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When Democrats needed a partner to strike a deal with on a gun background check bill, Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey made a politically savvy move that could pay dividends both in future talks with Democrats and back home in Pennsylvania.
Toomey, a former House member and one-time president of the Club for Growth, was swept into the Senate as part of the tea party wave of 2010, tacking to the right on social issues to secure victory. But since arriving in the Senate, the Pennsylvania Republican — who sources say always has been more interested in fiscal issues — has emerged periodically to try to stake out bipartisan ground, first as the front man for targeted revenue increases as part of 2011’s supercommittee and again Wednesday, when he announced an agreement with three colleagues to close the gun show loophole and expand background checks to Internet gun sales.
In Pennsylvania, a state where suburban GOP strongholds are trending purple and blue and where a strong Democratic candidate for president could wreak havoc for Toomey down-ballot, pursuing pragmatic policy now could lay the foundation for a more middle-of-the-road re-election campaign in 2016. Even Democrats concede that in the Keystone State, good policy is good politics.
“Sometimes you have to believe — you don’t have to believe in the president, you don’t have to believe in Pat Toomey — but sometimes you have to believe in doing the right thing,” former Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney said. “Will [Toomey] benefit from it politically? Sure he will. But does he deserve credit? Of course he does. Any good, thoughtful piece of legislation is always going to help someone’s politics.”
Rooney pointed to the Philadelphia suburbs as an area where the deal could play especially well. The former party chief was meeting with Toomey on another issue Monday, shortly after news surfaced that the senator was in talks on background checks. Rooney said he thanked Toomey, telling him he knew “how difficult” bipartisan talks can be and “the political courage” it takes to enter them.
Toomey was careful to frame his support of the background check measure Wednesday as a “common sense” solution that would not infringe on gun owners’ rights. He also was very involved in managing the optics surrounding the bill’s rollout, as CQ Roll Call reported Wednesday, demanding that he not appear on stage with one of the bill’s other co-sponsors, Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, for fear of further alienating conservatives and gun rights advocates.
“I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control. I think it’s common sense,” Toomey told reporters at a news conference. “The common ground rests on a simple proposition, and that is that criminals and the dangerously mentally ill shouldn’t have guns. I don’t know anyone who disagrees with that premise.”
Of course, not everyone is thrilled with Toomey’s decision to co-sponsor the bipartisan agreement forged with Schumer, Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill. Some Republicans speculated it would be a mistake to sign on to a bill that the National Rifle Association so vigorously opposes. But it’s not clear whether the NRA would have signed on to any deal, despite the group’s support for instant background checks more than a decade ago. But even the most skeptical of GOP sources, who did not want to be named when discussing a fellow Republican, suggested the move could prove successful in the long term by convincing moderates on both sides of the aisle that Toomey is not as extreme as he might have seemed when he began challenging Sen. Arlen Specter’s conservative bona fides starting in 2004.
Although most political aides both in Pennsylvania and Washington characterized Toomey as the kind of lawmaker who gets things done, others suggested he does it to increase his own political advantage. When Toomey first ran for Congress in 1998, in a moderate district, he supported limited abortion policies. He has since taken a strictly anti-abortion stand. His run against Specter and his time at the Club for Growth boosted his conservative bona fides. Now, the background check issue could help retake the middle ground he once conceded.
“Anybody who thinks that Pat Toomey’s No. 1 issue is not Pat Toomey totally misunderstands the man,” another Democratic operative in Pennsylvania said.
Still, the good will being fostered between Toomey and Democrats is not going unnoticed and could be used later either to diffuse political attacks back home or to get Democrats in Washington to come to the table on economic issues that he’s been advocating for years, such as entitlement revisions.
Larry Ceisler, another Pennsylvania-based Democratic consultant, said the background check deal will not hurt Toomey, even with his state’s gun owners. “I don’t think that even in the hunter culture of Pennsylvania ... I don’t think people have a really big problem by doing that.”
But Ceisler emphasized that no matter what Toomey does, he may not be able to completely insulate himself from the Democratic leanings of his state. “At the end of the day, 2016 is going to be a very difficult year for him because if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, that’s going to be a very tough year in Pennsylvania for any Republican on the ballot,” he said.