What’s Pat Toomey Hiding From?
It’s early April, and Pat Toomey is hosting a town hall.
Well, that’s not quite true. It’s a telephone town hall — a glorified conference call. “Thank you very much for taking the time to join,” the Republican senator says to the nearly 10,000 people on the other end of the line. “It’s a great way for me to stay in touch with many, many constituents when I have to be here in Washington.” Then Toomey gets meta and makes a rousing defense of his record on, of all things, holding town halls. “We’ve done over 60 town halls” — during his six years in office — “14 in person, and this is now our 49th telephone town hall.”
In 2016, these stats would have put the average Joe into a coma. But in 2017, they’re whipping many ordinary Pennsylvanians into a frothy rage. Across the country, voters distraught at the election of President Donald Trump have swarmed in-person town halls held by Republican members of Congress. The live events, which often go viral, have featured angry constituents testifying that their lives would be utterly flattened by GOP proposals. They were credited with helping to spook Republicans into abandoning their own health-care bill in March. Activists have been pressuring Toomey to schedule a real-deal town hall since he won reelection to a second term in November, pointing out that his last one was in 2015 (and that he hasn’t done any in Philadelphia). So far, he’s refused.
The first question for Toomey comes from Jane: “When and where will you be hosting a face-to-face event?” Toomey politely repeats his town-hall talking points and adds noncommittally, “I’m sure we’ll get to an in-person town hall.” Maureen is up next. She asks her question via Facebook, so Toomey reads it aloud, but her frustration still seeps through. “Would you agree that no Supreme Court nominee should be considered during an election year? Or do you only feel that way when there’s a Democrat as president?” It’s a “fair question,” Toomey concedes. But “when you’re in the middle of a contentious presidential election … probably makes sense to let the American people make that decision.”
Each question is more livid than the last. “Please tell us on which issues you plan to stand up for your constituents and go against the Trump administration,” demands Erin from Lancaster. “What do you plan to do to stop all of this deregulation and tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy?” asks Sandra from Lansdale. The comments bubbling up on Facebook are even worse: “Shame on you!” “You’re trash.” “Hiding behind a phone line again, Absent Pat Toomey?”
Toomey’s responses are always diplomatic, intellectual, and surprisingly frank for a politician. “We do have a fundamentally different opinion about how you generate strong economic growth, more jobs and higher wages,” he tells Sandra in his characteristic monotone. “I don’t think you can get there by raising taxes and increasing regulations.”
This is classic Toomey. During the 50-minute call, he never once explicitly panders to voters or wades into the paranoid swamps where right-wing radio hosts often swim.
In the past, Toomey’s mild-mannered style won him enormous praise from two unlikely sources: Democrats and the media. During Toomey’s first term in the Senate, Ed Rendell called him “a man of uncommon decency.” President Barack Obama said Toomey showed “courage” by co-sponsoring a bill to expand background checks on gun sales. Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun safety organization founded by Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic Congresswoman who was shot in 2011, endorsed Toomey for reelection. Meanwhile, this magazine published an in-depth profile headlined “Pat Toomey is Surprisingly Moderate”; Philly.com asked if Toomey was “the new Arlen Specter.” And in its 2016 endorsement, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette went so far as to say that voting for Toomey, a “sensible” and “moderate” Republican, was a way to combat the “rank partisanship” in Washington.
The idea of Toomey as the Last Reasonable Republican has been key to his success: During his 2016 reelection campaign, he aired TV spots in Philadelphia’s suburbs featuring the aforementioned kind words from Obama and Rendell. He pledged not to be a rubber stamp for Trump.
