A Right-Wing Candidate Dons the Mask of Moderation

October 07, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Toomey 2 Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey campaigns in Centre County, Pa. (Toomey for U.S. Senate)

As in many close elections, Pennsylvania’s Senate race has largely become a contest about defining and capturing the elusive middle. Democrats might enjoy a substantial registration advantage in the state, courtesy of the 2008 elections, but the state’s swing voters — mostly middle-class suburbanites with tolerant social views and moderate fiscal concerns — are recognized by both Rep. Joe Sestak (D) and former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) as the real prize.

[GOP1] These nonaligned folks are seeking a candidate who will look out for working families and approximate their own pragmatic views. And with less than a month to go before Nov. 2, it looks like they’ve settled, against all odds, on Toomey.

Judging purely by his policy positions, Toomey would appear to be well to the right of the average Pennsylvania voter, and more in line with some of the very conservative Tea Party-backed candidates who have fascinated the national media in recent months. Like Sharron Angle of Nevada, he hopes to ban abortion and privatize parts of social security. Like Rand Paul of Kentucky, he has argued for the repeal of the president’s health care and Wall Street reform bills. While in Congress, he complained that the Bush tax cuts were too small. His roll call votes place him much further to the right than former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R), whom many thought too conservative for statewide office, and even former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, the illegal immigration demagogue who is running for his state’s governorship as a member of the American Constitution Party.

But Toomey is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as Angle or Paul, let alone Tancredo. And while these candidates’ occasionally extreme rhetoric has no doubt done its part to make Toomey’s own views appear more reasonable, refraining from sounding off is hardly sufficient to explain his moderate appeal. Toomey’s success in wooing Pennsylvania’s independent vote is attributable instead to an incredible, Cincinnatus-like story of modesty and civic virtue that he has crafted over the years and stuck to with remarkable discipline, even when confronted by its inconsistencies. He balances his far-right views with a personality that’s reasonable, upright, and, at times, downright boring.

And it’s working. With the Senate election fast approaching, recent poll averages show Toomey ahead of Sestak by a solid seven points. The conservative Toomey isn’t new to winning the votes of most middle-of-the-road Pennsylvanians, however. It’s a strategy that can be traced to the earliest days of his political career following his move to Allentown, Pa.

Leaving Wall Street Behind

Toomey’s campaign website isn’t shy about advertising the candidate’s humble origins. “Growing up the third of six children in a blue-collar, working class family — his father a union worker and his mother a part-time secretary at the family’s parish church — Pat was taught the values of hard work and self-reliance,” his official bio notes.

Toomey, who declined to be interviewed for this story, traded derivatives on Wall Street for six years after college, followed by a year performing research in Hong Kong on capital market formation for a pair of billionaire investors. But his preferred political narrative begins in Allentown, where he moved after returning from Hong Kong in 1991 and set up shop with his brothers, founding “a successful, family-owned restaurant business with several Pennsylvania locations,” his bio says. “In 1997, after nearly 10 years as a small business owner, Pat grew weary of the huge tax burdens imposed on Pennsylvania’s small businesses. So he acted.”

But Toomey had always been interested in politics — he’d majored in political philosophy at Harvard and grown more conservative in the process — and the Republican wave in the 1994 congressional elections inspired him to get involved. “1994 was a watershed year,” he told Derivatives Strategy magazine after he was elected to Congress in 1998. “As a conservative, I felt that this was the first opportunity in my lifetime to participate in the process within the context of a majority and actually make something happen.”

Inspired by the anti-tax movement that helped sweep Republicans into office in 1994, Toomey leapt at the chance to serve on a government study commission — tasked with writing a brand-new charter for the city of Allentown — that occurred the same year. It was an opportunity to limit the size of government on a local level, and he succeeded in doing so by backing a new requirement for a two-thirds majority vote before the city could attempt to raise taxes in the future.

The lens through which he conveyed his views, even then, however, wasn’t the lens of Friedrich Hayek (or even Grover Norquist), but of small business.

“I knew him as a businessman,” recalls Wayne Stephens, Allentown’s former police chief, who served on the commission with him. “He was extremely business minded, and interested not just in public service, but in what was happening in everything.”

Toomey learned to thrive on the commission by presenting his conservative beliefs as the concerns of a small businessman, and he framed his goals of rolling back taxes as relief for the little guy.

