Sen. Pat Toomey is playing both sides. Not in a sinister way. Not in a cheating way. But in a campaigning-well-and-getting-away-with-it way. The incumbent Republican from Pennsylvania is maybe not voting for Donald Trump. He’s definitely not voting for Hillary Clinton. He’s dodged questions about it by darting into elevators and waiting in cars.
Yes, this election season, Pat Toomey is trying to be all things to a lot of people. And he’s anything depending on whom you ask. He’s a conservative. He’s a moderate. He’s Tea Party. He’s sensible. He’s radical. He’s visionary. He’s calculating.
And still in a lot of ways, the deck is stacked against Toomey, the former Congressman up for re-election in the Senate for the first time in what’s one of the most closely-watched races nationwide. For Republicans to retain control of the Senate, Toomey almost must win in Pennsylvania — where Democrats hold a voter registration advantage of nearly a million people.
He’s also got to do it in a presidential election year — when Democrats in Pennsylvania historically turn out in higher numbers — with Trump at the top of the ticket. To say Toomey and Trump have different styles would be the understatement of the season. When it comes to personality, Toomey is thoughtful and mild-mannered. He doesn’t often step out of line or say anything truly provocative.
In that way, he’s probably more in line with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But, unlike some of his colleagues in the GOP, Toomey has walked a tightrope between saying he hasn’t yet made up his mind on Trump and claiming he refuses to cast his vote for Clinton.
The thing is, Toomey’s path back to the Senate, in some ways, includes her.
Tied to Trump?
The Pennsylvania Senate race is in a veritable dead heat. Most polls have showed Toomey and his Democratic opponent Katie McGinty within the margin of error of each other. An Emerson College poll last week showed Toomey up by seven points (though take that with a grain of salt. It only polled via landlines). A Monmouth College poll this week showed McGinty up by four points.
“Pat Toomey had positioned himself extremely well to win reelection,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., told the Washington Post. “He has done everything right that is within his control. The challenge for Pat Toomey is things outside his control — that would be the top of the ticket.”
Since the Republican National Convention in July, Trump’s numbers have slumped nationwide — including in Pennsylvania, where he won 67 counties in the primary — and Toomey’s numbers have slid with them. Before the conventions, Toomey was mostly up in the polls. Afterwards? Four out of the first five polls had him losing.
Though Trump and Toomey’s fates seem tied, Toomey has made clear that he doesn’t personally agree with how Trump has conducted himself throughout the campaign. In an op-ed, Toomey wrote that Trump was not his “first, second or third choice.”
“I find his candidacy highly problematic,” the sitting senator wrote, adding: “I find Hillary Clinton unacceptably flawed.”
“A Clinton presidency would undoubtedly be nothing more than an extension of the failed status quo; in fact, her candidacy is dedicated to that very objective,” he continued. “That would mean more economic stagnation, and more national security weakness. That is certainly not something I could support.”
But he still hasn’t made a decision. And he’s been hit on that by everyone from reporters to comedians to, of course, his opponent, who branded him as “Senator Elevator” for his, um, creativity in avoiding reporters’ questions.
It’s hard to believe Toomey could ever truly support Trump. The two have not campaigned together. They couldn’t be more different in temperament. And the Republican Senator came into politics on a platform of fiscal responsibility and tax reform — he hardly touched social issues. Toomey was once the president of Club for Growth, a free-market advocacy group that continues to support Toomey and last fall launched an ad campaign to discredit Trump.
A campaign spokesman said this week that Toomey is still — STILL — deciding on who he’ll vote for come Nov. 8, and he wouldn’t confirm whether or not Toomey will publicize his decision prior to election day. What Toomey has said is that he believes Pennsylvania voters will separate him from Trump, though McGinty’s crew is doing everything it can to brand them as one.
“Pennsylvania voters are really quite sophisticated and they know for sure that Donald Trump is in a category unto himself,” Toomey told reporters on a conference call. “So they will make their decision about the presidential race, and then they will make a completely separate decision about the person they want representing them in the United States Senate.”
GOP consultant Charlie Gerow said he doesn’t believe Pennsylvania voters are concerned about Toomey’s indecision on Trump and his disdain for Clinton — he said playing both sides in this way is “smart.”
“Senator Toomey has made his views about Donald Trump pretty clear,” Gerow said. “He has chosen wisely to focus on his campaign. I think that’s a smart strategy.”
