Toomey renews quest to unseat Specter


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For once, says Pat Toomey, the political planets and stars have aligned in a year of protest brushfires he thinks could yet send him to the U.S. Senate seat deprived him six years ago.

The then-and-now of the quest to unseat Arlen Specter is a study in political tectonics.

"Obviously, it's a profoundly different race. It's a different environment," said Mr. Toomey, who gave up a seat in Congress to chase Mr. Specter in the 2006 Republican primary. Mr. Toomey narrowly lost amid a last-minute gush of spending by Mr. Specter, who enjoyed the backing of the Republican establishment.

Today, Mr. Toomey, a youthful 48, conservative Republican, has a seemingly clear field -- to say nothing of the backing of the same Republican establishment that Mr. Specter abandoned last year when he changed sides and became the Senate's newest Democrat.

Polls have suggested that a Specter-Toomey rematch in the general election would be a statistical dead heat. In fact, Mr. Specter must fight his way through a Democratic primary. Where Mr. Toomey once attacked from the right, Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak is charging at Mr. Specter from the middle-left.

Either way that primary turns out, Mr. Toomey gives little indication that there will be any fine-tuning of his political creed. In his three terms in Congress -- which ended when he kept a first-term pledge to serve only six consecutive years -- he has been almost monochromatic in his views. He is a socially conservative free-marketeer whose abiding desire is to slash spending wherever he finds it. Period.

Not so, he said, with Democrats seeking the nomination. Republican primary opponent Peg Luksik of Johnstown is a strong anti-abortion candidate.

"(The Democrats) both supported all the bailouts of the failing banks and car companies. They both supported government takeover of health care, they both supported cap and trade, which would be devastating for our economy, they both supported card check, which would deny workers a secret ballot," Mr. Toomey said.

Cap and trade, designed to essentially penalize companies for carbon emissions, is likely to become a campaign issue in Pennsylvania's coal-rich west. Card-check, more conventionally known as the Employee Free Choice Act, would ease the way for work forces to unionize based on a majority of employees signing cards endorsing a union, foregoing often contentious and, so say many organizers, intimidating election fights financed by union-resistant companies.

Health care reform -- what Mr. Toomey calls the "government takeover of health care" -- is likely to be an issue in his childhood home in East Providence, R.I., where his father, the elder Patrick Toomey, resides. The elder Toomey, said his son, supported health care reform.

"My father's the man in the world that I admire the most, but we just don't agree on politics," said Mr. Toomey.

Mr. Toomey's political singularity has long stood out, among fellow Republicans and in his own family. He was the third of six children born to an electrical lineman. The elder Toomey was, and from all accounts remains, a New Deal Democrat.

Young Patrick Toomey was a precocious student, winning a scholarship to LaSalle Academy, a private, Catholic school where he excelled and won admission to Harvard University.

It was at Harvard where Mr. Toomey received his political awakening. Fitting in neither with the wealthy, upper-class blue bloods who attended as a birthright, nor the earnestly fashionable left that fit into Harvard Square's bustle, Mr. Toomey found himself a Reagan conservative.

"I didn't just walk into Harvard carrying those views," he said. The change came as he watched Ronald Reagan take power in a Washington paralyzed by malaise and inflation, remaking the political map and, in the process, realigning much of American politics.

The so-called Reagan Democrats began to emerge at the same time the nation's industrial base withered and new businesses and new business models emerged.

Among them was the financial services sector, and it was there that Patrick Toomey first established himself.

He began as an investment banker with New York-based Chemical Bank before moving on to a vice president's title, and paycheck, at another investment firm.

Mr. Toomey became an expert at currency rate "swaps," a tricky system by which international businesses hedged their financial risks.

But a year in Hong Kong left him looking for a return to the United States. Unwilling to go back to Manhattan, he connected with two of his brothers and the trio mapped out a strategy to open a restaurant-discotheque. As businessmen will do, they researched the market for openings.

Up came Allentown, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.

It was there that the Toomey brothers opened the first of what would become a series of restaurants. Pat joined the local Chamber of Commerce and began connecting with people like Kim Snyder.

The pairing would have seemed unlikely. By then, Mr. Toomey was a foursquare opponent of government spending. Mr. Snyder was sent to town to run a local contracting firm that specialized in public road contracts.

"I just clicked with the guy," said Mr. Snyder. "He's just so strong a man of principle and character. He's just a good guy. He's very smart. He's very intellectual. But he's a very warm individual. He's warm, he's got a good sense of humor. He has a lot of humanity."

He also had an ambition. When Paul McHale, a moderate Democrat who represented the 15th Congressional District, decided to retire, Mr. Toomey, who had previously been elected to the local planning board, decided to run for Congress.

The district is largely Democratic in registration by an edge roughly the same as the Democrat-to-Republican ratio statewide.

He continued to hold onto that seat with widening victory margins in the two subsequent elections.

That success in running against the political tide in his district is explained, said one Toomey friend, by strength of personality. People like Pat Toomey despite politics, said Dave Zinczenko, an executive with Rodale Press.

"What's cool about Pat is that he doesn't have that typical politician career arc," said Mr. Zinczenko. "You admire Pat because he's a great friend, he's a hard worker, he's a great family man."

That voter enthusiasm did not always extend to the House Republican leadership, which often found itself at odds with the conservative member over his sometimes intractable stand on federal spending bills.

"I thought Republicans were spending too much money, that earmarks were being abused, were extremely excessive," Mr. Toomey said. "When I felt it was necessary, I would go down to the House floor and try to rein in those excesses and that would sometimes cause problems with my fellow Republicans."

His fiscal conservatism was not always matched by social conservatism, Mr. Toomey acknowledged.

He changed views on abortion during his first term, a transformation he regards as natural after marrying during his campaign and later having children.

"I've been very upfront about this," he said. "While I was serving in Congress around my first term, my views on abortion changed. They changed in the sense that when I first ran I was not comfortable with a prohibition on abortion in the first trimester."

That switch, from the standard first set by Roe v. Wade to a call for an outright ban except for cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother, played well with conservative Republicans disaffected by Mr. Specter, a longstanding abortion rights advocate.

Mr. Toomey ran with the backing of the conservative Club for Growth, and generated statewide buzz that failed to carry him through in the primary battle.

"The vast majority of people didn't think I had a chance of beating him," Mr. Toomey said. "The conventional wisdom was that my prospects were very, very slim.

This week, one poll suggested Mr. Toomey might hold a slight lead over Mr. Specter -- who is now facing his own primary contest.

Moreover, Mr. Toomey now enjoys a new, if somewhat inchoate, ally in the form of an angry mob. The tea party movement, a nebulous assortment of angry conservatives unhappy with everything from federal taxes to the health care reform bill, is now regarded as fertile ground for conservative candidates.

Even Republicans from the party's center, such as gubernatorial hopeful Tom Corbett, have begun to turn out at tea party events.

"There's a tremendous energy and passion and it's ordinary Americans," said Mr. Toomey. "They see a government that is spinning out of control in Washington, bailing out failing companies, spending on a staggering level we will be unable to maintain."

Should that mood hold fast, Mr. Toomey is hoping that what conventional intra-party politics was unable to do for him six years ago, a growing number of disaffected citizens will do for him this time.


Dennis B. Roddy: droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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