I remember watching Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey announcing his re-election bid last September at a hotel ballroom in King of Prussia.
He never raised his voice once, even when he hit the line where he said, “that’s why I’m announcing my candidacy …”
David Patti, a veteran Pennsylvania business leader, said that’s Pat.
“You know, he grew up in New England, and he has that Yankee New England reserve,” Patti said. “He is not the glad-handing, back-slapping person.”
But make no mistake — as the freshman Republican fights to hold on to his seat against an expected Democratic surge from a well-funded opponent, Toomey is showing a toughness and determination that are no surprise to those who’ve followed his career.
And he’s offering a moderate look that critics say is at odds with his past commitment to hard-edged conservative principles.
Toomey grew up in East Providence, Rhode Island, son of a union dad who laid cable for the electric company. He has five brothers and sisters. He went to public and parochial school, then Harvard.
After college, he went into finance, first for Chemical Bank, then to a Wall Street firm where he worked in derivatives — not a popular thing after the 2008 crash.
Toomey did well. He spent a year in Hong Kong, became a pilot and owned a plane. But he eventually grew tired of New York and set a new course.
He and two brothers decided to get into the restaurant business in Allentown.
“Pat actually lived just down the street from my parents. He lived about a block from my parents,” said U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, who succeeded Toomey in Congress.
Early days in politics
Dent remembers Toomey hitting the political scene in Allentown, bringing an intense interest in public policy and deeply conservative views.
He got to know local Republicans and was elected to the Allentown Government Study Commission, which was reviewing the city charter.
“There were a lot of elder statesmen on that commission, but Pat seemed to run the show,” Dent recalled.
When a seat opened in Congress in 1998, Toomey decided to go for it, despite having little name recognition. He came from behind in a crowded field in the Republican primary and went to Washington.
Alan Jennings remembers Congressman Toomey. For decades, he’s headed the Allentown Community Action Committee, which runs a food bank, does small-business development, weatherizes homes and provides other services.
When the Bush administration planned to eliminate funding for the committee and similar groups, Jennings mobilized local opposition and asked Toomey to help.
“Besides having the people we serve sending letters, we had some of the congressman’s strongest supporters — bank presidents and early supporters of Pat Toomey when he was running for the first time,” Jennings said, “and none of that mattered.”
What mattered, Jennings said, was Toomey’s ideological commitment to limited government and spending cuts. Toomey met with Jennings and other opponents of the cuts, but declined to help.
Toomey says he believes government should spend less, and he isn’t surprised that Jennings, “a liberal Democrat,” disagrees.
Movin’ on up
Toomey promised to limit himself to just three terms when he came into office, and he kept his word.
In 2004 he chose not to run for his congressional seat and aimed higher, challenging the state’s senior senator, Arlen Specter, in the Republican primary.
Toomey had long proved himself to be serious, hard-working and disciplined. The campaign showed something else: he can be tough.
I looked up the video of his opening statement in a debate that year.
“I represent the Republican wing of the Republican Party, and Arlen Specter represents a set of liberal views that are just outside the mainstream,” Toomey said.
“You’re also going to see that Sen. Specter has a bit of a pattern that I call the ‘Specter Two Step.’ This is a habit of voting with liberals and Democrats for the first five years, and then, approaching a Republican primary, throwing a few votes to the conservatives.”
Though Specter had a huge edge in name recognition and the active support of establishment Republicans, including President George W. Bush, Toomey came within two points of unseating him.
The race and the rightward drift of the Republican base effectively drove Specter out of the party, paving the way for Toomey’s election to the Senate in 2010.
In between the two runs, Toomey found a home running the conservative business-backed group, the Club for Growth.
He pushed an aggressively free-market, limited government agenda. He’s remembered for a comment on CNBC in 2007 about reducing corporate tax burdens.
“It’s better for our workers. It’s better for our economy,” Toomey said. “I think the solution is to eliminate corporate taxes altogether.”
At a recent debate, Toomey distanced himself from that notion, saying it was “an inartful way” of saying the tax code has to be simplified.
A different Pat?
In the Senate, Toomey tacked toward the center on gun control after the Sandy Hook killings, joining West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to try to expand background checks.
The effort failed, but it was political bonanza for Toomey.
He lost the NRA’s endorsement in his re-election bid, but he has the support of the daughter of the principal killed at Sandy Hook, who did a commercial for him.
Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords is with him, and the PAC of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent $3 million to support Toomey’s re-election.
Supporters say Toomey has also backed efforts to help Pennsylvania communities, even when they involved government spending, such as dredging the Delaware River so it can accommodate larger ships and expand local port business.
“I think Pat has evolved a bit,” Dent said.
I asked Toomey about that.
“I’ve always looked for a sensible solution, a place that makes progress for Pennsylvania, in keeping with conservative principles,” he said. “So I’m not sure there’s really been that much change, but I’m proud of the record that I have.”
These days, Toomey’s emphasizes his collaboration with Democrats and presents himself as an independent who’ll break with his party when it’s the right thing to do. He has a new commercial which quotes admiring remarks from prominent Democrats Ed Rendell and Tim Kaine.
But he remains one of the most conservative members of Congress — his career voting record earns a 93 percent approval rating from the American Union.
His views on a host of issues, from abortion rights to tax policy to health care differ sharply from his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty.
He’s essentially dodged the question of whether he’ll support his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and McGinty has attacked him regularly for not declaring his allegiance.
But Toomey maintains voters care more about how he stands on the issues than whether he casts a ballot for Trump.