State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

In dancing around Trump endorsement, Toomey strikes a difficult balance

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Oct 8, 2016 12:43 PM
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Toomey at his 2010 victory party. This year, he's battling Democrat Katie McGinty and, in many ways, presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Photo by AP)

(Harrisburg) -- It's a rainy night in Lancaster County. Thousands of people are packed into a cavernous sports arena. It's hot, there are no seats, and the guest of honor is almost two hours late.

Nevertheless, spirits are high.

This is a Donald Trump rally. Most of the people here are passionate supporters, and they talk him up happily. But there's also another Republican candidate weighing on many people's minds: incumbent US Senator Pat Toomey, who's in a race for his political life against Democrat Katie McGinty.

When the subject of Toomey comes up, many Trump backers, like Jack Laukhuff of West Hempfield Township, Lancaster County, have a very different response.

"Shame on him," Laukhuff said, shaking his head.

He's not the biggest Toomey fan right now because the senator has, so far, not endorsed Trump for president.

The way Laukhuff sees it, it's a matter of principle.

"I think he should have had the guts," he said. "He'll probably go in the polls and vote for Trump. But he's too much of a coward to endorse Trump."

However, it may be a little more complicated than that.

Trump's candidacy has put Toomey in a tricky position. Elected in 2010, the junior senator has a reputation as a pragmatic fiscal conservative. He's worked across the aisle several times, most notably on the failed 2013 firearms background check bill. He tends to appeal to moderates.

Trump's base, on the other hand, lies in the farthest right wing of his party according to pollster and Muhlenberg College professor Chris Borick.

"They have very different worldviews on lots of issues," Borick said. "And just to be able to completely align was going to be a big challenge."

More importantly, Trump's appeal may ultimately be a detriment in Pennsylvania.

Traditionally, the commonwealth vote breaks down in a predictable way--Philadelphia and Pittsburgh go to the Democrats, and the GOP takes the rural areas in between. The pivotal swing areas are the Philadelphia suburbs. They're inhabited largely by college educated, moderate voters, and Trump has been polling badly there.

Borick said that doesn't bode well for Toomey's re-election bid.

"If Donald trump loses Pennsylvania by five, six, seven points, that might be enough drag to pull Pat Toomey under with him," he said. "And that's the dilemma for Toomey. On one hand he needs Trump to succeed, but he also wants to have some distance if he is to succeed where Trump might fail."

So, what's a moderate conservative like the senator to do?

Toomey himself has staked out his position clearly.

"I think it's very important to Pennsylvanians that their Senator be an independent voice," he said in a recent address. "And sometimes that means disagreeing with your own party. I have consistently demonstrated I am willing to do that when I think my party, or my party's leadership, is wrong."

For months now, Toomey has been walking a fine line between aligning himself with Trump, and keeping a safe distance. But he hasn't endorsed him.

That non-committal stance on the party's presidential nominee isn't a common strategy. Borick said down-ballot candidates almost always tie themselves with their party's presidential candidate during general election years--and with good reason.

"It's the standard. And quite often they pair their races together as a way of unifying resources," he said

However, Borick noted the distance can also be helpful--particularly when Trump makes one of his more controversial statements.

"If he did come out and say look, he's my nominee and I have to rally around him as a good Republican, you immediately link yourself to all things Trump," he said.

And Toomey has certainly taken advantage of not being linked to the GOP nominee

"When he said we should have a ban on Muslims, I immediately stood up and said no, that's not how America works," Toomey said. "We don't ban people from this country based on their religion. We should do background checks. We should make sure we've checked security risks. But we don't have a religion test."

Despite his tenuous position, Toomey has the kind of backing from the state GOP that any candidate can expect.

Vice chair of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, Joyce Haas, for one, frequently MCs Trump events and nearly always works in a Toomey endorsement.

At the end of the day, Borick said that it is likely Toomey's lack of enthusiasm about Trump won't hurt him too much among conservatives, even if they don't like the decision.

At the Trump rally, Jack Laukhuff expressed as much.

"I will vote for him, but I'll vote for him reluctantly," he said.

Whether Toomey's tightrope act will pay off among moderates is still unclear. But if recent polls are to be believed, it just might.

While Trump trails in Pennsylvania, Toomey's numbers are, on the whole, holding steady. He's virtually tied with McGinty in an average of the latest state polls.

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