If Trump weren’t president today, Toomey’s second Senate term would likely be as celebrated as his first. But much to the chagrin of 66 million Americans, Donald Trump is in the White House — and suddenly, liberals and journalists have nothing nice to say about Toomey. Since January, he has received almost entirely bad press. Much has centered on “Tuesdays with Toomey,” a group founded by local women who met on a private Facebook page for Hillary Clinton fans. Every Tuesday since November, they’ve gathered for hours at Toomey’s Philadelphia office, waving signs — one read WHERE’S TOOMEY, with photoshopped pictures of him in Waldo’s red-and-white hat. Toomey’s refusal to acquiesce to their demands for a town hall has led to headlines like “Sen. Cowardly” and “New App Launches Because Sen. Pat Toomey Won’t Talk to Constituents.” Meanwhile, data-crunching website FiveThirtyEight notes that Toomey has so far voted with Trump 97.5 percent of the time.
Toomey spent years building a brand as a gutsy, levelheaded conservative unbeholden to party leaders. Is the Trump presidency blowing it all to pieces?
Six years ago, Pat Toomey ever so carefully laid out a plan.
The former Allentown Congressman and Wall Street trader had just ridden into the Senate on the Tea Party wave of 2010, defeating Democrat Joe Sestak by a splinter’s margin. Toomey was known as a rigid ideologue back then: In 2005, he had taken the reins at the Club for Growth, an anti-tax organization that raises money to purge centrist Republicans from Congress and replace them with hardliners. A year before that, he’d challenged moderate Arlen Specter in the GOP primary, dinging him as a “liberal” more likely to side with Ted Kennedy than with conservatives.
Toomey’s conservative orthodoxy had done the job in the 2010 midterms. But some Republican strategists worried that it wouldn’t fly in 2016. Too many people saw Toomey as a right-wing “caricature,” remembers Mark Harris, his longtime campaign guru. Besides, there are 900,000 more registered Democrats in Pennsylvania than Republicans. “We were acutely aware from day one that the 2016 campaign would be difficult and close,” Harris says. So in early 2011, Toomey, a pencil-thin 55-year-old with eyes that look perpetually wide open, huddled with Harris at the Ronald Reagan Republican Center in Washington, D.C. There, they began to develop a strategy: Toomey would win a second term by showing that he’s a courteous, thoughtful politician willing to work across the aisle. In other words, the opposite of a carnival barker like Rush Limbaugh.
Seven months after that meeting, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell tapped Toomey to sit on the so-called “super committee,” a bipartisan panel charged with hunting down more than $1 trillion in cuts to the federal deficit. The Hill called Toomey the “Tea Party voice” in the group. But Toomey used the opportunity to distance himself from his uncompromising persona. He proposed a deal: Republicans would close $300 billion in tax loopholes if Democrats made some drastic budget cuts. (In the end, neither side agreed to do any such thing.) Toomey broke from the Republican ranks again in 2013, introducing a gun control bill with Democrat Joe Manchin. That, too, failed, but Toomey became synonymous with the legislation anyway. SNL even did a skit on it. Later, Toomey received more good press for legislation cracking down on sexual predators.
Interestingly, most of the bills that have enshrined Toomey’s image as a moderate have been either pipe dreams or chip shots. And Toomey’s overall voting record has been as conservative as a Gadsden flag sticker on an F-150. Since first winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1999, Toomey has received high marks from such litmus testers on the right as the National Taxpayers Union, the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste and the American Conservative Union. He’s also done things that would make any other Republican look nakedly partisan: He voted against a bill averting a government shutdown, for instance, and strongly opposed giving Obama SCOTUS pick Merrick Garland a hearing. But those stories didn’t make waves.
Instead, the Toomey-as-moderate narrative emerged. This drove Democratic political strategists like J.J. Balaban crazy: “He is on record being one of the 10 most conservative senators. And there’s a good argument to be made that if Washington is broken, the Club for Growth is clearly one of the organizations that broke it. When you’re a moderate Republican who works with Democrats, they’re going to find someone and run against you in the primary.”
