How Pat Toomey Became the Face of the Blue State GOP

The senator from Pennsylvania could have followed Rick Santorum. Instead, he's moving to the center on guns and gay rights.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Thursday, March 14, 2013.  (AP)

Pat Toomey will seem like an unlikely savior to gun-control advocates. The first-term senator from Pennsylvania, a state steeped in gun culture, wasn't a prominent part of the congressional negotiations when news leaked he was crafting a secret compromise with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who — unlike Toomey — had loudly inserted himself into the debate. But Toomey's agreement to expand background checks is nonetheless the last, best hope for meaningful action on gun control.

For Toomey, however, the deal-making was hardly unusual. He has diligently and delicately fashioned a reputation as a moderate Republican since running for the Senate in 2009 (he took office in 2011), frequently breaking from conservative orthodoxy on issues such as gay rights and Supreme Court nominations. As a member of the so-called super committee, he even outlined a plan to raise revenue as part of a larger budget deal.

That Toomey, of all people, would take such frequent detours toward moderation would have shocked his former opponents, especially those in the GOP. He was the proto-conservative insurgent who nearly defeated the late Sen. Arlen Specter during a 2004 primary, and he later ran the free-market Club for Growth, the foremost antagonist of fiscally moderate Republicans. Toomey embodied the tea party not only before it was cool but before it even existed.

But in office, Toomey has let Senate Republican colleagues such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee carry that banner while taking on a different role. He's become the face of blue-state Republicans, a conservative who would like to show he can win reelection in a place like Pennsylvania that leans left while still adhering to his basic principles and avoiding a costly primary. If he is successful, Toomey will have drawn a blueprint for a party trying to figure out how to win in left-of-center states.

Toomey's strategy hinges on two points: emphasis and tone. The senator, a former Wall Street banker, has left little doubt that his passion lies in fiscal, not social, conservatism. He supports restricting abortion rights but is far more likely to focus on easing regulations than on defunding Planned Parenthood. In that way, he's operating on a wholly different plane than another Keystone State GOP senator, Rick Santorum, who was famously routed in his final reelection bid in 2006.

"He's a fiscal guy who comes from banking and entrepreneurship," said Jeff Coleman, a Harrisburg-based Republican consultant and former Santorum ally. "He's not aiming to rouse the passions of values conservatives."

So when Toomey zags toward the middle, it's on cultural, not pocketbook, issues. At the end of 2010, before he took office, Toomey went out of his way to voice support for repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military. In 2009, as a Senate candidate, he backed the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court (although he later opposed Elena Kagan's nomination).

Now he's crafted a compromise on guns, an issue of particular sensitivity in the populous, left-leaning suburbs of Philadelphia. "I think this is a perfect issue for him to find some more-moderate ground to stand on," said Chris Borick, a political-science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.

Avoiding a reputation as a cultural warrior is about tone, and here Toomey treads cautiously. He's not a rhetorical bomb-thrower in the Santorum mold, preferring evenhanded statements over incendiary comments. Those close to him say that although this moderation is politically helpful, it's also just who he is. "Senator Toomey, I think, recognizes the commonwealth is a state made up of folks with a lot of different opinions, and he is a smart guy who sees a lot of different sides of one issue," said David Urban, a former Specter chief of staff who informally advises the senator. "He doesn't just see the black and the white — he sees the gray and all the in-between. I don't think he is reactionary in any way."

The irony is that, on fiscal issues, Toomey is more conservative than Santorum, who — as far as Republicans go — was relatively union-friendly. Even as he is bent on social issues, Toomey remains reliably hawkish on the business side. The Club for Growth, the interest group he used to run, gave him a 93 percent score in 2012, good for sixth best in the Senate.

His convictions run deep: In his 2009 book, The Road to Prosperity, Toomey wrote that government intervention not only didn't save the country from the Great Depression, it caused the crash of 1929 and prolonged the economic misery felt for the next decade.

It's why despite Toomey's moonlighting as a moderate, Democrats in Pennsylvania remain confident that under the scrutiny of a campaign — and millions of dollars in TV advertisements — voters will send the Republican packing in 2016. "If they think not being a snarling nut job is going to impact how voters view him after $30 million in TV ads, they're wrong," said Dan Fee, a Democratic consultant and former aide to ex-Gov. Ed Rendell. There will be no shortage of potential challengers waiting to take him on. At the same time, Toomey's gun-control compromise could yet provoke a reaction on the right, making the once-insurgent candidate himself vulnerable to a primary challenge. Such is the difficult line a Republican must walk in Pennsylvania. So far, Toomey has kept his balance.