Fiscal hawk Toomey faces tougher crowd in re-election bid
YORK — This isn’t in any of Pat Toomey’s TV ads: The Republican U.S. senator’s voting record is one of Congress’ most conservative.
His re-election — and whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate — could hinge on Toomey’s ability to defend his voting record in a tight race in Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania against Democrat Katie McGinty.
For Toomey, defending that voting record is tricky in a presidential election year when the electorate is expected to be more liberal than it was when he won Arlen Specter’s seat amid 2010’s Republican wave. That year, Toomey squeaked through the midterm election by 2 percentage points while campaigning aggressively against President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and the recessionary bailouts of states, automakers and investment banks.
This year, Toomey’s fiscal hawkishness is blended into a palette of bipartisan pursuits or hard-edged national security positions.
Toomey disagrees that his voting record hurts him in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 3.
“We have a lot of folks who are culturally conservative, there are a lot of registered Democrats who have supported me in the past and will support me this time,” Toomey said in an interview. “I think people recognize that I’m a conservative. I’m also a guy who is willing to make progress and look for common ground, so I think my voting record serves me very well.”
Toomey is fiercely anti-tax and anti-regulation, and a stalwart proponent of free markets and smaller government.
Ratings by groups including the American Conservative Union and the Club for Growth, the take-no-prisoners free-markets advocacy group Toomey used to head, make Toomey one of the Senate’s most conservative members and one of Pennsylvania’s most conservative members of Congress.
He is popular with several well-financed national groups, including the network steered by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, that have plunked down more than $15 million to help Toomey.
“He’s solid on trade, he’s solid on dealing with the fiscal issues,” said Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president for government affairs. “He’s our guy from the state of Pennsylvania.”
Toomey has battled tougher power plant and banking regulations, voted to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood and opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage, positions that could hurt him with the moderate voters he badly needs to win.
It also has provided fodder for Democrats and party allies. McGinty summed up Toomey in one recent TV ad as fighting for “big banks, Wall Street, special interests.”
When he does discuss it on the campaign trail, Toomey frames his fiscal conservatism as a populist fight against higher middle-class taxes, wasteful spending, corporate welfare and burdensome regulations that kill economic opportunities for average Americans. McGinty and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, he contends, would perpetuate it.
Meanwhile, Toomey, a Harvard-educated policy wonk and former investment banker, has spent considerable time touting bipartisan efforts, such as preventing suspected child molesters from working in schools, or red-meat security issues, such as ending immigrant sanctuary cities.
There are also his breaks from GOP orthodoxy: Voting for universal background checks on firearms purchases and distancing himself from his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
But a prominent feature of Toomey’s six years in the Senate includes votes to slash federal spending, advance international trade deals, repeal Obama’s health care law and convert Medicare into a subsidy-based insurance option, labeled by Democrats as ending Medicare “as we know it.”
In some cases, Toomey has gone farther than many Republican colleagues.
In 2013, he opposed a deal to raise the nation’s borrowing limit and end the federal government’s 16-day shutdown. Most Pennsylvania Republicans in Congress and most Republican senators supported it.
In 2012, he offered a budget blueprint to cut federal spending from 20 percent of GDP to 18 percent, cap Medicaid spending and slash tax rates and deductions.
The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the plan would “protect and extend tax cuts that disproportionately benefit higher-income Americans, while reducing deficits through steep cuts in programs that benefit average citizens and people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.”
In his floor speech introducing it, Toomey warned of a mounting national debt and stagnating economy, and pitched the plan as the way to address “the single most pressing problem facing our country today, restoring a fiscally viable path that allows us to have strong economic growth.”
It failed, 42-57, opposed by every Democrat and four Republicans.