By the time the stranger-than-fiction 2016 election rolled around, Toomey’s brand-new image as an independent politician was especially helpful. He used it to put a football field between himself and his party’s incendiary nominee. In a TV ad, Toomey promised not to be Trump’s lackey: “I have a lot of disagreements with Donald Trump. … What’s important for Pennsylvanians is having a senator who will stand up to any president’s bad ideas.” Toomey’s advertised intrepidness only went so far, though: During the campaign, he refused to say whether he would vote for Trump, even after the Access Hollywood tape came out and Toomey slammed Trump’s comments as “outrageous and unacceptable.” It wasn’t until 7 p.m. on Election Day that Toomey finally admitted he’d cast his ballot for Trump.
In the end, Toomey’s gambit worked: He defeated his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, by 86,690 votes. That wouldn’t have been possible without ticket-splitters from Southeastern Pennsylvania: He outperformed Trump in the left-leaning area by nearly 80,000 votes.
“I think Toomey-Manchin, sanctuary cities, his work on child predators — all of those issues matter in us building a narrative so people flip their ticket,” says Harris. Republican consultant John Brabender says Toomey had a “relationship” with moderate women in the Philly suburbs in particular.
So it’s ironic that Toomey is now dealing with dozens of middle-aged ladies hollering outside his Philly office every week.
If Toomey had done a better job on old-fashioned constituent services, he might not have that problem. At least, that’s how the Tuesdays with Toomey origin story goes. Angela York Crane, a 55-year-old co-founder, says the group started when several women complained on social media that they always got a busy signal — or worse — when they called Toomey’s office: “A polite, interested staffer would have done wonders. … Instead, we got staffers who were rude; oftentimes you couldn’t get through.”
In the beginning, York Crane never expected to talk to Toomey. To this day, she calls herself a “reluctant political activist.” She simply wanted reassurance that Toomey would keep his campaign promise to stand up to Trump: “Even if you’re a Republican, why would it be so hard to come out and make a comment at least saying, ‘I understand your concerns about a former editor of Breitbart in the White House’?”
In her view, Toomey never offered any such solace. So on a fateful Tuesday, York Crane and other Pantsuit Nation members decided to make their presence known at the senator’s downtown office. “We went down [again] the next Tuesday, and it just kind of took off from that.”
Today, there are Tuesdays with Toomey chapters in Philadelphia, Scranton, Allentown, Johnstown, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. A Google News search on the activists yields more than 400 hits. As they’ve grown in number, so have their demands: There’s that pesky town hall they want. They’ve also tried to push Toomey to the left on policy issues. Over the winter, when the Senate was considering Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, Philly costume designer Katherine Fritz raised more than $60,100 on a GoFundMe account in hopes of “buying” Toomey’s vote. The real point, of course, was to portray Toomey as beholden to party donors: Fritz’s goal was based on the amount DeVos and her family had contributed to Toomey’s campaign.
York Crane says her goal is to “expose” the real Toomey: “He presents himself as an old-school gentleman Republican. … I grew up in a Republican family. I grew up in Kansas. We’re talking Bob Dole. Can you see Bob Dole voting for Jeff Sessions?”
On an unusually warm day in mid-April, Toomey stands behind a podium at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He’s wearing a gray suit and a red tie that can both be described as, well, nondescript. A few hours ago, Toomey met privately with members of Scranton’s Tuesdays with Toomey group. None of the drama of that event is visible on Toomey’s face, though. He looks, as always, completely calm.
Toomey tells the 20-some Vietnam veterans in the room that he recently introduced a bill with Democrat Joe Donnelly — signed into law this spring — to make March 29th National Vietnam War Veterans Day. “I think we all know that when our Vietnam War veterans returned to this country, in many cases they were not shown the appreciation and respect that they deserved,” he says, to words of affirmation from the crowd. “And I discovered that there was nothing at all in federal law to recognize the service of Vietnam veterans. I was disturbed by that.” Then he thanks the vets, one by one, and presses a commendation pin into each one’s hand.
Toomey’s advisers don’t want me here. When I first requested an interview with the senator, they turned me down. Then I told them I had to turn in a story with or without him, and they agreed to a 10-minute Q&A — way at the top of the state.
