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How Pat Toomey Won

Pennsylvania senator’s road to re-election started long before 2016

Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, left, seen here campaigning in State College, Pa., in August, was aided in his successful re-election effort by a shift in his image over the past six years. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, left, seen here campaigning in State College, Pa., in August, was aided in his successful re-election effort by a shift in his image over the past six years. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Patrick J. Toomey’s re-election campaign started a day after he took office in 2011, almost six years before he would actually face voters. The freshly elected Republican senator met at noon in the bowels of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, across the street from Union Station, with two of his top political lieutenants.

The trio needed figure out as soon as possible how the Republican could possibly win another statewide election in Pennsylvania.

“We realized 2010 was a wave year, and we won by 2 points,” said Mark Harris, a longtime top adviser to Toomey who took part in the meeting. “The electorate was likely to be worse in 2016 … and so we took very seriously from Day One that we were going to have a very difficult re-election.”

They were right to worry: Toomey’s quest to win another term in the Senate faced unexpected hardships, pervasive doubt among fellow Republicans, and an electorate hardly welcoming to a Republican in a presidential year. But the incumbent nonetheless won another term in office — by fewer than a hundred thousand votes of the nearly 6 million cast — thanks in part to the strategy he and his team began conceiving inside the NRSC six years ago.

It was a carefully laid plan that relied as heavily on the work he did in the four years before he was up for re-election as the campaign itself.

Not that the campaign was an afterthought: Republican strategists in Washington rated it as one of their party’s very best. And officials on the campaign say the plan they executed in 2016 touts the innovative ways they reached and persuaded voters.

But they also say that much of the essential work done for Toomey’s re-election happened long before he officially became a candidate again. It was during this initial phase that the incumbent solidified his reputation as a level-headed pragmatist, an image that would later enable the senator to run strongly in the state’s liberal-leaning Philadelphia suburbs, even as many of those same voters opposed Donald Trump in droves.  

Toomey’s plan is a reminder that, as another class of senators gears up for re-election ahead of the 2018 midterms, the work done the four previous years could prove just as important as the coming campaign.

Image shift

It seems like a distant memory now, but Toomey was once in the anti-GOP establishment vanguard. The former congressman took on, and nearly defeated, centrist former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in 2004 — a race that foreshadowed the type of tea-party primary challenges that would later become common within the party.

Toomey afterward went on to run the anti-tax group Club for Growth, which helped foment and fund similar challenges to the GOP establishment in House and Senate races.

The former Wall Street banker did much to bury that image in 2010, when he easily won the GOP nomination for Senate (after pushing Specter into the Democratic Party a year earlier) and narrowly won the general election.

But that was in 2010, one of the most favorable years for the GOP on record. Toomey’s team understood immediately that the environment could be much harsher six years later.

“Going from 2010 to 2016, it would not be correct to say we wanted to move from conservative to something else,” said Jon Lerner, a pollster and an architect of Toomey’s re-election strategy. “Because conservative was fine. You can win in Pennsylvania as a conservative.”

“It was an attempt to put something else on top of it, it was a tonal aspect,” he continued. “It was a guy who’s thoughtful, a guy who’s serious.”

So Toomey’s political operation went about highlighting issues that would make the senator look like something more well-rounded than just a politician who cared about taxes and regulation. His work on sexual predators, and opposition to the Iranian nuclear agreement and so-called sanctuary cities were in play.

Toomey is best known for backing a bill in 2013 that would expand background checks in the case of gun sales (known as Manchin-Toomey), legislation that played a major role in his re-election campaign. But to his team, his lesser-remembered work on the 2011 Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the so-called supercommittee, when the senator broke from GOP orthodoxy and proposed a plan that would increase revenue, was the first major opportunity to define Toomey as something other than a rigid ideologue.

“We took from that episode a number of markers that allowed him to present himself as a guy who was thoughtful, serious, and constructive, rather than a knee-jerk partisan type,” Lerner said.

As much as Toomey’s team wanted voters to notice how their senator was acting, they also had another audience in mind: Pennsylvania’s political elite. Inside this group, some still harbored suspicion that Toomey was nothing more than a conservative idealist, incapable of being a senator who could do the difficult work of representing a politically complicated state.

But Toomey’s work to expand background checks, among other efforts, convinced many of them that they had misjudged the incumbent Republican. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, was a particularly outspoken proponent of the senator’s work. (The Toomey campaign passed to reporters a one-page document full of praise the governor had offered Toomey.)

“There was definitely a change in perception among donors and the press and higher-information folks,” Harris said. “There were a lot of people who thought of him as a caricature of a right-wing person based on 2004. And we spent a lot of time identifying how to change that.”

Harris said that effort “culminated” in July 2012 (even before Toomey’s work on guns), when Philadelphia magazine ran a long profile of the senator entitled “Pat Toomey Is Surprisingly Moderate.”

Toomey’s new image, along with the significant amounts of money he raised, gave the campaign confidence it would be able to win over voters in 2016 who wouldn’t have so much as considered backing him in 2010.

“It opened up a group of voters that wasn’t available to us in 2010,” said Peter Towey, Toomey’s campaign manager.

Democratic frustration

The transformation of Toomey’s image frustrated some Democrats, who saw an incumbent winning plaudits as a moderate because of his tone, while still voting like one of Congress’ most conservative members.

“Toomey’s record is, objectively, a very conservative record,” said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic strategist based in Philadelphia. “But the press kept writing, ‘Oh, Pat Toomey, he doesn’t sound conservative.’”

Balaban recalled one columnist in Pennsylvania who wrote that Toomey would “balk” at repealing the 2010 health care law because it would take away health insurance from so many people, an article that drove the Democratic strategist to email in complaint.

Harris laughed when told of the incident.

“You even had news organizations that would be like, ‘moderate Pat Toomey’ or, like, ‘left-leaning Pat Toomey,’” Harris said. “I’m not arguing with them, obviously, but you clearly have not been paying all that much attention.”

It was a sign, Lerner said, that his image had shifted considerably.

“He’s made some conscious efforts to highlight certain things,” the pollster said. “His actual record? It’s changed hardly at all.”

Lerner, who worked on Toomey’s 2004 run against Specter, marveled at how differently people view Toomey now versus then, even as the senator himself hasn’t changed much.

“When Pat Toomey ran against Arlen Specter in 2004, he was the leading insurgent Republican in America,” Lerner said. “Twelve years later, Pat Toomey is widely regarded as a mainstream Republican or even part of the dreaded Republican establishment.”

Katie McGinty

Democrats themselves made a major strategic decision in 2016, when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and groups like EMILY’s List spent roughly $5 million helping Democratic candidate Katie McGinty defeat former Rep. Joe Sestak in the primary for Senate.

Democrats feared that Sestak, who was the party’s 2010 nominee when he lost to Toomey, wouldn’t run a professional campaign or raise enough money to take on the well-funded Republican incumbent. 

But their decision puzzled Toomey’s team, who considered the onetime admiral in the U.S. Navy and a political outsider, well-attuned to the public’s anti-establishment mood. McGinty might not have been a much worse candidate than Sestak, but she was hardly worth such a big-dollar investment. 

Harris called the Democratic Party’s support of McGinty “highly irrational.”

Added Lerner, “I never thought that Katie McGinty would be a tougher opponent than Joe Sestak.”

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