Political Hay

Senator Arlen Toomey?

One-time movement favorite under attack as Pennsylvania conservatives prepare to meet.

By 4.16.13

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There has been a “falling out.”

And?

“It’s huge.”

So say two Pennsylvania conservatives about the conservative backlash in the state to Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Pat Toomey’s sponsorship of a gun control background check bill.

More than one activist noted that Toomey’s problems with the movement that once believed he was one of their own have been building for some time, with several incidents cited -- of which his stance on the gun issue is but one. Leading to accusations of what one conservative angrily described as questions about Toomey’s “motivations.”

The growing furor is raising a question on the lips of a number of angry conservatives just as the annual gathering of the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference -- Pennsylvania’s version of CPAC -- is about to enter the spotlight beginning Friday as the state’s conservatives come together for their annual meeting in suburban Harrisburg. With Toomey himself -- and a who’s who of nationally prominent conservative leaders -- scheduled to address the group.

The biting question?

Is Pat Toomey becoming the Senate’s next Arlen Specter?

To which the bitter response from activists is a stunning: “yes.”

The specific charges revolve not just around Toomey’s out-front stance on gun control background checks, but rather that “everything” Toomey does “is focus grouped.” A reference to the practice of taking political positions based not on conservative principle but polling.

Why that particular allegation?

Says one activist: “All he talks about is his re-election” and adds that Toomey “is scared to death of Kathleen Kane” -- the liberal Democrat who was elected last fall as Pennsylvania Attorney General. “It’s really sad,” said this one source, laying the blame for part of Toomey’s problems on his Senate staff. Toomey’s chief of staff Chris Gahan, who previously served former moderate Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, is not only not a Pennsylvanian but is seen by this activist as an Establishment GOP professional Senate staffer as opposed to a conservative.

The irony is that Toomey is the man who made his political bones by being the conservative challenger to the late liberal Republican senator in 2004’s GOP primary, then winning the seat outright and ending Specter’s 30-year career in 2010. Certain of a loss to Toomey in the 2010 GOP primary, Specter switched to the Democrats and lost to liberal Democrat Congressman Joe Sestak, who in turn lost to Toomey.

Now, Toomey, the ex-president of the conservative Club for Growth -- which itself challenges liberal Republicans in primaries around the nation -- is himself the subject of allegations that he has gone “RINO” -- Republican in Name Only. He “looks like a political whore,” snapped one, saying that Toomey has done “irreparable damage to his [conservative] brand.”

Toomey’s problems are several.

In addition to the backlash on guns, there are charges that his support of the fiscal cliff deal, a reversal on the Violence Against Women Act, his distancing from the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a Club for Growth type of group committed to targeting state legislators as Toomey’s former group does with national legislators, along with the firing of a conservative staffer have all added to Toomey’s woes. Also mentioned was his support of President Obama’s recently announced project to map the human brain, a plan that whatever its merits is seen as one more needless spending of dollars that simply aren’t there to spend unless using a credit card with the Chinese. Not to mention Toomey's 2009 support for liberal Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (a year before his election) in a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial in which he wrote:

If I were a U.S. senator, I would vote for her confirmation, because objective qualifications should matter more than ideology in the judicial confirmation process.  

To say the least, the latter is a decidedly un-conservative perspective.

Specifically cited was an allegation that involved Republican Governor Tom Corbett’s refusal to create a state-run health insurance exchange under Obamacare. Corbett joined 21 other states (and Republican governors) in rejecting Obamacare’s demands and leaving the exchange system to the federal government. Toomey was asked -- and refused -- to support Corbett by writing an article in his support. Toomey had been a vocal opponent of Obamacare as a candidate in 2010.

Inevitably, all of these actions by Toomey have captured the attention of the Pennsylvania media, leading to exactly the kind of news coverage conservatives are long used to when one of their own, as the saying goes, “grows in office” -- which is to say, becomes more liberal.

In Toomey’s case, there has been this article in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the liberal leaning paper in the state’s capital city. The headline: 

Some conservatives are suspicious of the 'New Pat Toomey' after gun-control compromise

So sensitive has Toomey been on the issue that the Examiner flatly accused Toomey’s office of outright lying when a reporter got wind of the upcoming Toomey-Manchin deal and asked Toomey’s office about it directly. Reports the Examiner:

On Monday the Examiner learned that U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., was in negotiations with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on a compromise gun control bill that would vastly expand background checks to include private transactions, citizen to citizen.

