As this commentary is being written, the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania between incumbent Pat Toomey and Democratic rival Katie McGinty may be too close to call. Depending on whether one consults Real Clear Politics or the latest Muhlenberg College poll, the Republican incumbent is either one point ahead or five points behind. Toomey’s fate in this race could have significance well beyond the Keystone State. More than $34 million has already been poured into this contest from outside Pennsylvania. (Over $20 million has meanwhile been raised within the state to finance the two candidates.)
The race is critical on more than one level. It may determine which party controls the U.S. Senate, if the Democrats take enough seats from the Republicans in November. McGinty’s victory would also be a big win for unions, which have found in this candidate for the U.S. Senate a dedicated advocate. And one should never underestimate public sector clout in these parts. Pennsylvania’s previous governor Tom Corbett, who complained about government waste, lost in his bid for reelection. He was replaced by Tom Wolf, who has worked tirelessly to increase the tax-paid benefits of public employees. McGinty, who was a state and federal environmental official, is attracting massive support from her union allies. Needless to say, she also backs other characteristic left-liberal social positions of the hour, on sanctuary cities, Black Lives Matter, gun control and LBGT rights.
Toomey may have a long row to hoe in a state that is still heavily Democratic. Democrats outnumber Republicans by close to a million members in Pennsylvania. This gap is slowly closing, because of Donald Trump’s appeal to former working-class Democrats who have changed party affiliation since April. But the Dems continue to enjoy an advantage in state- and nationwide elections. And this may be weighing on Toomey’s mind. A recycled Wall Street investor turned restaurant-chain owner and then Congressman, Toomey won his race for the Senate in 2010 by less than two percent. That came in a year when the GOP was picking up congressional seats with ease elsewhere in the country.
A noticeable source of Toomey’s Democratic opposition comes from public sector unions. So powerful are they in Pennsylvania that among their other accomplishments is ensuring the repeated defeat of efforts to privatize our state-owned liquor stores. The unions have worked hard to prevent privatization in this area, on the premise that if the sale of liquor falls from the state’s hands, other public sector sinecures will be endangered as well. Another advantage held by the Democratic senatorial candidate is the black vote in the wards of North Philadelphia and in other Pennsylvania cities: that vote normally goes to the Democrats by well over 90%. If blacks turn out to vote, as they did for Obama, in large numbers, their support can be decisive in Pennsylvania elections. Finally, let’s not forget the proverbial soccer moms in the Philadelphia suburbs, who even though in some cases Republican, tend socially toward the Left. The average female voter in Montgomery and Delaware counties (outside of Philadelphia) may oppose the government’s spending excesses. But these ladies like seeing subsidies go to Planned Parenthood and were vocally offended by Donald Trump’s plan to deport illegals.
Looking at all these variables, Toomey and the state Republican committee chose to pursue what seemed a safe strategy. They would talk about the overspending Obama administration and bring up the scandals of the Democratic presidential candidate but also keep a distance from the figure heading the national ticket. In conversation with my pro-Trump neighbors, I’ve learned that they acquired Trump signs and stickers online or from Donald Trump’s Pennsylvania campaign committee. To my knowledge their lawn decorations did not come from the regular GOP organization. I acquired my own Trump sign (that I have one on my lawn should come as no surprise to those who know me) from a truck driver two blocks from my house, who gave it to me as an expression of Trump-solidarity.
Those who sport Trump signs on their property or Trump stickers on their car fenders typically denounce establishment Republicans. Those are the elitists who refuse to back Trump. The Republicans whom they despise are campaigning for local Republican candidates plus Toomey. So deep is the division between the factions that the Trump-devotees of my acquaintance say they won’t vote for that “traitor Toomey,” while the Senator’s fans go on about Trump’s lack of “conservatism.” When I explain to Never-Trumpers that most of those GOP presidential candidates whom they voted for in past years would hardly pass a “conservative” litmus test, they immediately retort “But Trump is different.” By the way, our Republican congressional candidate in Lancaster County, Lloyd Smucker, advertises himself as an employer who created jobs and as someone who would work in Congress to destroy ISIS. Despite this Trump-sounding message, he adamantly refuses to be associated with the Republican presidential nominee.
In a manner of speaking, Toomey has “grown” since he ran against liberal Republican Senator Arlen Specter in a primary in 2004. Then he was a hero of the Religious Right, who stressed his social conservatism, so much so that Pennsylvania journalists identified him with the “far right.” As a senatorial candidate six years ago, Toomey shifted his emphasis to economic development and was proud of being president of the Club for Growth. When I spoke to him on a program aired on PA Public TV in 2010, Toomey played up his association with Wall Street and discussed the need for “more legal immigration” and international trade agreements. This time round he is still talking about economic growth and eliminating government waste. But he’s also noticed the lengthening shadow of Trump and his electorate and so he’s issued a statement against sanctuary cities and questioned the merits of the Transpacific Partnership. His public statements about this last issue look as forced as does Hillary’s about-face on trade.
In my opinion, Toomey and his advisers have made a mistake by repudiating Trump as emphatically as they did. Not only has Toomey become an identifiable Never-Trumper. He has also declaimed against Trump as someone who seems unfit for the presidency. Toomey has rattled Trump’s fan base, and if he loses, he may owe his defeat partly to his excessive zeal in running away from his party’s presidential candidate. Toomey could easily have taken a middle road by endorsing the entire Republican ticket and then running his own campaign in Pennsylvania. That would have left open the path of identifying more fully with his party’s presidential candidate as Trump became more competitive in the state. In running what some have called a “soccer mom campaign,” Toomey may have written off voters he’ll need to win against McGinty. In the latest CNN Poll Trump trails Hillary in a four way race in Pennsylvania by only one point and seems to be surging here. The once settled opinion among GOP operatives that Trump would be a drag on Republican candidates has turned out to be false. Just the opposite may be the case. By now Toomey’s contemptuous dismissal of Trump may be hurting his campaign.