“Our goal was to protect the taxpayer, not so much to serve the elected officials,” recalls David Bausch, the commission’s chairperson and an ally of Toomey’s at the time. Toomey would later spend $2,500 to help secure the charter’s passage in 1996.

Dressing the Part

It was during Toomey’s run for Congress in 1998, and even more so during his closely contested but successful fights to defend his seat in 2000 and 2002, that Toomey learned to hone his discipline and perfect his political pitch.

In many ways, Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District had come to mirror the state as a whole. The cities of Allentown and Bethlehem bestowed the district with a slight Democratic edge, but a growing white-collar population outside the city limits was steadily supplanting the region’s working-class, heavily unionized roots. To win, Toomey would have to play up union antipathy in the suburbs while preserving a pro-worker image among the district’s still sizable blue-collar population — and that’s exactly what he did.

“He’s labeled ‘Wall Street’ and he is,” grouses Ed O’Brien, the union leader who challenged Toomey for his House seat in 2000 and 2002. But try as he might to make the race about Toomey’s financial-sector roots, his support for a regressive flat tax, and his disregard for worker safety regulations, O’Brien couldn’t make the label stick.

“In 2000 [Toomey] defeated me by a little over four percentage points, and I think what put him in then was a lot of the independents were a little bit leery because he just tagged me as a union boss,” notes O’Brien. “He can communicate, there’s absolutely no question about it.”

“The thing of it was that he was able to convince people he was a moderate and make them leery of me,” O’Brien adds. “I was against this, that and that. He called me puppet of trial lawyers. He had more money from the trial lawyers than i did!”

But Toomey also needed to steal from O’Brien’s working-class base, and he succeeded by campaigning aggressively on his blue-collar origins and brief stint as a small-business owner.

Sometimes he got in trouble for going too far. When labor groups got hold of a Toomey staffer’s memo asking Republican supporters to “dress the part of a blue-collar worker” by showing up in work boots and denim shirts for a television ad, some picketed outside the shoot.

“Wear working shoes and shirts and they’ll provide a hard hat,” recalls O’Brien. “One ad was with a guy who was supposedly on an assembly line and talking badly about me. Let’s put it this way. I never took things personal. When he defeated me, I was gracious after. But what irritates me more than anything is when I do see him doing ads where he has supposed labor people involved. That’s what really really bothers me.”

Staying on Message

But what bothered O’Brien sat well enough with the rest of Toomey’s district, which voted him to three consecutive terms in the House, and he made clear, in true Cincinnatus-like fashion, that he wouldn’t seek re-election beyond that. His decision was based on a pledge to serve only three terms, but it also didn’t hurt that Sen. Arlen Specter, a then-Republican who looked vulnerable to a right-wing challenge, was up for re-election.

When Toomey formally announced in February 2003 he’d challenge Specter in the Republican primary in 2004, he incurred a lot of ill will from many members of the GOP establishment. But even here, in an internecine race in which Toomey had to assume the mantle of right-wing firebrand, he kept his cool in the face of bitter attacks from the camp of “Snarlin’ Arlen.”

“Toomey is a smart, disciplined campaigner,” says Christopher Nicholas, who served as Specter’s campaign manager at the time. “And in 2004 we threw everything but the kitchen sink at him, and there were only maybe one or two times that we kind of got him off message and playing defense.”

Indeed, Specter’s camp came up with all kinds of hopeful character assassination plots, including a memo that detailed 11 “incidents,” including a liquor control violation later overturned on appeal and a number of small crimes, perpetrated in and around Toomey’s formerly owned restaurants and sports bars in the Allentown area, in an attempt to cast doubt on the degree to which his establishments truly contributed to the community. It also noted two lawsuits against Toomey Inc., one of which was settled for $75,000 when an intoxicated patron was killed in a car accident after leaving a Toomey establishment.

In spite of it all, Toomey stayed on message. “I’ve been winning in a Democratic district with a principled conservative message,” he told supporters wary of his statewide chances at the time.

“He was very disciplined, very focused, and he just kept saying [Specter] had been too liberal for too long,” Nicholas notes.

In the end, Specter beat Toomey for the nomination, but only by about 17,000 votes out of over a million cast. It was the only race in which Toomey ever came up short, but even here it’s widely agreed that he would probably have won had President Bush and Pennsylvania’s other senator, Rick Santorum, not come to Specter’s rescue.