No sooner had the Examiner published the stunning information that took even moderate Republicans off guard than Toomey's office was in damage control mode, denying that the senator was involved in any deal on gun control.

One of Toomey's constituents told the Examiner that he had contacted the senator's office personally to complain about the Toomey-Manchin compromise deal. He was told that the information was false, that the reporter who conveyed the information was wrong, and that the entire thing was the doing of Sen. Manchin's office, which was sending out false information in an attempt to pressure Toomey into a deal.

In a conference call with reporters after the Toomey-Manchin plan was announced, Toomey made a point of saying his bill “doesn’t change in any way” his “conservative record or views.”

An obvious appeal to Toomey’s one-time fans in his conservative base.

Nowhere will this problem of Toomey’s motivations and willingness to stand by his once-professed conservative principles be more on display than this coming weekend as the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference gathers in suburban Harrisburg. The PLC -- the Pennsylvania version of the national Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) -- will bring together hundreds of conservative activists from across the state.

Among the featured speakers (here is the agenda) are Heritage Foundation president and former South Carolina U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, author, activist and Fox News contributor Deneen Borelli, the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell, Weekly Standard journalist and Fox News contributor Steven Hayes, Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor Tom Corbett -- and Toomey.

In fact, during his years as Specter’s actual or prospective opponent, Toomey was a regular and popular attraction at the PLC’s annual meetings. This year, to the surprise and anger of some, Toomey’s coming appearance has taken on a different appearance altogether, with open speculation abounding as to his reception.

Scheduled to speak Friday afternoon immediately prior to Borelli, Toomey is expected to address his co-sponsorship with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin of the controversial background check measure that is a source of deep division within both the Republican and Democrat Senate caucuses.

In the background of all this is Pennsylvania’s long history as being adamantly opposed to gun control.

In 1968 -- even in the emotional aftermath of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy -- liberal Democrat Senator Joe Clark, a staunch gun control advocate, lost his re-election race to then-Republican Congressman Richard S. Schweiker. Schweiker had made Clark’s support for gun control a central issue of the campaign, and the state’s gun owners responded overwhelmingly, giving Schweiker a victory.

Only months ago there was an uproar when, in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, the annual Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show in Harrisburg was canceled in a furious uproar over the gun show’s decision to ban the sale of what the organizer’s referred to as “certain products.” Meaning, of course, what the media like to refer to as “assault weapons.”

When the decision to ban the weapons was announced the reaction was immediate and intense, so intense that the entire event -- held at the Harrisburg Farm Show complex and one of the largest gun shows in the nation -- was forced to cancel as gun owners and dealers flatly refused to participate.

On April 8 -- just days ago -- 75 Republican legislators in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives sent this letter to Toomey saying:

The majority of state legislators in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives believe that the right to bear arms must be vigorously defended, as evidenced by the passage of Castle Doctrine (Act 10 of 2011). Here in Pennsylvania, we have a longstanding history in support of our God-given, constitutionally-affirmed Second Amendment freedom. We swore to uphold and defend both the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions the day we took office. As Article 1, Section 21 of our state Constitution reads, ‘The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned.’ We stand in defense of our Constitutions.

“We write to you today to request that you stand with us. As part of our elected representation in Washington, D.C., we urge you to reject any compromise that would advance any new gun control measures, including “universal” or “comprehensive” background checks that are being advocated for by New York City Mayor Bloomberg, Obama, Biden, Senator Chuck Schumer or any other individuals seeking to violate the rights of law abiding citizens instead of stopping criminals. Our country does not need additional gun control laws from the federal or state levels of government. We should work to actively enforce our current laws; to stop those who are committing crimes against their fellow citizens.

