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Politically Uncorrected: Toomey At the Gate

Official PortraitSen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa) is running for his first reelection since his victory in 2010 probably against Joe Sestak (D). It’s bound to be one of the most interesting U.S. Senate races of 2016.

And one of the priciest. Total spending is likely to top the $50 million raised in 2012 in the costly Bob Casey (D) versus Tom Smith (R) Pennsylvania senate contest.

So, interesting and pricy – but what will make the race one of the most watched in the country are the political stakes. Toomey’s seat is likely to be one of a tiny handful that will determine whether Republicans continue to control the senate.

It’s close now with 54 Republicans and 46 Democrats. A swing of five seats could throw control of the senate to Democrats. Two crucial factors make that a distinct possibility: the election will be held in a presidential year which usually brings out a larger Democratic vote; and Republicans have more than twice as many seats to defend (24) than the Democrats (10).

Among the seats up in 2016, Larry Sabato’s widely consulted Crystal Ball rates five of them toss-ups. Toomey’s seat is one of them.

Unsurprisingly, Pennsylvania Democrats are enthusiastic about the prospects of defeating Toomey. Toomey’s win in the 2010 midterm was a narrow two points, despite running in a year that a powerful Republican wave swept the state.

Moreover, 2016 could be an even tougher task for him with a presidential race at top of the ticket and thousands more core Democrats voting than did so in 2010.

But Democratic enthusiasm might be quixotic. Some early polling shows Toomey with a double-digit lead over likely Democratic opponents.  A squeaky-clean former businessman and former head of the Club for Growth organization, Toomey is very popular with free-market and anti-tax groups who are going to spend prolifically to reelect him.

Additionally, Toomey’s personal style is neither confrontational nor provocative. His mild mannered and low-key demeanor resonates well with the Pennsylvania electorate. Indeed, it is a style Republicans have won with for decades despite the substantial Democratic voter registration edge in the Keystone state.

True, Toomey is solidly conservative in a state where voters in a presidential year tend to be center-left. Ideologically, he is not in sync with the average Pennsylvania voter.

Were he to allow himself to be painted as a cultural warrior, as for example, former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum did, Toomey could quickly find himself in political quicksand in an election year when cultural issues could come to the fore.

Toomey has largely, and artfully, avoided this. His cultural conservatism is not in doubt. But he has avoided the deeply divisive polarizing cultural fights some conservatives have embraced. On gun control, for example, he co-sponsored a universal gun background check law that found support on both sides of the aisle.

His bi-partisan approach extends to his Democratic counterpart Bob Casey, working cooperatively on many Pennsylvania interests with Casey, despite their substantial ideological differences. This, too, is a tactic that has won for Pennsylvania Republicans for decades.

Then there is the not so minor matter of finding a Democratic nominee who can beat him. That might seem easy in a state with about one million more Democrats than Republicans.

It hasn’t been.

At this late date, the Democratic field consists of only two putative Toomey opponents: Toomey’s 2010 opponent, Joe Sestak, a former congressman and Navy admiral; and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.

Sestak lost to Toomey by only two percentage points, but Sestak’s maverick style and contempt for the Democratic establishment has alienated him from party leaders.

Pawlowski, who had an abortive run for governor in 2012, cut short by poor fund raising has undercut his appeal among many party leaders.

Democrats are waiting for a candidate who can beat Toomey in the general election. It could be a long wait.

The state’s recent electoral history gives the Democrats little consolation.

In modern times, Republicans seeking senate seats in presidential elections years have done surprisingly well – despite huge voter registration deficits.  Since the 1960’s, six Republican U.S. Senate candidates have squeaked out narrow victories in presidential years, even while Democrats were winning the state in the presidential contest. Recent examples are Rick Santorum in 2000 and Arlen Specter in 2004.

All in all, the case for Toomey wining a second term in 2016 is stronger than might be expected. In fact, despite the daunting challenge of running as a conservative in a blue state in a presidential year – Toomey’s chances look pretty good.