Following the election, however, Toomey refrained from lashing out at the Republican establishment that failed to get behind him. Instead, he became the president of the Club for Growth, the conservative anti-tax group that was seeking to remake the Republican Party by recruiting and supporting candidates that would challenge it from the right.

The Club had backed Toomey heavily in his failed bid against Specter, and it proved the perfect platform for him to bide his time through a couple of election cycles that were none too favorable to Republicans, all the while handing out large chunks of money and buying goodwill from conservative candidates who shared his passion for moving the GOP to the right.

Nicholas, who also worked for the moderate Sen. Lincoln Chaffee (R-R.I.) before Toomey and the Club put him in their crosshairs for a ring-wing challenge in 2006, said that even then, Toomey’s campaign work never felt personal.

“He never appeared in any of those things. He was always the cheerleader and the fundraiser behind the scenes,” Nicholas recalls. “When I did a campaign for moderate Republicans I didn’t feel like I was squaring off against the Club for Growth. He didn’t adopt this kind of mano-a-mano thing. He didn’t operate that way.”

Being the Bigger Man

When Toomey first dropped hints about another Senate bid in 2010, the Republican Party establishment was wary. The Club for Growth had drawn the ire of popular GOP figures like Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, who famously termed it the “Club for Greed,” and local pols wondered if he wasn’t too far to the right for Pennsylvania.

But when Specter voted for President Obama’s stimulus package, the mood among rank-and-file Republicans shifted wildly against him. Toomey began polling so favorably in match-ups with Specter in a GOP primary that it was only a matter of time before Specter fled the party for good.

Even then, the state’s own GOP Party Chairman, Rob Gleason, tried to enlist former governor Tom Ridge (R-Pa.) to challenge Specter, explaining later to Politico that “Toomey still had a reputation for being a staunch conservative.” But Ridge declined and Toomey was left with an open path to the nomination.

Once firmly ensconced as his party’s frontrunner, however, Toomey quickly reverted back to the candidate who’d fought and won tough races in the Democrat-heavy 15th District. While Sestak and Specter were forced to duke it out in a tough Democratic primary, Toomey quickly set about reclaiming political middle. America had shifted dangerously to the left, he framed his message, and he felt duty bound to return to politics and set it back firmly in the center.

“I think we now have the most liberal elected government in the history of the republic,” he told the American Spectator last April. “I think they are very consciously and systematically attempting to take America on a huge lurch to the left, to really remake our society in a fashion similar to a European-style welfare state.”

“He’s transitioned very well from outside challenger mode to endorsed candidate mode,” observes Nicholas. “I think that speaks to Mr. Toomey’s experience and the fact that he didn’t have a tough primary. The environment shifted in Toomey’s favor and he was adroit enough to leverage that.”

It didn’t matter that Toomey had thrown his weight behind Sharron Angle and other radical candidates at the Club for Growth, or that he’d been a head cheerleader of the deregulation of the financial services industry while in Congress. What mattered was that, when Specter attempted to discredit Sestak’s Navy career in an attack ad during the Democratic primary, it was Toomey, of all people, who came to Sestak’s defense.

“Joe Sestak and I have already engaged in two spirited yet civil debates,” Toomey wrote in a letter asking Specter to take down the ad. “Pennsylvanians can rightly expect that we would continue in that manner, which is not only respectful to each other, but more importantly, respectful to voters.”

In fact, Toomey consistently made it known that he liked his challenger, Mr. Sestak, notwithstanding the fact that his views were obviously far to the left of the average Pennsylvanian.

“[Sestak is] a good and honorable man and very dedicated to the liberal principles that he believes in,” Toomey likes to tell the media with only the smallest hint of irony. His campaign even chose to run an amusingly cordial ad that began, “For Senate, Joe Sestak or Pat Toomey. Two good men with very different ideas.”

Entering the Home Stretch

It’s the way Toomey carries himself, however, that looks like it’s going to prove crucial in carrying his mild manners and his less mild political beliefs to Washington once more. Unlike Ken Buck, or Sharron Angle, or Rand Paul, he’s managed to couch the same policy positions in a sensible, even boring manner that’s comforted, rather than repelled, the Pennsylvania voters Toomey needs most to win.

“You’d never have convinced me then that anyone more conservative than Rick Santorum would have been able to win statewide,” says O’Brien. “But now it looks like it’s possible.”