New Castle News

May 6, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: Toomey takes a chance on guns

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — How does a conservative Republican senator representing a state with a Democratic majority protect himself politically?

One way is to take positions that tend to straddle the nation’s ideological fence. That may be good strategy, but fence straddling can be a painful process in some circumstances.

We may find out in a few years if Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey’s stand on federal gun registration laws will have an impact on his re-election effort. There’s lots of time to ponder the possibilities, because Toomey’s current term runs through 2016.

Toomey, you may have noticed, took the political risk of joining forces with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to craft a watered-down version of gun control proposals. This one focused mainly on expanding background checks on gun purchases made at shows and online.

Liberals criticized the effort as too weak, while conservatives blasted it as an infringement on the Second Amendment. In the end, a majority of senators voted for it, but not enough to overcome a potential filibuster.

Toomey’s decision to wade so publicly into the gun control debate raises some intriguing political questions. Mainly, it’s unclear whether this effort will help or hurt him when he presumably seeks re-election three years from now.

A Quinnipiac University poll found Toomey scored a personal high 48 percent approval rating among Pennsylvania residents after he entered the gun fray. But among his fellow Republicans, his disapproval rate rose from 19 to 25 percent. Toomey’s approval rating in the party remained at 58 percent.

These figures suggest that even if Toomey annoyed some Republicans, it wasn’t enough to make much of a difference.

But these days, GOP office holders may find their political movements restricted. Purity of positions is often demanded by those most active in party politics. Toomey’s willingness to reach across Washington’s ideological gulf could have consequences if he’s challenged by someone in his own party in 2016.

A perfect example of what could happen to Toomey was witnessed in the 2012 Senate primary in Indiana. Richard Lugar, a veteran Republican with solid credentials, was defeated by a tea party candidate, Richard Mourdock. A big factor in the contest was Lugar’s willingness to cooperate with Democrats on key issues, such as working to reduce the threat of loose nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.

So the tea party got its candidate, and Mourdock promptly self-destructed in the general election campaign. The Republicans lost what should have been a safe Senate seat to Democrat Joe Donnelly.

In some ways, the situation for Toomey is even more dicey. Even if his gun control stance isn’t enough to attract primary opposition in 2016, it could alienate some Republicans who opt to stay home for the general election.

Although Toomey was successful in 2012, he was riding a massive Republican wave that took control of the House and ate away at the Democratic majority in the Senate. And unlike GOP landslides in some other states, Toomey was a narrow winner against Democrat Joe Sestak.

In short, Toomey’s ability to maneuver is limited. Anything he does to reach out to independents and conservative Democrats may weaken his base. And anything he does to mend fences within his own party could be used against him by his next Democratic opponent.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.