Do Real Voters Believe in ‘Checks and Balances?’

Interviews with suburban voters near Harrisburg paints a mixed picture

Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey poses with a military-style Jeep during a campaign event at the Herbert W. Best VFW Post 928 in Folsom, Pa., in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey poses with a military-style Jeep during a campaign event at the Herbert W. Best VFW Post 928 in Folsom, Pa., in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 25, 2016 at 5:00am

CAMP HILL, Pa. — Sharon Sybrandt thinks Donald Trump is “fat,” ugly,” and a “whack job.” But her disgust with the Republican presidential nominee doesn’t mean she’ll vote against the GOP down ticket — to the relief of her home-state senator, Patrick J. Toomey.

“I will vote Republican for everyone else entirely to counteract Hillary,” said the 72-year-old former insurance regulator. The registered Republican and a resident of this well-to-do suburb of Harrisburg has a deep unease with Democrats — mainly because of their work on health care — and is worried what will happen if they once again control the White House and Congress.

“Checks and balances,” she said, “That’s what it’s always about.”

Voters like Sybrandt are why the GOP might yet hold its slim Senate majority. Senate Republicans, including Toomey, need voters to split their tickets to win, especially now that Trump’s support has slumped in the election’s final weeks. (In some polls, it’s outright collapsed.)

Recent interviews with nearly a dozen Camp Hill-area residents suggests that, at a minimum, voters at least see Toomey and Trump differently. In many cases, they said they would vote for the Republican senator and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Toomey faces Democrat Katie McGinty in one of the closest Senate races of the year, a contest both sides think is effectively a dead heat with two weeks left before Election Day.  

And yet, conversations with these voters also revealed warning signs for Toomey and, by extension, other Senate Republicans on the ballot this year.

Some Republican Senate candidates, including Sens. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada, have said they won’t vote for Trump.

But Toomey has yet to say if he’ll vote for Trump (he’s ruled out supporting Clinton), a decision rooted, in part, in broadening his appeal to moderate voters. But his lack of support is a deep irritation to Trump supporters — including many of those interviewed Saturday.

One man called Toomey’s position “childish;” another said he’d vote for the senator next month but would consider voting against him in the next Republican primary.

There was also a palpable sense that if Toomey announced before Election Day that he wasn’t voting for the party’s presidential nominee, he would lose support.

Hill Wessell, a 66-year-old who recently moved to Pennsylvania from California, said he plans to vote for Toomey on Nov. 8 — but not if the senator announced before then that he won’t vote for Trump.

“I might take back my vote,” Wessell said. “I’ll say, ‘OK, screw you.’ And if he does not get my vote, he’ll lose by default.”

“He needs to be told that I’m disgruntled that he’s not a supporter,” he added.

Toomey is receiving help in his effort to win re-election from Americans for Prosperity, part of the political network run by Charles and David Koch that has assembled an army of staffers to knock on the doors of swing voters in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Florida, and Nevada.

In Pennsylvania alone, they have five full-time and 10 part-time staffers who have made 1.8 million calls and knocked on 135,000 doors in opposition to McGinty, according to network officials. (One staffer quipped that he was already on his third pair of shoes this year because of how many miles he’s walked knocking on doors.)

Americans for Prosperity’s chapter in Pennsylvania let a reporter accompany them as they contacted voters they identified as “persuadable” in the Senate race.

Camp Hill, where the group focused its door-knocking recently, is populated mostly by white, well-educated professionals who normally vote Republican but have defected en masse from Trump. Many of them also hold high-ranking jobs in the state government (Harrisburg, the state capital, sits just across the Susquehanna River): More than once, a man or woman who answered the door declined to talk because they worked for the state government.  

Even those who said they plan to vote for both Trump and Toomey said they see a major distinction between the two men.

“Pat Toomey is a man of character, as much as I’ve seen in some period of time,” said Tom Green, 53. “Trump is not.”

Said 76-year-old Larry Mavokovich:  “[Toomey’s] forthright and honest, and I don’t know about Trump being that.”

Not everyone was so sure they’d vote for Toomey.

In press releases and interviews, Democrats have focused on tying Republican Senate nominees to Trump. But they’ve also continued to criticize the GOP candidates on issues like entitlement programs, abortion rights, and other issues.

The attacks appear to have some resonance, especially those that attacked Toomey over his history of working on Wall Street.

“Toomey is wrapped up with Wall Street,” said Judy, who declined to give her last name. She said the senator didn’t represent “common people.”

“He seems too far above us to do anything for us,” she said.

Judy said she doesn’t know if she’s for Toomey or McGinty, or for that matter, Trump or Clinton. She’s deeply disappointed with all of her choices this year.

“I always said I would be remiss if I didn’t vote,” she said. “But I have no idea what I’m going to do when I get in the voting booth.”