What Pat Toomey's bipartisan work on background checks could mean for him
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey's efforts to find a compromise with gun control may have failed, but the Republican has endeared himself to moderates on the right and left.
April 21, 2013 8:00 AM
Sen. Pat Toomey checks his schedule outside the Senate chambers in February.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Sen. Toomey walks up an escalator as he makes his way to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill.
By Tracie Mauriello and Kate Giammarise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON -- The Senate's rejection of a plan to expand background checks for gun purchasers was a public policy failure but not necessarily a political one for Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who bucked his party to sponsor the legislation.
The first-term Republican's attempts to bridge the policy gap endeared him to moderates and Democrats even as it alienated him from conservatives who now are angry, disappointed and pledging to hasten his ouster at re-election time in 2016.
President Barack Obama thanked Mr. Toomey for his courage in sponsoring the controversial background checks bill, which failed Wednesday to get the needed 60 votes in the Senate.
Even the head of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party had unusual praise for him. But at the other end of the political spectrum, some once-loyal supporters abruptly turned their backs on the senator because they saw his legislation as an infringement on the right to bear arms.
Minutes after votes were cast Wednesday, Mr. Toomey's Facebook page began filling with angry comments that now number in the hundreds.
"We want you to move on senator, right out of Washington, and my family will do their best to ensure that happens at the next election," wrote one woman.
A man wrote, "So many conservatives believe you've betrayed us. Now you have to earn our trust again," while another wrote, "My regret is voting for you. I will not make that mistake again."
Interspersed were a few messages like this one from a retired teacher: "Thanks for trying. You have won new support, Senator Toomey."
Most commentators, though, were like Jack McIndoe of Scottdale, who worked with members of the Fayette County Tea Party Patriots to get Mr. Toomey elected in 2010. Now Mr. McIndoe says he's working to find a solid conservative to mount a primary challenge.
"We're disgusted. There's a groundswell of distrust against him," Mr. McIndoe, 53, said in a telephone interview. "We thought Toomey was a good conservative candidate. We worked real hard for Toomey. We went door to door during the election, but now we're through with him."
At the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, a gathering of conservative activists and interest groups that had its annual meeting Friday in suburban Harrisburg, many self-described conservatives said they'll likely still vote for Mr. Toomey.
"It takes a lot of humility to come and face this group after [championing gun control legislation]," said Susan Emrich, who described herself as a "Constitutional conservative."
Ms. Emrich said that while she disagreed with the senator's stance on the issue, she respected him for to trying to explain his vote to the group.
There were a smattering of low boos when an earlier speaker, introducing the senator, mentioned the gun control issue, but most in the crowd seemed to welcome Mr. Toomey, clapping and then giving him a standing ovation as he left the stage.
Mr. Toomey still has her support, Ms. Emrich said.
"You've got to look at the broad scope of what a politician is doing" and not just one issue, she said, standing in front of a Tea Party Patriots booth, one of a number of groups represented at the right-leaning gathering.
Mr. Toomey clearly hadn't won over everyone there, however.
"He's just trying to put more citizens on another government list, which we have too many of already," said Josh Monighan, who described himself as a political activist and member of the Harrisburg Liberty Alliance.
Academics and conservative activists, though, say that sentiment will likely fade before the senator faces re-election in 2016.
"It's not going to mean much by the time he runs, but you have to wonder" what political calculations were involved, said Jim Broussard, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College.
"This is a guy who knows he only won by 100,000 votes in the best Republican year in 80 years and he's coming up again in a presidential election year knowing that his party's presidential candidate is not likely to win the state," Mr. Broussard said.
Politically, the failed vote was the best outcome, Mr. Broussard and others said.
"He gets credit from the sort of squishy suburban Republicans and the moderate Democrats for putting it forward, but the fact that it failed means it's not going to be on people's minds by the time he runs in 2016," he said.
If the legislation had passed, the resentment would linger longer, said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative group famous for its no-tax pledge.
"It didn't pan out. It didn't happen, so from a political standpoint he made some gains among moderates who worship the bipartisanship he was offering ... but he avoided all the problems that would have occurred if it had passed," Mr. Norquist said.
Still, Mr. Toomey has almost certainly sacrificed his "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. NRA officials did not respond to requests for comment about Mr. Toomey but said last week that the organization planned to target supporter of gun control during their re-election campaigns.
The gun issue may not resonate deeply with enough conservatives to make a difference for Mr. Toomey, who is running in a state where about 90 percent of voters support background checks, according to recent polls.
"I know that intensity matters and a strongly motivated opposition matters more than general public opinion, but I don't think there's much danger" for the senator three years out from re-election, pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College said in an interview last week.
Jeffrey Bosworth, professor of political science at Mansfield University, said the senator is in better shape politically than if his legislation had passed.
"The background check bill is a policy failure, but I think it's a significant political win," Mr. Bosworth said. "This makes him appear as a rational moderate willing to work across the aisle for the good of the country. In an extremely polarized political environment, he looks like a politician able to strike a compromise even if he failed to win over his own party."
Criticism from the far right, meanwhile, can actually be helpful politically because it makes him look brave for taking a position that he knows will attract criticism, he said. On the other side, the compromise makes it harder for liberals to label him an extreme right winger.
"This particular episode is good for his political career. He looked like he took a risk, but didn't; he portrayed himself as rational, and he got his name in the national news for a few cycles," Mr. Bosworth said.
The plan didn't show an abdication of conservative ideals, but an effort to stave off an even more comprehensive background check system sought by Democrats, Mr. Norquist said.
"It's a little hard to argue that he's gone and joined the other team," he said. "It's not what I would have done, but I think he can hold his head up high and say he was trying to do something responsive and respectful of people's [Second] Amendment rights."
Most constituents will see it that way come election time, but some will never come back around, he predicted.
"Some voters, when you go two degrees to the left, they take a sledgehammer to you. There are voters like that, people who are quite unhappy," Mr. Norquist said.
Speaking to his conservative base Friday, Mr. Toomey said he will continue to work with Democrats when he finds common ground with them -- though he said that isn't often.
"The hardest part about doing my job well is to do what I believe is right -- even when many of my friends and supporters don't agree with me," he said. "And that does happen from time to time. ... Honestly, it's easy to do battle with your opponents. It's easy to go to battle with the people you disagree with on almost everything. The hard part is what to do when you honestly believe your friends are mistaken and they don't think they're mistaken. That's the real challenge of public service sometimes."
Plenty of lawmakers before him have crossed party lines, incurred the wrath of their bases and emerged unscathed on Election Night.
Mr. Toomey did more than support a controversial bill, though. He brokered a high-profile deal and stumped for it in the halls of Congress and on national television.
"The closest thing I can think of to compare it to -- and it's not even close -- is the things that Ronald Reagan did that his conservative supporters didn't like," Mr. Broussard said.
As governor of California, Reagan pushed through the biggest tax increase in state history, angering his conservative base but going on to win the presidency.
Conservatives "were angry, but when the election came they measured Ronald Reagan against Walter Mondale and, naturally, they went with Ronald Reagan," Mr. Broussard said. They'll do the same in the 2016 Senate election where any Democratic opponent would almost certainly be farther to the left on gun control, he said. "They might grumble and gripe and maybe hold their noses, but they're still going to vote for him."
Mr. Toomey has said he was disappointed his proposal for background checks failed and is moving past it to work the fiscal issues where, as a former derivatives trader, he has more expertise.
"I was not able to persuade my colleagues," he said. "I lost. I get that. This issue, I think, is probably resolved for now. And I want you to know I intend to turn my attention to my usual wheelhouse."