Toomey Walks 'High Wire' On Gun Control in Re-election Bid

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Sep 23, 2015 11:00 AM
Toomey Walks 'High Wire' On Gun Control in Re-election Bid

Pennsylvanian Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is polling strong in a purplish state that hasn't voted Republican in a national election since 1988. Yet, it's the ominous fact that surrounds his re-election bid that will occur during a presidential year; one that will likely see Clinton on the Democratic ticket.  Toomey will need the Republican base in Pennsylvania more than ever, but he drew the ire from conservatives when he backed the failed Manchin-Toomey gun control bill back in 2013. This could be a problem in a state where half of the National Rifle Association's membership lives within four hours of Pittsburgh, and Toomey doesn’t regret his vote either.

On September 13, he formally announced his re-election bid, but an interesting development unfolded when Pennsylvanians for Self Protection–who had planned to protest the event–cancelled at the last minute, according to Politico. Allegedly, a Toomey staffer gave assurances that the senator would tuck Manchin-Toomey 2.0 in a drawer, which was refuted by the campaign:

Toomey’s aide denied that account, saying no such assurance was made. But the incident highlights the high wire the freshman senator is walking as he tries to reconcile the signature bipartisan effort of his term with vehement conservative opposition to new gun controls.

Toomey, one of several Republicans in blue-leaning states up for reelection next year, needs to attract a slice of Democratic voters to clinch a second term. His record on guns could help, but Pennsylvania also has a large and vocal gun-rights community.

Democrats are seizing on the issue.

A spokesman for Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty, a former official with the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, accused Toomey of telling gun-control advocates one thing and gun rights advocates another and said he is “playing politics with the issue of gun safety instead of being honest with the people of Pennsylvania.”

Former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), who narrowly lost to Toomey in 2010 and is running again, touted his own support for an assault weapons ban while accusing Toomey of talking big but not following through on gun legislation.

The article added that the gun control group Everytown has supported Toomey’s efforts, and Pennsylvanians for Self Protection isn’t going to endorse him until he retracts his position on background checks. Is it possible that Everytown could endorse Toomey and not a pro-gun rights group? It’s a tough call for the senator, but one he doesn’t need to make right now:

Though Toomey’s political predicament is delighting Democrats, he does have one major advantage right now: No significant primary challenger.

[…]

But the background checks bill is clearly the centerpiece of his bipartisan cred. And since Manchin has no plans to reintroduce the guns bill until it could pass the Senate, there could be a reward for Toomey by taking a leap and reintroducing the bill, including the potential for support from gun-control groups backed by Michael Bloomberg, Hill sources said. Mayors against Illegal Guns spent money praising Toomey for his advocacy in 2013.

So GOP strategists are warning Toomey not to look like he’s abandoning Manchin-Toomey, even as Pennsylvania conservatives demand the opposite of him.

That bipartisan cred is what’s needed to be competitive where elections are decided in Pennsylvania; the collar counties around Philadelphia (Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware) and Allegheny County (aka Pittsburgh). Toomey was able to beat former Rep. Joe Sestak by winning Buck County in 2010, though it was an off-year election. With Hillary on the ticket, turnout is (as always) going to be more of an issue. He doesn’t necessarily need to win all the collar counties (that’s pie-in-the-sky), but he needs to at least try and replicate his 2010 results–adjusted for presidential-level turnout of course.

Toomey lost Montgomery and Delaware by less than 25,000 votes, and won Bucks by a little over 14,000. The “T,” or the rest of the state, is decidedly Republican, which along with this showing; enabled Toomey to clinch sweet victory. Again, it’s not an easy task as Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks have more registered Democrats than Republicans; all three have voted Democratic since 1992; and it’s a presidential year. So, Toomey has his work cut out for him, but it’s not impossible.

At the same time, having the vocal gun rights community, who will certainly be at the ballot box come November, haggling you over your position about background checks surely doesn’t make it easier.