Pat Toomey's Tilt Toward Middle Angers Conservative Base

The junior senator from Pennsylvania's doomed effort to broker a gun-control compromise on background checks provoked anger among fellow Republicans, who called him an enemy of the Second Amendment and a traitor to the conservative cause. The heat was so searing, in fact, that an attempt at humor — Toomey posted on Facebook a Saturday Night Live skit poking fun at himself — did little more than draw incensed comments from conservatives angry he'd make light of a serious issue.

The very conservatives the senator counted among his most ardent supporters during a 2004 primary campaign against then-Sen. Arlen Specter had suddenly made Toomey a target. And for the first time since he assiduously began building a reputation as a moderate lawmaker — an effort that includes moderation on gay rights and other cultural topics — the senator faces uncertainty within his base.

The question Toomey must now answer is whether he will continue his periodic jaunts toward the political middle, or if the backlash will keep him faithful to conservatives even as he approaches his 2016 reelection in blue Pennsylvania.

Toomey appeared wounded after the compromise fell apart last week, knowing the heat he took among the party faithful had, in the end, not helped achieve new legislation. Even if he didn't back off the proposal, he left little doubt he'd be turning to other issues.

"I know you've heard Pat wants to move on. His whole heart and soul was in the financial arena, where he wants to be," said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Democrat with whom Toomey crafted the bill. "But Pat is not leaving, he's staying strong there clear to the end."

For now, few expect Toomey's gun-rights apostasy will elicit the kind of primary challenge he led nearly a decade ago. That's thanks in no small part to this past Friday, when he spoke at an annual gathering of conservatives near Harrisburg, Pa.

Bitterness over the failed bill was evident: Usually, the former three-term congressman is greeted as a rock star at these gatherings, the kind who engenders an extended standing ovation before he even begins a speech. But this year, according to news accounts and eyewitnesses, the reaction was far more mixed.

"I would say a third of the room gave him a standing ovation, and a third gave him polite applause," said Lowman Henry, who organized the event. "And then there were definitely a few murmurs in the crowd."

But rather than avoid the issue stirring consternation in the crowd, Toomey addressed it twice during his speech, offering a point-by-point defense of the proposed legislation. The head-on rebuttal caught some by surprise, but few left without thinking he had done so successfully.

"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, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News. "That does happen from time to time and I think that's the real test of character."

The audience responded far more favorably to Toomey afterward. "This had all hallmarks of a family gathering where we said, "˜Oh, naughty boy!' but in the end, ended up hugging," Henry said.

Ironically, the event was reminiscent of the kind Specter — the man he tried to depose in 2004 and would later help drive out of office in 2010 — would routinely have with conservatives angry about the moderate Republican's latest defection. Conservatives would never shower him with love as they would Toomey, but during Specter's 30-year Senate career, the events were usually nonetheless effective. "I can remember taking Specter into 200 meetings like this," said Chris Nicholas, who managed the late senator's campaigns. "It was kind of eerie trip down memory lane for that."

During his speech, Toomey did emphasize that he plans to return to his legislative "wheelhouse," budget and fiscal issues. The credibility he's earned among conservatives is largely a result of his fiscal agenda, one rooted deeply in the belief that government action inhibits economic growth.

It's unclear if Toomey still has the latitude among Republicans to moderate on social issues — he'll likely get a great test case later this year when he votes on a comprehensive immigration bill. And other political leaps of faith, like backing same-sex marriage, are likely off the table for now.