Sen. Pat Toomey, the man who perfected Republicans’ eat-your-own politics as the president of the Club for Growth, found himself on the wrong end of conservatives’ pitchforks Thursday after he struck a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to expand criminal background checks to the sale of most guns. The background-check bill would not apply to all guns, nor would it ban the future sale of any specific gun or ammunition. But the backlash from conservatives and gun groups on even that slim piece of gun-control legislation was fast and furious.
“You, sir, are a lying treasonous #&$,” read one comment on the newly created “Sen. Arlen Toomey” Facebook page, a right-of-center rant-athon named for Toomey and the late Sen. Arlen Specter, the man Toomey challenged twice and eventually banished to the Democratic Party for his insufficient conservatism. “Your [sic] are a backstabbing RINO. Gun owners had a big part in putting you in office,” another Facebook user posted, after 15 Republicans joined Toomey to defeat a filibuster against the bill.
Toomey insisted Wednesday that the bill itself wasn’t about guns at all. “I gotta tell ya—candidly—I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control,” he said. “I think it’s just common sense. If you pass a criminal background check, you get to buy a gun, it’s no problem.”
But the proposal was a problem for Erick Erickson from the influential Red State blog, who tweeted that the Toomey-Manchin bill would unleash “activist mental-health providers” who could unilaterally declare people dangerously mentally ill just to have fewer guns on the streets. “In 5 yrs when you can’t buy a gun b/c a doctor says ur crazy for believing in a resurrected Jesus, thank @SenToomey.”
Toomey also caught hell from Heritage Action and the National Rifle Association, which both said they would “score” Thursday’s vote, meaning that the votes of senators can and will be held against them down the line in the same way that Toomey’s own Club for Growth punished Republicans in the 2000s for flunking the fiscal “scorecard” that the group developed during Toomey’s tenure. A failing grade from Toomey’s troops would almost guarantee a primary from the right for those deemed the worst of the Republican big spenders.
Fast-forward a few years, and Heritage Action’s message about Toomey’s own primary is clear. “We expect this type of dealmaking from Joe Manchin and also from Chuck Schumer, who supports the ‘universal registration’ of firearms,” said Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham. “However, we expect more from Pat Toomey, and, more importantly, so do his constituents.”
But Toomey knows more than Heritage Action about what his own constituents expect in Pennsylvania, and as a Franklin & Marshall College poll of Pennsylvania voters showed in February, they want what Toomey is giving them—some sort of action on guns. In the poll, 94 percent of voters, including a majority of Pennsylvania Republicans, supported universal background checks on all guns. A similar state law already exists in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall poll, says that the federal background-check bill could play well for Toomey, who won the general election in 2010 by just 2 percentage points, but remains extremely popular among the state’s Republicans. Asked whether there is any appetite for a primary against Toomey based on this week’s events, Madonna says he sees none.
“This has created a furor in certain quarters, but [Toomey] is no Arlen Specter,” Madonna says. “He’s off the reservation on one issue and one issue alone, which 94 percent of the voters in the state agree with him on. He’s among the most conservative senators, and on fiscal issues he’s ironclad.”
Of more importance for Toomey, says Madonna, is his appeal to conservative Democrats, independents, and suburban voters outside Philadelphia. “I think this actually helps him more than it hurts him,” Madonna says. “I don’t think he did this for patently political reasons. Do I think he thought of the political implications? Of course. They all do.”
Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist, says the politics of guns should be obvious for Toomey at home, but even obvious politics don’t always lead members to cross the aisle these days.
“He represents a blue state now. He’s got to figure out a way he can appeal to conservative Democrats and independents who Republicans turned off in 2012,” Thornell says. “I give him credit for taking the lead on it, but it’s not rocket science for a politician to see that this is something that nine out of 10 voters in Pennsylvania support. He would be crazy to oppose it.”
For Toomey, a senator who is far more bookish than bomb thrower in person, he has plenty of time to position himself for reelection in 2016, if that is what he decides to do. His move toward compromise with Democrats on a polarizing issue like gun safety will likely serve him well in the end, if only because voters are hungry for lawmakers to work together, even on modest proposals.
But Franklin & Marshall’s Madonna says Toomey’s biggest obstacle in 2016 may be entirely beyond his control—a possible Democratic ticket with Hillary Clinton at the top. “Toomey has to fear a general election in which she sweeps the state ... Who knows? We’re still a long way off.”