I ask Toomey how the meeting with the activists went. “Well, from my point of view, I thought it was a constructive conversation,” he says genteelly. Will he hold a town hall in the city? “I’m sure at some point I’ll have a town hall in Philadelphia,” he says for probably the hundredth time this year. Has he kept his promise to stand up to Trump? “Yes. When the President has said and done things I’ve disagreed with, I’ve spoken out about it. I thought that his initial travel restrictions were ill- conceived, and I said so publicly. There’s been some discussion about him imposing a tax on American consumers — on products that originate overseas. I’ve been critical of that.”
I ask Toomey to rate the President’s first few months in office. His answer shows how talented he is as a politician — and why, in a world full of conservatives like Devin Nunes and Sean Hannity, he may still succeed at selling himself as an independent. “I think it’s been mixed,” Toomey says. “Some of the high points would be the national security people in his cabinet. I feel very good about General Mattis and McMaster and Rex Tillerson. It appears to me, at this point, that the President is listening to those guys. I think that is very, very good. I think it’s terrific we confirmed Neil Gorsuch, because I think he will be a fantastic Supreme Court justice. That was the President’s pick, and it was a great pick. … On the other hand, there have been some failures of communication. There’s been probably a few more tweets than we really need.”
In a media environment in which Trump can be heralded as “presidential” for merely reading off a teleprompter without slipping into a racist tirade, Toomey will likely continue to receive praise for his sober personality. More than ever, the press seems willing to let a politician’s tone overshadow all else. Charlie Gerow, a GOP political consultant, expects Toomey to play a major role in shaping the Republicans’ tax reform plan. That would give him more credibility in the public sphere as a serious policy thinker and dealmaker. If Toomey simultaneously becomes a leading voice against Trump’s tariff proposal, he could end up occupying a space in the national imagination alongside senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have been exalted as independent for raising concerns about Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. Gerow even believes Toomey will one day be bandied about as a potential presidential nominee. As for activists’ plan to push Toomey to the left, he says, “It’s not going to happen.” He’s not too worried about them in general: “You have to be concerned about getting votes that are gettable.”
But the senator does face a serious challenge in the Trump years ahead: If Toomey wants to hold on to his legacy, let alone be reelected in 2022, he needs to prove to suburban moderates that he’s the courageous free thinker he said he’d be during the campaign. At the same time, he can’t alienate the Trump diehards in his base.
Can he do all that if he keeps voting in lockstep with Trump? Or will his image curdle into the conservative caricature he’s worked so hard to avoid? Hell, wasn’t Toomey’s reputation as “decent” tarnished when he refused to say if he would vote for Trump? Weaseling out of tough decisions is the hallmark of a more typical politician. Speaking of typical pols, nearly every Republican senatorial candidate except Toomey took a stand on Trump in 2016 — and in 2017, everyone from Mitch McConnell to Jason Chaffetz has held in-person town halls. Can Toomey really market himself as brave when the guy who may mysteriously resign from Congress faced constituents before he did?
Toomey will never develop the reputation of a Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who infamously compared gay marriage to bestiality. Toomey isn’t a bomb-thrower like that. But if he’s not careful, he might suffer a similar fate: Santorum lost reelection in 2006 as President George W. Bush’s approval ratings slid to the 30s. Might. The year 2022 is a long way off.
A few weeks after I interview Toomey, he tweets about gay men being persecuted in Chechnya: “Russia needs to stop horrendous #humanrights violations and ‘honor killings’ against gay men in #Chechnya.”
Some Toomey skeptics are pleasantly surprised: “Wow @SenToomey. We agree on something. This is a start. Hold a town hall so we can discuss more topics.” But others see it as nothing more than posturing: “What are you doing about it except trying for more good PR?”
Follow @HollyOtterbein on Twitter.
Published as “What’s Pat Toomey Hiding From?” in the June 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.