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.