ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- How strange is this campaign year? So strange that Pat Toomey -- the diehard conservative who drove Arlen Specter out of the Republican Party -- seems almost middle of the road compared with his fellow Republican Senate nominees.
Toomey worked on Wall Street, helped start a family restaurant business, served in Congress for a self-limited six years and then became president of the Club for Growth -- an anti-tax, anti-spending, business advocacy group that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee once labeled the Club for Greed.
These days, the Club for Growth comes off as a staid pillar of the conservative establishment, and so does Toomey. He hasn't suggested repeal of the 17th Amendment, which decreed that voters -- not state legislatures -- should choose U.S. senators. He hasn't talked about "Second Amendment solutions" to dissatisfaction with government. He hasn't objected to any portion of the Civil Rights Act or questioned the constitutionality of unemployment benefits. Those are stands taken by various Republican Senate nominees backed, and sometimes catapulted to primary victories, by Tea Party endorsements and money.
Don't get the wrong idea. Toomey is allied with the Tea Party movement and embraces it. He has spoken at rallies, and Sen. Jim DeMint, one of the season's Tea Party kingmakers, is on the air in Pennsylvania along with the Club for Growth and other GOP groups. Toomey told me he has spent time with many people involved with the Tea Party and they are "ordinary Americans who come from all walks of life," who are worried about the country's direction and their children's futures.
"I'm glad that they have gotten involved in the political system," he said in an interview in his campaign office. "If you look at what their big driving concerns are, it's a government that's grown too big, it's too much spending, it's deficits that are too large, and too much debt. Well, I've been on that page for a very long time."
He means that literally, in a sense, having spelled out his ideas in a 2009 book called "The Road to Prosperity
." Financial Advisor magazine
called it "a capitalist manifesto for everyman: clear, concise, down-to-earth and wonderfully compelling." It's got a forward by CNBC's Lawrence Kudlow and glowing blurbs from former congressmen Dick Armey (whose FreedomWorks group is a wellspring of the Tea Party) and Chris Chocola, who succeeded Toomey as head of Club for Growth.
Pennsylvania Senate Polls: Toomey Up 9 in One, Leads Sestak by 3 in Another
Toomey is a classic trickle-down supply-sider whose goals include eliminating corporate taxes (he'd settle for the more realistic prospect of reducing them) and partially privatizing Social Security (if you don't support optional private investment accounts to strengthen Social Security, he says, you're not "bullish" about America). He summarizes the approach taken by President Obama and the Democratic Congress as "serial bailouts, nationalizing whole industries, a staggering amount of spending" and constant threats of higher taxes and more regulation, and says it must change. "The best way to get people back to work is to create jobs in the private sector. Growing government is not going to do that," he said.
It was six years ago that Toomey put a huge scare into Specter, an ornery moderate, nearly ousting him in the GOP Senate primary. Specter switched parties last year when polls showed Toomey was headed for a blowout victory on his second try. Things didn't work out as Specter had planned: Rep. Joe Sestak defeated him in the Democratic primary. So Pennsylvanians now have a choice between Sestak, a retired admiral with a lifetime voting score of 93 percent from the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action, and Toomey, who has a 97 percent score from the American Conservative Union.
As the Nov. 2 election nears, the pair are tagging each other "extreme!" as they try to cultivate centrist voters. Sestak, for instance, was endorsed by former Republican senator Chuck Hagel and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned- independent who is backing a mix of candidates from both parties this year. Toomey, meanwhile, campaigned with Sen. Scott Brown (of un-conservative Massachusetts) and won an endorsement from former longtime Harrisburg mayor Stephen Reed (a Democrat). Last year, well after Specter departed and Toomey had a lock on the GOP nomination, he said he would have supported Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court because her record showed no sign of bias.
"I think of myself as a Reagan conservative," Toomey told Ted Koppel during an interview at a Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce meeting in Hershey. That would be Reagan except for the part where Reagan realized he needed more money to pay for defense spending and keep the deficit in check, so he raised taxes numerous times.
This is not on Toomey's agenda. Taxes are already too high, he says, and raising them would just encourage the government to spend more. We need to "shrink the waste out of government," he says, and "get spending under control." Aside from his Social Security plan, his proposals -- such as freezing non-security discretionary spending, ending earmarks -- wouldn't make much of a dent. Toomey also wants to rescind what he contends is "several hundred billion dollars" in stimulus money that hasn't been spent yet. The New York Times, however, put the amount of unobligated money left at just $31 billion
Sestak has seized on the stimulus angle, noting a good chunk of the money that Toomey considers unspent is for middle-class tax cuts that were part of the package and are scheduled to continue for the time being. Just another way that Toomey is a Wall Street candidate who wants to "help the rich, forget the rest," as a recent Sestak headline summarized the argument.
Toomey says a Wall Street background is not a handicap this year. Still, his campaign biography
doesn't use the phrase "Wall Street," and one of his ads tries to turn the issue against Sestak. "I worked on Wall Street just out of college
and that was 20 years ago," he says in the spot. "Way back then I learned that Wall Street's the last place that should ever get a taxpayer bailout." The contrast is then made, that Sestak voted in favor of the so-called bank bailout desperately sought by Republican and Democratic leaders alike in fall 2008 when the economy was on the brink. Toomey opposed it; he says there were other ways to address the crisis. He also opposed the new financial regulations passed this year to try to avert another financial-sector meltdown.
Toomey and Sestak disagree diametrically on how to handle almost every major issue facing the nation. It's like they live on two different ideological planets. The difference this year is that there's a third planet hovering to Toomey's right, one where candidates talk of eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Reserve, and argue that entitlement programs violate the 1st Commandment. The National Republican Senatorial Committee says its nominees are not extreme
. The party can only hope those on the third planet will migrate in Toomey's direction if they end up in Washington -- which is, of course, another planet altogether.
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