This is partly due to his own skills as a politician, adroitly mixing an amiable style with his hard-edged conservative ideology. Even more it is the consequence of opposition Democrats’ failure to recruit, organize and fund a candidate who can beat him.

Toomey may ultimately lose in 2016 – and if he does that could mean the GOP loses control of the U.S. Senate. But if he does lose, state Democrats will have to beat him. Toomey won’t beat himself.

12 Responses

  1. Toomey has avoided being painted a cultural warrior conservative like Santorum simply because he is a gifted out an out liar on his views. For example Toomey is always talking about supporting our military veterans. He does a lot of nice talking about this support. When the bills that would help veterans HE ALWAYS VOTES NO!!! Toomey always finds an insignificant small part of the bill that he can’t support so HE ALWAYS VOTES NO. If you don’t believe me check his votes on Military Support. It is never there. So if you want a Senator that talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk Toomey is your Senator. Big Money Special Interests will spend million to keep him. Pennsylvania residents deserve better. Vote For Anyone But Toomey.

  2. Given the GOP’s small margin for error (i.e., not being able to lose more than 4 Senate seats if Hillary wins), national Republicans have to be very happy with how things are shaping up in PA. It’s still early, but if this race continues along its current trajectory, the prognosticators will shift it from “Toss Up” to “Leans Rep” soon enough.

    Too much is being made of the Presidential year election turnout. To be sure, it’s a valid piece of the puzzle and weighs in the Democrats’ favor, but – as another commenter already pointed out – its didn’t save them in 1992 (Specter over Yeakel by 2 points), in 2000 (Santorum over Klink by 7 points), or in 2004 (Specter over Hoeffel by 11 points). Clinton, Gore and Kerry carried PA in those respective elections, which means you had upwards of 10% of the total electorate splitting their ticket to vote for the incumbent Republican Senator.

    If you accept that the Democrats’ prospects for unseating Toomey rest on keeping this ticket-splitting among Hillary voters to a minimum, then it follows that they need a nominee who will unite their party.

    To put it lightly, Sestak does not appear to fit that bill.

  3. Sue-
    Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades.

    Sestak raised millions of $ to hold the 7th, then diverted that money to the Senate raise. (Anywhere else outside politics, that would be fraud and embezzlement.)

    Millions were raise for Lentz in the 7th, as he had to start from scratch, since Sestak absconded with the money already raised for the 7th.

    Specter had $10 million cash on hand that never got spend against Toomey.

    1/10th the money spent on Sestak would have been enough to save Feingold’s seat.

  4. Millions were NOT wasted.
    Sestak came very close in a year when Dems were flattened
    Minimal support from state and national Dems was given

    You could easily argue that if the Dem “leadership” had swallowed their pride and actually done a good job of supporting him, Joe could have won.

    God knows, they supported all kinds of conservadem freaks instead!

  5. “If a candidate advertised that a person was a Comcast/corporate sellout like Toomey, I think people would stream across to whoever the challenger ends up being.” –An electoral strategy, nothing more. Comcast is everywhere; you are not going to beat Comcast, just the yes-men they back for public office.

    Plus, I listed half a dozen nobodies that I personally would prefer anyways. Thought Torsella might be more realistic than say, Joe Hoeffel.

    With the Senate on the line, all this Democratic backroom “sestak wah wah” whining is pretty pathetic. Either come up with an alternative or embrace the Admiral.

  6. @George Earle….Amazing how you can contradict yourself in such a short post:

    Don’t vote for Comcast supported candidates. Vote for Torsella!

  7. This discussion proves the point that the statewide Dems will be rather toothless until they win more seats in Delco, Chester, & Bucks. Dems need a bigger farm team. They should be putting all their resources to win the ring counties. Win some seats there in the county courthouse and the statehouse and before long you will win the congressional seats.

