Give Toomey Credit: He Is the Frontrunner

Posted May 15, 2009 at 3:36pm

While Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) steals the spotlight for the day by continuing his record of choosing politics over policy and political expedience over ideology, former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) quietly continues to be the frontrunner in the race for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat. Despite efforts by the ever-expanding circle of Washington, D.C.-based political “experts— who want to deny Toomey the credit, the truth is that his dominance in polls is what led Specter to jump ship.

Part of the pundits’ problem is that they continue to tout the same old conventional wisdom: that a “purple— state should be represented by a purple politician, that voters prefer moderates and political pragmatists more than candidates who actually take a stand and have a core philosophy, and, importantly, that incumbency and a long political résumé are more important than new ideas and energy.

With this conventional wisdom in mind, the talkers of the world have decided that, yes, Toomey can win the primary in Pennsylvania, but in the end, voters will chose to stick with the sameness that has been in office since 1980. Specter is, after all, purple (or at least indigo) — he is a political pragmatist who is proud of his role as one of the liberals in America’s most exclusive club, and his political résumé is long.

The problem is, times have changed. The politics practiced back when Specter was creating the single-bullet theory are over, and yes, my pundit friends, it is time that conventional wisdom catches up to political reality.

In today’s politics, ideas matter, energy matters, passion matters, and age, race and a long political résumé do not. Voters want to know what a person thinks and why he thinks it. They want conviction and principle. As an example, I give you a recent candidate who ran against the conventional wisdom: President Barack Obama. As a candidate, Obama had less experience and exposure than then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, ran to the left of her in the primary and took bold liberal stands on issues by calling for ending the war with Iraq, co-sponsoring “card check— and calling for increased taxes during a recession. Yet, the “purple— public came to his side in droves, drawn by his energy, his very lack of experience and the desire to actually push bold ideas and not just negotiate the middle ground.

So, too, can Toomey win the hearts and minds of non-Republican voters in the Keystone State. People like leaders who believe in something, and they like them more when they agree with them. Passion is a key element in politics. It is what drives volunteers to make phone calls and walk the street, and it creates the beginnings of a groundswell that ushers in change. Passion is found in what D.C. likes to call “the base— of either party, and as the shrinking moderates of both parties can attest, there are few, if any, passionate purple voters.

Pennsylvania has 1.2 million more Democratic voters than Republican voters, which means the first thing that a Republican candidate must do is get the vast majority of Republicans to vote for him. With his already-high favorable rating among Republican voters, Toomey will be able to do this. Then, and only then, can the process of securing the million-plus independent voters and voters registered as Democrats begin.

This means the base must be secured, and hopefully without spending too much effort, so that time can be spent talking to crossover and swing votes. This scenario only works if Toomey is the Republican candidate for Senate. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) can attest that when your base abandons you and you are in a tight election, no amount of money will get you over the top. And why did the base abandon the conservative Santorum? Because Santorum endorsed Specter in the 2006 elections.

Toomey can win the general election in Pennsylvania because he has a political philosophy, not despite it. He can win because the base is energized and excited about his run, he can win because he has won three elections in a Democratic-leaning Congressional district and he will win despite what the pundit class seems to think.

Brian Wild was chief of staff to former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and is now a Washington, D.C.-based government relations consultant.