Ten minutes into my first interview with Pat Toomey, the terrifying reality sinks in: I am in no way prepared to tangle with this guy. He’s perfectly pleasant and courteous. But that doesn’t change the fact that in his somewhat grating, nasally monotone, Toomey is taking a hatchet to my questions as well as my assumptions about him. I’d been expecting a radical. What I didn’t expect was that the radical would be so damned convincing. Yet here I am, a Philadelphia journalist raised in the liberal bubble of San Francisco, and already Pat Toomey has me grudgingly nodding in agreement. Afterward, I actually pick up a copy of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom—which he’d mentioned in an offhand kind of way, as though of course I’d read it—the better to arm myself for future conversations with the man.
That was in March 2004, long before Hayek’s free-markets-forever ideology had been popularized in viral rap videos. Back then, the prevailing Republican view on domestic policy was still the quasi-compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush, and according to the leading GOP figures of the day, “Deficits don’t matter.”
Toomey was an obscure congressman from Allentown, in the middle of what was supposed to be a hopeless primary campaign against Senator Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican whose politics had long been a perfect fit for purple Pennsylvania. The analysts agreed: Toomey was smart and disciplined (if a bit stilted on the stump), but he was just too fringe to be a threat to a super-incumbent like Specter. On election night, though, Toomey didn’t make his concession speech until 12:45 a.m. His conservative insurrection had been just over 17,000 votes short of knocking out a four-term legend.
Eight years later, the Toomey-Specter campaign is seen as a prelude to the Tea Party movement and the first big battle in a GOP civil war that has all but eliminated Republican moderates from the national stage. The campaign made Toomey a darling of the conservative intelligentsia, elevated him to the presidency of the influential anti-tax group Club For Growth, and set him up for another run for the Senate in 2010 (this one successful, after a spooked Specter switched parties and lost the primary).
Today, Toomey is the most prominent Pennsylvania Republican in Washington, D.C.—one whose credentials as a conservative are unquestioned, owing mostly to the fact that he was howling about the deficit and fiscal discipline more than a decade before the majority of his party took up the tune. There is even talk that he would make a fine vice presidential pick, the perfect choice to ease the anxiety of conservatives who worry that a onetime Massachusetts moderate like Mitt Romney might go squishy.
Toomey’s rapid ascent—from the periphery to the vanguard of the national GOP—has little to do with his own evolution. He’s changed hardly at all since 2004. He has the same alarmingly white teeth, and a lean, rigid bearing that calls to mind a retired military man. (He comes by that through temperament, not a service record.) He’s 50 years old, and the lines on his steep forehead have deepened into trenches, but otherwise Toomey is much the same. And so are his politics.
The nature of the Republican Party, though, has changed dramatically. Toomey might have been a radical by the mainstream GOP standards of 2004, but in 2012, stacked up against the likes of Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann, Toomey comes across as the most sober adult in the Republican room.
Combine that with the admirable rigor he brings to his thinking about public policy, and it’s no wonder leading Pennsylvania Democrats have come to view Toomey as a worthy adversary, and perhaps even a partner—some of the time. Ed Rendell says, “Pat Toomey has got a chance to emerge as one of the constructive conservatives who are willing to be realistic.” And Alan Kessler, one of the leading Democratic fund-raisers in the nation and a finance chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, says, “Quite frankly, we need more Pat Toomeys.”
Which means for now, Toomey is pulling off a trick that is supposed to be impossible in our poisonously partisan politics: keeping the trust of his base while winning the respect of at least some of his political opponents. And that gives him a chance to be one of the most powerful players Pennsylvania has sent to Washington in a very long time.