  8. To BobGuzzardi’s point over Comcast money—My wife, my friends, my family, all my neighbors on my block, basically everyone I know— they will ALL VOTE FOR THE OTHER GUY/WOMAN when/if they learn that someone is being supported in significant volume by Comcast $$$. If I was a candidate, I would point out Comcast money like Kenney & Co. pointed out those three rich guys on the main line. Nobody likes Comcast. It would be a great selling point, and maybe force Comcast to reengage on the ordinary citizen level with the city it calls home. No doubt, Comcast is a great asset for Philadelphia, perhaps one of its greatest, but all the same — nobody likes Comcast with the way they operate on the backs of all regular Philadelphians. If a candidate advertised that a person was a Comcast/corporate sellout like Toomey, I think people would stream across to whoever the challenger ends up being.

    Other potential Montco or Montco-related candidates looking beyond Shapiro: Madeleine Dean, Tim Briggs, Art Haywood, Steve McCarter, Vince Hughes (represents a lot of Montco), Mary Jo Daley, Joe Hoeffel. Somewhat slim pickings, but all could rally Montco.

    In fact, Joe Torsella would be a great candidate for Senate too. Maybe he could be convinced to forgo a campaign for the Treasurer’s Office for the U.S. Senate. Shapiro would probably endorse that opening up another path for him, in case a potential bid for AG comes up short due to his complete lack of related legal experience

  9. I think George Earle has a valid point: ” Montgomery County is where the election will be won or lost for Toomey.” I know and respect many in the MontCo Democratic organization and, unlike so many Establishment Republicans, they are not two faced, back stabbers. They are well organized, upbeat, positive and effective.

    I am afraid the Toomey Campaign will reach out to Union financed and union endorsed Mike Vereb who will not be able to energize the Republican base. The Montgomery County Republican voter is not enamoured with Unions and, in fact, neither are many
    Democrats and Unaffiliated. Mike Vereb will not make Unions, Prevailing Wage, Paycheck Protection or Card Check an issue and, basically, concede this to the Democrats. /

    I am afraid that Campaign Toomey will ignore the grassroots, social and fiscal conservative base believing that that base will support him no matter what and that he needs to convince the independents adn loosely affiliated Democrats. That may be a major miscalculation.

    We shall see but Campaign Toomey may be relying too much on money, especially, Comcast/MSNBC money. Money is necessary but, in the end, it is the candidates with the most votes and not the most money who wins. Campaign Toomey, in my view, needs to reconnect with and energize the base. Many of us feel neglected and ignored.

    I remain a solid Toomey supporter but I am afraid Senator Toomey has has accepted the Jeb Bush Establishment paradigm. Rush Limbaugh: “So essentially the belief system of the Republican establishment is that the election is won or lost in 20% of the population, 20% of the voting population.”

    Read more of Rush Limbaugh’s insights into Establishment Republican strategy Jeb Bush Falls for Liberal Trick
    May 14, 2015

  10. 5 years ago, millions were wasted on Sestak, that could have been used to retain a real democrat: Russ Feingold

    Russ is running again. He should be funded first.

  11. Two Words: Madeleine Dean. Chuck Schumer & Co., if you or one of your entrusted helpers are reading this, reach out to one of PA’s brightest, most hardworking and liberal Democrats. She replaced Josh Shapiro in the State House, has most of his positives and is probably brighter and more articulate to boot (and that is saying something because Josh Shapiro runs rings around his political colleagues). Montgomery County is where the election will be won or lost for Toomey. Dean can deliver big numbers, especially in a year where a woman will likely be leading or on the national ticket. Montco delivered big for Wolf in 2014; the numbers will only be larger in a Presidential. Dean is twice the candidate Pawlowski could ever be.

  12. Style over substance??if the electorate actually knew what Toomey’s voting record is compared to his mealy mouthed platitudes on the stump, they will surely kick him out

    He is the ultimate 0.1% tool, Club for Growth ( of the plutocracy), trickle down ideologue.

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