Conservative Pat Toomey woos moderates in Senate campaign

Pat Toomey "gets the fact that he needs to work with a lot of folks, that there doesn't need to be unanimity on all issuesin the party," said a moderate who will host an event for him.
Pat Toomey "gets the fact that he needs to work with a lot of folks, that there doesn't need to be unanimity on all issuesin the party," said a moderate who will host an event for him.
Posted: July 18, 2010

When he was president of the free-market advocacy group Club for Growth, Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey was the most fearsome RINO hunter in the land.

He sought the defeat of GOP incumbents deemed soft on the Club's drive for lower taxes and smaller government - often termed Republicans in Name Only by the right.

Now, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine - lampooned as "Comrade of the Month" by the Club in 2009 for her pro-stimulus vote - is coming to Philadelphia to raise money for the staunchly conservative Toomey, a sign that his campaign's effort to court moderates is paying dividends.

Collins will headline a $1,000-a-plate luncheon for Toomey's Pennsylvania Senate campaign Aug. 2 at the Union League.

"Pat Toomey gets the fact that he needs to work with a lot of folks, that there doesn't need to be unanimity on all issues in the party," said Washington lobbyist David Urban, an influential GOP moderate and a host of the event.

Urban was Sen. Arlen Specter's chief of staff from 1997 to 2002, when the outgoing Pennsylvania senator was still a Republican. He stayed loyal when Specter became a Democrat last year, and he returned to the GOP fold after Specter lost the May 18 primary to Rep. Joe Sestak.

Urban is helping to connect Toomey with moderate Republicans in the capital and from the Specter camp. He calls Toomey "more of a fiscal conservative than a social conservative."

During the Senate campaign, Toomey has stressed the need to reduce the federal budget deficit, end bailouts for large banks and automakers, and check what he sees as unhealthy growth of government power over the economy in the policies of the Obama administration, such as the health-care overhaul.

Toomey, 49, who represented the Lehigh Valley in the U.S. House from 1999 to 2005, has rarely this year mentioned the divisive social issues, such as gay rights and abortion, that have come to be associated with the conservative wing of the GOP. In fact, Toomey earned high marks from antiabortion organizations for his congressional voting record; he also supported a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Democrats deride him as an extremist, noting he had a more conservative voting record than former Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) by some measures, but Toomey has tried to show that he is no ideological fire-breather.

For instance, Toomey said he would have voted last year to confirm now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, though many Republicans opposed her. He also has argued that Republicans should stop driving away supporters and candidates who favor abortion rights. Toomey even has said some nice things about President Obama, praising the administration's support for teacher merit pay and charter schools.

Sestak, his opponent, argues that a few gestures can't hide a record inimical to middle-class voters. The Sestak campaign cites, among other things, that Toomey voted for the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and for deregulation of Wall Street. They say that the Club for Growth, which Toomey headed from 2005 to 2009, is funded largely by financial firms whose interests it advances.

"Congressman Toomey has gone to great lengths to disguise his record, but the truth is he wants to privatize Social Security, drill in Lake Erie, and raise taxes on working families - all to benefit the wealthiest few," said April Mellody, a Sestak spokeswoman.

One factor motivating Republicans to overlook their differences is a favorable political environment, according to polls showing voters frustrated about the economy and concerned over federal spending. Even so, Toomey strategists know he will have to consolidate support from moderate Republicans and independents to win in what has been a Democratic-leaning state in recent years.

Democrats have a voter-registration advantage in Pennsylvania of about 1.2 million, and the Republicans have lost ground in their longtime stronghold in the Philadelphia suburbs. A 2009 poll of voters who switched from the GOP to the Democrats in 2008, conducted by Muhlenberg College, found that most were moderates turned off by the Republican Party's rightward drift.

"Toomey has nothing but space to work the middle, to go after moderate Republicans, independents, and Democrats," said Christopher Borick, a Muhlenberg professor and pollster. "He had the Republican base on the right at 'hello,' and there's no way he will lose it short of hugging Nancy Pelosi."

In a May 2009 op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Toomey argued for tolerance among Republicans on party members' abortion views. He outlined a vision of a GOP with room for vigorous debate on how to achieve the "unifying idea" of individual freedom and limited government, but "I would certainly not suggest that those who disagree with the pro-life position be banished from the Republican tent."

Last summer, in an Inquirer opinion piece, Toomey argued that Sotomayor, Obama's first nominee for the Supreme Court, should be confirmed because, he said, she was "mainstream" in her legal thinking.

"When a president of one party is elected, the proper role of the opposing party is not to go on politically charged ideological campaigns against judicial nominees," Toomey wrote. "It should be limited to determining whether a nominee is well-qualified and within the legal mainstream."

Still, after Toomey's entrance into the GOP primary drove Specter from the party, some moderate Republicans actively tried to recruit alternative candidates, including former Gov. Tom Ridge. They feared that Toomey could be cast as too conservative. Ridge and others, however, declined to run.

That kind of nervousness has long since disappeared among GOP leaders.

"I think Pat has done a good job of bringing the party together, particularly around fiscal issues," said State Rep. Dave Reed (R., Indiana), head of the state House Republican Campaign Committee. "Back in 2004, when Pat first ran for Senate, the economy was churning along, there were surpluses, some of his economic views were more out of the mainstream. Now, he's right where America is."


Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-85-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.

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