Toomey Works to Shed ‘Far Out’ Label

Posted November 20, 2009 at 5:45pm

Most Washington, D.C., insiders know former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) as a stalwart conservative.

As the former president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, Toomey often made it his mission to defeat Republican Members who did not meet his group’s conservative standards on spending.

But ever since Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) announced seven months ago that he was switching parties to run for re-election as a Democrat, Toomey has been forced to recast himself as more of a centrist as he prepares for the 2010 general election.

“I think that’s probably a calculated move on his part,— said former Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.), who supports Toomey’s bid. “And if you want to get elected in Pennsylvania, you have to move to the middle. But I hope he doesn’t move too far to the middle because this country needs a fiscal conservative.—

Toomey surprised many conservatives when he announced in early August that he was supporting President Barack Obama’s nominee for Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. Toomey’s campaign also issued a press release in late September praising Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for supporting charter schools and merit-based pay for teachers.

“President Obama and Secretary Duncan deserve credit for promoting such an important part of education reform in this country,— Toomey said in the statement.

When asked about his political views in early August by MSNBC “Hardball— host Chris Matthews, Toomey replied: “I’m in the center-right.—

Toomey ran to the right of Specter when he challenged him in the 2004 GOP primary. Specter defeated him by a slim 4-point margin with the help of the slogan, “Pat Toomey: Not far right, just far out.—

“I think Pat maybe learned a little bit of a lesson there,— southeastern Pennsylvania GOP consultant John McNichol said. “I don’t think it makes him any more conservative across the spectrum, but I think he’s appropriately moved towards the fiscal issues.—

McNichol and other Republican operatives said they do not think Toomey has shifted his positions on anything since the 2004 campaign, but instead he has made a conscious choice to focus more on economic issues in the Senate campaign.

“He’s evolving and maturing,— McNichol added. “Same guy, same principles. I just think he understands now that he’s got to stay focused because it’s about electability.—

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), known as a conservative icon in the state, lost re-election by 18 points in 2006 in part because the general electorate thought he was too far to the right. Santorum, who supported Specter in the 2004 primary, announced on his radio show that he is supporting Toomey’s bid. However, several Pennsylvania Republicans said they did not want Toomey to suffer a similar fate by falling into the conservative niche in the state.

Toomey might be known as a conservative in D.C. and parts of eastern Pennsylvania, but polling shows he is not well-known throughout the rest of the state among general election voters — giving the former Congressman a perfect opportunity to recast his candidacy in the middle of the political spectrum.

“Toomey is a largely undefined quantity to Pennsylvania voters. The question for Pat, and it determines if he wins or loses, is will he define himself as a fiscal hawk … or does Arlen define him as ‘Pat Toomey, he’s far out there,’— Pennsylvania Republican operative Ray Zaborney said.

According to several Quinnipiac University surveys from the past six months, Toomey is still relatively unknown in the state. In March, 78 percent of voters had not heard of him. The most recent poll from October showed 53 percent had not heard of Toomey, while only 10 percent of voters in the poll had not heard of Specter and 70 percent had not heard of Specter’s Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak.

This also might not be the first recasting of Toomey’s candidacy. When he first ran as the underdog candidate for Congress in a crowded GOP primary in 1998, several observers of that race recalled that he ran as a moderate Republican relative to the other candidates in the primary.

Toomey defeated conservative then-state Sen. Joseph Uliana and Christian Coalition-backed 1996 nominee Bob Kilbanks in a competitive multicandidate primary. Toomey supported abortion rights in that first 1998 campaign — a position that he reversed in his first term in Congress.

“In his first race for public office, Pat expressed qualified support for abortion rights,— Toomey campaign spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said. “He never felt fully comfortable with that position, and in his early days in Congress came to realize that the pro-life position was where his conscience was. Since then, he has consistently supported the pro-life position, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.—

One former Republican elected official in the state commented that with the exception of abortion, Toomey is reverting to his roots as a more moderate candidate in that first election.

“I think the guy is exceptionally bright and high-energy,— the former official said. “But what I see is more of a recasting of his traditional [message], what has been his existing philosophy and framing it in other terms, with the exception of abortion.—

When asked about the direction of Toomey’s re-election campaign, Soloveichik said Toomey is a conservative but marches to the beat of his own drum.

“Pat is running as someone who can be elected by Republicans, by independents, by Democrats,— she said. “He’ll tell you he’s a conservative, but he’s a mainstream conservative. And he’s always willing to work with Democrats and independents when he agrees with them.—