Jeffrey Lord, a Trump supporter who frequently appears on CNN to discuss the election, disagreed, saying Toomey’s lack of Trump endorsement is puzzling considering Trump’s popularity among Pennsylvania Republicans. He did win all 67 counties in the primary.
“This is the Republican nominee,” Lord said. “There are a lot of enthusiastic Trump people out there. If you are seen as hedging your bets by not embracing the guy, that doesn’t work.”
Split-tickets and what Toomey needs to win
In order to control the Senate, Democrats need to win five seats (or four if Clinton wins the presidency and the veep can be used as a tie-breaker vote). It could come down to Pennsylvania.
Republican voter registration this year outpaced Democrats, netting the GOP an additional 83,000 voters here. But that still means Democrats hold a voter registration advantage of 916,000 people statewide. And, unlike six years ago when Toomey was first elected to the Senate, it’s a presidential election year when more Democrats and city dwellers are expected to show up to the polls.
What’s that mean for Toomey? He needs ticket-splitters. That means that Toomey needs to woo not only die-hard GOP-ers and those casting their votes for Trump, but he likely needs thousands of people to forego party-line voting and vote for Clinton at the top of the ticket and him for Senate.
That’s where the Trump tightrope comes in again. Though Trump won every county in the Pennsylvania Republican primary, his popularity has soared in the southwestern part of the state but his gains have been thwarted in the Philadelphia suburbs. Keep in mind: A third of the state’s voters live in Philadelphia and the surrounding four counties.
Franklin and Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna said if Clinton wins the state (which she’s still projected to based on recent polling), Toomey is going to have to get ticket splits. If she wins by double digits, he needs a lot of ticket splits. If she wins by five points or so, he needs less.
“[Toomey] has to get the white, blue-collar workers out in the southwest going solidly for Trump, and he has to appeal to the suburban voters in Philly and the Lehigh Valley,” Madonna said. “And then he has to get a nice solid vote out of the south central parts of the state where the numbers of Republicans are substantial.
Lord still contends that for Toomey, trying to keep both sides of the state happy could be problematic.
“I was really amazed to realize that Donald Trump had carried all 67 counties in the primary,” he said. “I came up through the Pennsylvania political system. I literally can’t remember a candidate for any party who was in a hotly-contested primary and won every single county. There’s no precedent for it.”
Here’s the problem with banking on split-ticket voting: It’s not as common as it used to be.
Data analyzed by the Brookings Institute shows that ticket-splitting, or voting for one party at the top of the ticket and another lower down, was at its highest in the 70’s when almost one in two voters picked one party for president, another for Congress.
Today, that number is more like 1 in 20 voters. As the American political climate becomes more polarized than ever, ticket-splitting has become increasingly less commons. It’s hard to believe this year could be any different. Ticket-splitting reached a record low in the 2012 presidential election, and a 2014 study by Pew found 80 percent of voters casted their votes along a straight party line.
However, the good news for Toomey is that when districts do ticket-split in recent years, it favors the GOP. Bloomberg found that in the 2014 House elections, 26 of the 31 ticket-splitting districts were won by Republicans, just five by Democrats.
Madonna said just a handful of Pennsylvania senators in modern history have won while the other party won the presidency.
“My sense is the biggest area for [the Toomey campaign] is the Philly suburbs,” he said. “It’s the biggest ticket-splitting area in the state.”
The strategy to overcome it
Isn’t money the answer to most things?
To date, the McGinty and Toomey campaigns have spent more than $25 million in what’s quickly become one of the most expensive campaigns in the country. Both have special interests in their corner.
McGinty has multiple super PACs backing her, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Emily’s List, a super PAC aimed at electing pro-choice officials. They’re aiming to tie Toomey to Trump and highlight his past connections to Wall Street.
Meanwhile, Toomey has the National Republican Senatorial Committee dumping millions into his campaign. The Toomey supporters are largely sticking to two messages: Attacking McGinty and portraying Toomey as a moderate, especially on guns.
Toomey’s even managed to get multiple pro-gun control groups on his side, including Rep. Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA super PAC. Bloomberg’s group has spent money running ads in Toomey’s favor.
So for now, you can expect the ad war you’re already to seeing to intensify. Meanwhile, Toomey’s supporters will continue to cling to the idea that despite what comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth next, Pennsylvania voters will judge Toomey alone.
“People are going to vote for Pat Toomey based upon what he has done and the record of accomplishments he has amassed,” Gerow said, “and not on the basis of anybody else or positions they’ve taken.”