Senator Toomey has an unexpected challenge.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

How Republicans Could Lose Twice in Pennsylvania

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Senator Pat Toomey should be coasting to another term in Pennsylvania, which rarely throws out an incumbent. The state, which has a sizable population of older voters, likes its politicians familiar, its funnel cakes deep-fried and its coffee burnt. Only once in 40 years has a governor failed to win re-election.

But this could be an out-of-character year. Toomey's Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, is a first-time national candidate in a swing state, yet polls show her consistently ahead of the Republican incumbent.

What’s pulling down Toomey is what’s hampering Republicans in other swing states: Donald Trump. Nationwide, the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is polling about five points ahead of her Republican rival, but in places such as Pennsylvania the gap in her favor is nine points or more. Trump boasted that he would win the Keystone State if not for “cheating,” even though Pennsylvania’s voter ID law was overturned when proponents were unable to present one case of fraud to the court.

Having Trump at the top of the ballot puts Toomey in a bind: He can either cast off the party's standard-bearer or stick with him and likely go down with him. Toomey doesn’t want to alienate the white, male voters in formerly Democratic hard-hit industrial towns who are grateful that Trump is feeling their pain, or at least channeling it. But he needs to woo independents and moderate Republicans in the suburbs around Philadelphia, which have more voters than Philadelphia and Pittsburgh combined.  

Even if Trump successfully pivots -- a bland term for desperately turning against what you had been for -- the candidate's unacceptable taint remains. His thin skin and hot head, his demeaning of anyone who dares to disagree with him from the grieving Muslim-American Gold Star parents to a disabled reporter, his willful ignorance about governing, and arrogance that he knows more than the generals can’t be wished away. Just ask about Trump in a Pittsburgh suburb and the answer is no, or never, or worse.

Toomey, a former banker, was elected to the House in 1999 preaching term limits. He fudged on a promise to quit after three terms by running for the Senate in 2004. He lost, won in 2010, and has followed a right-of-center course since.  

His low-key demeanor belies the extremity of his views. He is pro-life with rare exceptions, favors upper-income tax cuts, is pro-fossil fuels and against gay marriage. He was the top free trade proponent in the Senate (formerly president of the Club for Growth) He did an Olympic-level flip-flop when he got so worried about losing that he abandoned his ardent support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

McGinty is the opposite of low-key: personable, energetic, and given to bright colors and big hugs. Toomey has tried to to drag her down by dwelling on Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket, but despite e-mails and the foundation, he hasn't gotten much traction. McGinty served as the top environmental adviser to President Bill Clinton, in the cabinet of former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and as chief of staff to the current governor, Tom Wolf. She is the mom next door, one of 10 children of a restaurant worker and cop who walked the beat in Northeast Philly. She attended St. Joseph’s College on a scholarship, is pro-choice, pro-clean air, in favor of raising the minimum wage, and protecting Social Security.  

The Democratic candidate is an advocate for dealing with climate change, while Toomey doesn’t believe the phenomenon is caused by human activity and isn’t rushing to do anything about it.

Toomey’s campaign trope is a “bus tour” (technically an RV) that will take him to every county in the state. On Aug. 18, he knocked off two, speaking at a VFW hall in Pittsburgh (Allegheny County) and then appearing two hours away in bucolic Greensburg (Westmoreland). In pressed khakis and checkered Oxford shirt, Toomey is mild-mannered, like the neighbor happy to lend you his hedge clippers and forgive you for not bringing them back. He opens with a line about how McGinty began her career as an adviser to Vice President Al Gore, which always gets a laugh. He goes on to hold her responsible for Wolf’s tax increase.

He doesn’t go after immigration with Trump’s enthusiasm but spends an inordinate amount of time condemning sanctuary cities, which he says allow the undocumented to hide and commit crimes (Philadelphia is one) and points to the legislation he has introduced to halt the practice. Like Trump, he’s for repealing Obamacare.  

This is McGinty's first Senate campaign and she has made some rookie mistakes. She forgot the fact that even friendly audiences tape remarks (in one instance, at the Democratic National Convention, she smudged her Catholic school girl image by calling her opponent an unprintable name). But mostly, she’s a happy warrior who’s kept a trace of her working-class roots and honors those like her family who practice a trade. She talks movingly about the opportunity she got to go to college in a way that young people today can’t  in a state with the third-highest rate of student debt in the country.

When she calls Toomey's stance on guns shameful, she smiles. In a state that contains both deer-hunters, who favor no new laws, and suburbanites, who want tougher ones, it’s hard to thread the needle. With an eye on the latter, Toomey co-sponsored a bill to strengthen background checks after the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook in Connecticut, but he’s since voted with the National Rifle Association to block laws that would ban assault weapons, large ammunition clips and deny guns to those on the terrorist watch list. He voted in favor of a Republican compromise bill, which was opposed by the NRA but failed to pass. The Senate Majority PAC has begun a $1 million ad buy that shows Toomey at a small event in July saying that he has a “perfect record” with the NRA.

In McGinty, Toomey’s facing a candidate tailor-made for the New Pennsylvania. After his talk in Greensburg, the Republican grimaced at the inevitable question about the man hovering over his re-electon bid. “I like some things Trump’s done -- his Supreme Court picks, Mike Pence," he said, adding that he had some “real concerns” nonetheless. In other words, he’s playing the undecided card as if the jury is out on Trump’s worthiness to be president. That tactic will only succeed if he believes the old Pennsylvania can pull him across the finish line.

(Adds reference to Toomey's vote for a gun-control measure in 13th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net