September 20, 2010
It’s hard to keep Pat Toomey down
JOHN J. MILLER
The one thing that most people know about Allentown is that Billy Joel wrote a song about it. The single came out in 1982, during a recession: “Well we’re living here in Allentown / And they’re closing all the factories down.” So when Americans think about this city in eastern Pennsylvania at all, they think about vanishing jobs, industrial blight, and shattered dreams.
“The song has it wrong,” says Pat Toomey, a Republican who used to represent the area in Congress. “It has nothing in common with Allentown or the region in 2010. The story of the Lehigh Valley is a story of economic resurgence, with the caveat that we’re going through a bad downturn right now.”
Today, Toomey is running for the Senate — he wants to represent not just his old constituents in Allentown, but the entire Keystone State. And he’s trying to sell a message of hopeful conservatism that’s the reverse of Joel’s despairing ditty. “Americans believe we have a big government that’s out of control,” he says. “But on Election Day, we have an opportunity to restore economic growth and fiscal sanity and bring balance back to Washington.”
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania by more than a million registered voters — the state hasn’t gone for a GOP presidential candidate since 1988 — Toomey appears to have an edge as his campaign enters the home stretch. In August, polls of likely voters showed him ahead of his rival, Democratic congressman Joe Sestak, by as much as 9 points. Conservatives have a strong interest in the outcome, if only because Republican ambitions for a Senate majority almost certainly require Toomey to prevail. But it’s more than that: Toomey may be one of the two or three most impressive conservatives in this year’s field of senatorial prospects.
The 48-year-old Toomey is a natural-born optimist. Six years ago, he had the gumption to take on a sitting Republican senator in a GOP primary. He narrowly lost to Arlen Specter but finished as a kind of political folk hero among conservative activists. So Toomey figured he’d try again. At first, when the Age of Obama was young and the tea parties had yet to percolate, he heard from plenty of doubters. But Toomey makes a habit of dismissing defeatists and doomsayers. The success of his current campaign, which has seen him go from a potential also-ran in a bitter primary to the presumptive favorite in a general election, has only encouraged this instinct. On August 20, as we fly to a campaign event in rural Elk County, he points to the green wilderness beneath his airplane window. “Look how vast the forests are — as far as the eye can see,” he says. “If anybody thinks we have an overpopulation problem, they ought to come out here for a while.” It was the answer to a question nobody had asked.
Toomey is originally from Rhode Island and he retains the echo of a New Englander’s accent. His father is a lifelong union man who still votes for Democrats. As a Harvard freshman in 1980, however, Toomey cast his first presidential ballot for Ronald Reagan. “I was pretty apolitical — I wasn’t joining the Republican clubs or anything,” he says. “But I liked that Reagan was bullish on America.” After graduation, Toomey began a career on Wall Street and spent a year in Hong Kong. “Living there taught me how much was possible in the absence of natural resources,” he says. Along the way, he started to read books on libertarian economics by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Henry Hazlitt. “I became convinced that prosperity was a function of economic freedom,” he says.
In the early 1990s, Toomey quit his banking job. “I grew tired of New York City,” he says. “I didn’t want to raise a family there.” He settled in Allentown, where his two brothers were living. They opened a restaurant and made plans for more. When Toomey wasn’t pondering early-bird specials and salad-bar fixings, he engaged in politics. In 1994, he volunteered for the campaign of Republican congressional candidate James Yeager, who lost to Democrat Paul McHale by just 471 votes. “That got my attention,” says Toomey. Another close election followed. In 1998, McHale retired, opening the seat. Toomey ran and won, even though the district counted more Democrats than Republicans — a situation that mirrors the statewide environment this year.
As a member of Congress, Toomey focused mainly on economics, calling for tax cuts and Social Security reform. He also pushed free trade, even if it meant standing against the Bush administration’s steel quotas — a bit of Republican protectionism that was supposed to help the president’s popularity in places like Allentown. Toomey’s free-marketeering set him apart from his old Capitol Hill colleague, Rick Santorum. The former senator from Pennsylvania had developed a reputation as a hard-charging right-winger, but Toomey earned a better rating from the American Conservative Union, which evaluates voting records. Santorum’s ACU lifetime mark was 88 percent compared with Toomey’s score of 97 percent.
When he first arrived in Washington, Toomey wasn’t a card-carrying member of the pro-life movement. “In the early stages of pregnancy, I thought the government should stay out of it,” he says. “Then I started to think about the issue a little more deeply.” He also became a father. The experience flipped a switch. “The pro-life movement is great about welcoming converts,” he says. “That’s what we need to do on abortion: win hearts and minds.”
As a third-term congressman in 2003, Toomey considered his next move. He knew it wouldn’t be reelection to the House, because he had promised to serve no more than six years. Yet he believed that he could still do some good in Washington. As it happened, the aging Republican senator Arlen Specter was preparing to run again on a record of waffling moderation that included his hostility to tax cuts. Toomey decided to take him on for the GOP nomination. His spirited effort became a cause for conservatives around the country. The Republican establishment, however, rallied behind the man who had been most responsible for defeating Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination during the Reagan years and tried to invoke Scottish law during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. President Bush showed up in Pennsylvania to stump for Specter. Santorum also took to the hustings for him. When the votes were finally tallied, the liberal incumbent beat the conservative insurgent by less than two percentage points. “I have no regrets about trying,” says Toomey. “The Republican party had lost its way.”