In 2011, just in Pennsylvania alone, our citizens purchased over 600,000 firearms and our county sheriffs issued over 166,000 licenses to carry firearms, according to data from the Pennsylvania State Police. Meanwhile, crimes committed with firearms continue to decrease as issuance of licenses to carry firearms increases. Since 2006, Pennsylvania has seen an over 20 percent reduction in violent crimes committed with firearms. These statistics prove that an armed law abiding citizenry is the best deterrent to crime.

Enhanced gun control measures ultimately hinder the freedoms of law abiding citizens. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

We encourage and expect you to stand with us to protect our God-given right to keep and bear arms.

The letter is to be followed by an April 23 “Pennsylvania Second Amendment Action Day” with a 10:00 a.m. rally featuring state legislators and gun rights supporters in the Rotunda of the State Capitol building in Harrisburg.

The irony of this public swipe at Toomey by Republican legislators is that a number were angry with Toomey for the assumed role of a Toomey staffer in the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania campaign to replace Establishment GOP legislators with conservatives. Toomey, earlier considered a serious GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2010 before switching to the Senate race, had repeatedly vowed that if elected governor he would set up a group precisely like CAP has now become. As events turned, he has made a point of distancing himself from the group.

The Toomey staffer, Joe Sterns, was fired, allegedly at the behest of unhappy state legislators. Now, with Toomey having acquiesced to the firing of Sterns, he finds GOP legislators taking a swing at him on the gun control issue. A certain sign that unlike earlier powerful GOP Pennsylvania U.S. Senators -- Specter himself, the late John Heinz, and the late former Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott -- Toomey is more scorned than feared. (Scott’s clout was so legendary it was Scott who, along with then Senator Barry Goldwater and House GOP Leader John Rhodes, was selected to present the news of then-President Nixon’s lack of support in the Watergate scandal to Nixon himself. Two days later, Nixon resigned the presidency.)

Sterns, while not commenting on working for Toomey, was quoted in the Patriot-News as saying:

“I fear that Sen. Toomey is heading down the Rick Santorum path to defeat,” Sterns said of the former right wing senator now perceived by many fiscal activists as a typical pork barrel spender.

“He, like Santorum, was sent to Washington to drain the swamp, yet sometimes he feels more compelled to play with the alligators, even when doing so angers the coalition of Reagan Democrats and Republicans who elected him,” Sterns added. “I pray that it is not too late for him to veer from the Santorum path.”

Toomey’s stance has not escaped the attention of conservatives on the national level either. Indeed, talk radio host Mark Levin -- a native Pennsylvanian -- blistered Toomey on both his Thursday and Friday shows. “This isn’t some little issue, this is the Bill of Rights,” snapped Levin:

He [Toomey] has faith in a centralized all powerful federal government run by Barack Obama and on the Justice Department side run by Eric Holder. And on the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) side run by Napolitano. I have no faith in these people -- none.… They’re always looking for loopholes…to limit our liberty…and it’s getting worse.

Taken together, all of this is a remarkable turn of events in the political fortunes of Pat Toomey.

Here was a man who was a conservative hero for taking on Arlen Specter when no one thought he could win. Here was a man who made the race so close it established him as a conservative presence of potentially presidential magnitude. Here was a man who succeeded on his second try, catapulting himself into the Senate as a national conservative leader.

Now, and remarkably at his own hand, Pat Toomey is seen as a weak and timid leader, led by an Establishment staff, terrified of a potential liberal opponent, bullied by angry state legislators, his sole motivations only his own re-election. As a sign of the hold this image seems to have in the public square, one need look no further than the redoubtable Saturday Night Live where the show famous for mocking politicians by touching the nerve that resonates most with the public (the arrogant Al Gore, the cheating bubba Bill Clinton, the dumb George W. Bush etc., etc.) opened this past Saturday by portraying Toomey and Manchin as timid, eager-to-please, inept bumblers.

Ouch.

Can Pat Toomey survive all of this?

Can Pat Toomey win back his conservative base?

Or is Toomey’s conservative “brand” indeed so irreparably damaged, as charged, that he will in fact not only be a one-term senator but lose whatever is left of his standing in the conservative movement?

This Friday, as Pat Toomey steps to the podium in front of the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference -- even with the nation’s attention directed to the horror of the Boston attacks -- some political observers believe the answer for Toomey may already be apparent.

​Photo: UPI

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.