ahead but also within the margin of error. “We’re in the battle of our lifetimes,” said Toomey at a stop in Lewistown.

Toomey knew this was coming, and he has spent most of his term in the Senate trying to balance principle and prudence — his commitments to conservatism with his concerns about electability. He has remained devoted to several of the conservative movement’s big-ticket items, voting to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood and calling for ambitious entitlement reforms. He also searches for ways to make incremental gains. “I’m for eliminating the ethanol mandate,” he said in an interview on August 19. “It’s terrible policy.” He describes it as a form of corporate welfare that drives up the cost of gas and groceries. He also thinks that a bill to wipe it out entirely would go nowhere. So last year he worked with Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, to propose legislation to get rid of most of it. “She and I disagree on a lot of things, but I was happy to team up with her,” he said. “I’m always trying to make progress, moving policy in a direction where I want to see it go. I’ll always take half a loaf, then go back for more later.”

On a few matters, though, conservatives have wondered whether he has compromised too much. Before joining the Senate, for example, Toomey supported the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. (As a senator, he voted against the confirmation of Elena Kagan and now opposes Merrick Garland, President Obama’s pick to replace Antonin Scalia.) In 2013, following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, he joined with Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to push for expanded gun-sale background checks. The National Rifle Association favored Toomey in 2010, but it won’t this year: “The NRA will not be endorsing him for reelection,” said spokesperson Jennifer Baker. Toomey takes the rebuke in stride: “They can do what they want to do. I support the Second Amendment, and Katie McGinty does not.”

No matter what he’s talking about, Toomey maintains a measured tone: It’s difficult to imagine him angry. When he wants to express outrage, he lets the weight of his words rather than the volume of his voice deliver his message. That’s how he discusses the problem of sanctuary cities, which forbid local police to cooperate with federal officials on immigration-related matters, and the case of Ramon Aguirre-Ochoa, an illegal alien from Honduras who was arrested on July 26 in Philadelphia for raping a child. “This is about the most heinous crime that can be committed,” said Toomey at the Restless Oaks Restaurant in McElhattan.

Philadelphia’s special rules for dealing with illegal aliens in its custody are to blame, according to Toomey. In 2014, Aguirre-Ochoa was arrested for aggravated assault. Last year, however, Philadelphia dropped the charges. Rather than turning Aguirre-Ochoa over to immigration authorities, the city released him, in accordance with a policy that even Democrat Ed Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia and former governor of Pennsylvania, has condemned. “This is the kind of madness we have all around us,” Toomey told his lunchtime audience.

He isn’t jumping on a new controversy as much as keeping up an old cause: Last fall, long before he’d even heard Aguirre-Ochoa’s name, he offered legislation to block sanctuary cities from receiving certain forms of federal aid. It failed to get 60 votes in the Senate. This was an early response to the ways in which Trump already had changed the politics of immigration, and Toomey pressed the matter again this year, with his latest effort also falling to a filibuster on July 6. “I have been on the tip of the spear trying to end sanctuary cities,” he said. “I’m not giving up this fight.”

Toomey’s campaign is probably preparing the television ads about sanctuary cities and Aguirre-Ochoa right now. The senator, however, didn’t have to wait. On his swing through central Pennsylvania, he mentioned sanctuary cities at just about every stop, from greasy spoons in small towns to a sports bar in State College, as Olympic basketball and field hockey played on televisions above his head. Yet Republican voters kept asking him about the presidential race. At a closed-door meeting at the GOP headquarters in Mifflin County — organizers tossed out a pair of McGinty supporters who tried to infiltrate, hoping to record the senator’s remarks — Toomey once again talked about his opponent’s liberalism, sanctuary cities, and more. When he finished, however, Toomey faced another barrage: “Are you going to support Trump?” blared Jim Smith, a retired businessman from Lewistown, from the back of the room. “You’re making it very difficult for us to keep supporting you.”

Earlier this year, Toomey endorsed Marco Rubio for the Republican presidential nomination. By the time of Pennsylvania’s primary on April 26, however, Rubio was long gone. Toomey voted for Ted Cruz. Most Republicans in his state favored Trump. “When Trump took every county, I saw that he was the only train leaving the station,” said Congressman Glenn Thompson, before he and Toomey spoke at a dairy farm in Spruce Creek. Should Toomey now follow Thompson’s example? “That’s for him to decide,” said Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican who also once supported Rubio. “He needs to get reelected.”

Not every Pennsylvania Republican has endorsed Trump. Former governor Tom Ridge, who served as secretary of homeland security in the George W. Bush administration, announced in May that he won’t vote for either Clinton or Trump. Yet Ridge has the luxury of not having to justify himself, over and over again, to people who show up at Republican gatherings.

Toomey explained his views on Trump most clearly in a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 9, shortly after Trump became the presumptive nominee. “I object to much in his manner and his policies. His vulgarity, particularly toward women, is appalling. His lack of appreciation for Constitutional limits on executive powers is deeply concerning.” He also cited Trump’s stances on eminent domain, Muslim immigration, and foreign policy. “I have never been a rubber stamp for my party’s positions or its candidates,” added Toomey — a true statement that in another context might draw hoots of approval from voters who like to think they’re bucking a political establishment.

When Toomey continues to withhold his own support, he’s either doing an admirable job of sticking to his anti-Trump principles or making the cool calculation that an association with Trump will hurt him more in the southeastern part of the state than it will help him elsewhere. The senator knows that he won’t prevail in Philadelphia and its environs, where Democrats dominate, but he needs to keep his losses there to a minimum while also eking out a win in the Pittsburgh area and running up his total everywhere else. This was his formula for victory in 2010, and it’s how he hopes to repeat his success this year. A Franklin & Marshall College poll of likely voters released on August 4 showed a virtual tie between McGinty and Toomey (39 percent to 38 percent, respectively, with 23 percent undecided). Among registered voters, Toomey ran ahead of Trump in the southeastern part of the state but behind Trump in the places where Toomey needs to do well.

At the meeting in Mifflin County, and elsewhere, Toomey defended his position on Trump. “I want to see him bring the Republican party together,” he said. He mentioned a couple of encouraging signs, such as Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees, all of them conservative, plus Trump’s selection of Indiana governor Mike Pence as a running mate: “He’s a great choice.” Toomey also suggested that his non-endorsement has paid dividends: “Conservatives withholding support have contributed to these constructive developments. So I think there’s been some progress. I’d like to see more.”

That morning, in the parking lot of the Moore Family Restaurant, David J. McElwee — the gun dealer in a red blazer — talked about what was in the envelope, besides a letter, that he had handed to Toomey a few minutes earlier. “I gave him a Trump for President bumper sticker,” he said. “I told him it would look good on his RV.”

I followed that RV over the hills and through the valleys of central Pennsylvania. The bumper sticker never went on.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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