The decision to challenge Specter showed that Toomey was concerned about the GOP’s ideological drift before it was cool to worry. After his defeat, he became president of the Club for Growth, a political-action committee that funds economic conservatives. Toomey set aside his innate optimism and turned into a prophet of Republican implosion — a Cassandra who issued warnings that party leaders chose to ignore. “Republicans have abandoned the principles of limited government and fiscal discipline that historically have united Republicans and energized the Republican base,” Toomey told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2006. Six months later, his predictions came true as Democrats whipped the GOP in congressional elections. “Too many Republicans squandered the opportunity to govern,” says Toomey today. “They created a whole new entitlement for prescription drugs, exploded earmarks, and passed bloated appropriations bills. At a certain point, voters stopped believing that Republicans were the party of fiscal discipline and I don’t blame them.”
This willingness to criticize fellow Republicans came with a price. Many saw Toomey as too strident — a bridge-burner rather than a bridge-builder. Under Toomey’s leadership, the Club for Growth’s website mocked the likes of Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who voted for Obama’s stimulus bill, in its “Comrade of the Month” feature. “I don’t think there is anybody in the world who believes he can get elected senator,” grumbled Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, to Politico.
Early last year, Toomey resigned from the Club and launched a new challenge against Specter. He liked his odds in a second round. So did Specter: Two weeks after Toomey’s announcement, Specter bolted from the GOP. For Toomey, the decision was a boon. It spared him the need to spend cash on a party-splitting primary — his previous campaign had cost about $5 million — and allowed him to tap donors who otherwise would have remained loyal to Specter. Although a few Republicans made efforts to recruit a moderate alternative, such as former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, they eventually realized that Toomey’s failure in 2004 had set the table for victory in 2010. Hatch has now held several fundraisers for Toomey. Even Comrade Collins endorsed him at a Philadelphia event on August 2. “Pat has reached out to people with a variety of views and backgrounds,” she says. “This is a pivotal election and I’m heartened by the polls that show Pat ahead. I don’t know what it would have been like for Arlen.”
For Specter, things didn’t work out very well. Pennsylvania Democrats proved the old adage that once the treason has passed, the traitor is no longer necessary: They sent the GOP turncoat into a forced retirement, giving their party’s nod to Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who was first elected to Congress from suburban Philadelphia in 2006. “We’ve got the starkest contrast between any two candidates in the country,” says Toomey. “It’s hard to get to the left of Joe Sestak.”
That’s true enough. Although Sestak boasts about his political independence, he tends to demonstrate it by saying that Democratic leaders aren’t liberal enough. He voted for the full trifecta of congressional overreach: stimulus spending, cap-and-trade, and Obamacare. In each case, however, he criticized the final legislation as too stingy. Sestak thinks the stimulus should have cost $1 trillion. Cap-and-trade “disappointed” him because he thought it was “eviscerated.” The health-care bill should have carved out an even larger role for government. Sestak also has said he wouldn’t mind seeing terror-master Khalid Shaikh Mohammed put on trial in Pennsylvania.
Toomey tries to impress upon his audiences that Sestak is a “San Francisco liberal” — a term that is meant to link him to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who literally is a San Francisco liberal. Some voters may have trouble squaring this brand of politics with Sestak’s 31 years in the military. As the New York Times recently observed, “The phrase ‘L.G.B.T.’ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender — rolls off his tongue, which is not something you really expect from a 58-year-old career Navy man.” Anyone who bothers to look behind his admiral’s stars, however, quickly sees that Sestak plays against type. The National Rifle Association gave him a grade of F. Sestak is so proud of this accomplishment that he has handed out NRA report cards on the campaign trail. “He’s way outside the mainstream — he’s kind of a Netroots or Daily Kos guy,” says Santorum. “I would love to run against his record.”
Running against Sestak’s record is an important part of Toomey’s strategy, but the Republican hasn’t neglected to lay out his own vision. He wants to extend the Bush tax cuts, with two exceptions: He would lower the taxes on capital gains and corporations. On education, he talks up school choice for low-income families in the District of Columbia, even when he’s meeting rural voters in Potter County. On energy, he emphasizes the potential of the Marcellus Shale — a large deposit of natural gas, buried deep inside Pennsylvania’s bedrock, that many environmentalists oppose extracting. On health care, he acknowledges that even a Republican majority in Congress will lack the strength to repeal Obamacare, but he also insists that other options are available. “If we don’t fund the implementation of this bill, it doesn’t happen,” he says. He refuses to endorse Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s “roadmap” for confronting the federal government’s looming entitlement crisis, but points out that he and Ryan are former D.C. roommates. It’s easy to imagine them as allies.
When Pennsylvanians cast their ballots on November 2, perhaps the man from Allentown should hope that they remember one of the lines from Billy Joel’s classic song: “It’s hard to keep a good man down.”