When Google honored a civil rights activist who supported a man convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey fired off a letter .
He asked Larry Page, CEO of the tech giant’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., “why anyone would choose to defend a cold-blooded murderer …” The sacrifices by law enforcement officers, “deserve to be honored and respected,” he wrote.
Toomey’s letter might look like a momentary diversion as he prepares for re-election. But the first-term senator has instead made support for police officers central to his campaign against Democratic nominee Katie McGinty, evoking a strong law-and-order message that appears to praise the police as much as it targets their critics.
The senator has opposed measures to “de-militarize” the police that became popular after the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. He’s backed legislation to give prison guards pepper spray. And he’s made a point of telling voters about it, in Senate speeches , press releases, and TV ads.
“When rioters destroyed American cities, Pat Toomey stood strong with police,” says an ad released in March . “Toomey fought for better police equipment and benefits — and denounced the riots when others wouldn’t.”
Toomey’s law-and-order approach has set him apart from fellow Senate Republicans running for re-election this year, who have focused instead on a message tailored to the economy or foreign policy.
A pragmatic deal-maker
It’s also a distinct tactic for Toomey himself, a low-key former congressman who has tried to build a reputation as a conservative but pragmatic deal-maker while studiously avoiding provocative rhetoric and positions. Such an image, his political advisers have long believed, is the only way a Republican senator can win re-election in a presidential year in Pennsylvania, a state that has voted for the Democratic White House nominee in six consecutive elections.
Wading in too strongly on the side of the police, however, could affect views of Toomey. Allegations of police misconduct in African-American communities have roiled towns and cities across the country, highlighted again on Monday when a police officer charged in connection with the 2015 death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray was acquitted of all charges .
Gray’s death sparked riots in Baltimore, Maryland’s largest city, riots that Toomey condemned in his TV ad. To some Democrats, the senator is scoring political points off the widespread pain and anger felt in the black community.
“He’s made a decision, probably for political reasons, to not listen to the pain, not listen to the concern, not listen to the anger, not listen to the frustration,” said Vincent Hughes, a state senator from Philadelphia and a McGinty supporter. “And so as a result of that, he puts out this kind of response.”
Satisfying the base
Other Republicans see a different political motivation for the senator, who leads in early polling of his matchup with McGinty — herself the daughter of a Philadelphia police officer — but is considered one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents in 2016.
Toomey drew swift blockback from some conservatives after he undertook a legislative effort in 2013 to expand background checks for the sale of certain guns. He has also been criticized by some in his party for his lukewarm support of presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump. More so than many Republican lawmakers, Toomey has kept Trump at arm’s length, suggesting the New York billionaire needs to earn his vote despite all but clinching the party’s nomination.
Highlighting his support of police officers could satiate both voter blocs.
“He’s still giving some red meat to the law-and-order folks,” said one GOP strategist following the race.
Toomey has also taken aim at Philadelphia’s status as a so-called “sanctuary city” for undocumented workers, an issue he has repeatedly highlighted in recent weeks on the campaign trail.
The senator’s support has earned him endorsements from the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, local prison guard unions, and the International Union of Police Associations. The groups say Toomey’s vocal and legislative support for their agenda made an endorsement an easy call.
“At a time like this, we need someone to be vocal about the pro-law enforcement position,” said Rich Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations.
In recent years, the Republican Party has swayed from the tough-on-crime policies that dominated its approach to politics in 1980s and 1990s. GOP lawmakers are currently considering criminal justice reform that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement to emerge between the two parties.
For now, Toomey campaign officials say the senator is undecided on the legislation.
“Pat is continuing to study the proposed legislation, as it has undergone numerous changes, and continues to undergo more changes,” said campaign spokesman Ted Kwong.
Democrats, meanwhile, have attacked Toomey, a fiscal conservative who used to work on Wall Street, as too close to the financial industry at the expense of the middle class. It’s a message they would prefer to focus on, even as the senator talks about the police.
“He’s resorting to the Trump-like tactic of exploiting public anxieties around complex issues for personal political gain,” said Preston Maddock, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “Toomey is trying to change the conversation away from his life’s work of carrying water for Wall Street, because that’s a debate he knows he’ll lose.”