The Pennsylvania Senate Race Reflects the GOP’s Decent Into Madness

Usually, when a twice-elected senator retires from politics, at least some of the candidates hoping to fill his seat will attempt to position themselves as the heir apparent—the one man or woman who can hold the coalition together and continue the party’s winning streak.

And in Pennsylvania—a crucial swing state that could determine the Senate majority next year—a place where Sen. Pat Toomey is the only Republican to win multiple statewide elections since the start of the Obama administration, you might expect someone to try to follow in his footsteps. You might even say something kind about him every once in awhile. But when six of the GOP candidates hoping to replace Toomey met for a forum in the suburbs of Harrisburg last weekend, they barely mentioned Toomey’s name at all—and when they did, it was only to complain.

Toomey was guilty of “the greatest betrayal,” when he voted for Trump to be imprisoned. Nearly all of those in attendance have negative views on the first three but strong opinions regarding the fourth.

Per the agreed-upon rules of the forum, the six candidates are forbidden from attacking one another directly—so Gale turns his fire toward someone who isn’t present. He says the Pennsylvania Republican Party shirked its responsibility by refusing to censure Toomey—as other state parties did to Republicans who supported impeachment, like Rep. Liz Cheney (R–Wyo.)—and wraps up by declaring that Toomey is no better than Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat who Toomey, then a hero to Pennsylvania conservatives, helped oust from the Senate in 2010.

You don’t need to go outside to see which direction the political winds are blowing.

Gale exclaims, “President Donald Trump has been the greatest president our country ever had.” Gale is not the only one to be applauded for his expression of this sentiment at the event.

Gale is an obscure candidate whose campaign is less about substance than noise. Even so, his blistering attack on Toomey is revealing—mostly because of what wasn’t said. Gale was the only person who could have prevented the 90-minute forum from being dominated by the two-term Republican senator, with his long record of support for conservative policies and close ties to this very convention. All six of the contenders on the stage tried to outdo each other in MAGA, but none made any attempt to make their candidacy a third term for Toomey. Each professed a desire to win Trump’s endorsement; none even mentioned the current senator—except to call out his “ultimate betrayal” of the former president.

Toomey makes up the negative space for the Republican primary in one among the most significant Senate races. You can see the outline of what a pre-Trump conservative candidate in a purple state would look like by drawing a line around everything that this GOP primary field—which includes a television personality, a real estate mogul, a former state boxing commissioner, and a hedge fund CEO—isn’t.

Toomey and Pennsylvania are not the only ones who experience this. Republicans in Congress that voted to impeach Trump have either been removed from the national scene or are on the way out, with perhaps one exception: Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

More broadly, Toomey’s retirement and the clown car of candidates seeking to replace him are a useful microcosm for understanding the demise of the longstanding conservative-libertarian alliance on the political right—and the political staying power that the defeated former president has within conservative circles. While someone is certain to win the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania for Senate, it won’t be someone who can fill Toomey’s place.

They’re actually not trying.

Every politician who isn’t elected to office soon outlives their support from the public. And the conservative activist class has been particularly quick to turn on its one-time darlings in recent years—particularly when an incumbent appears to have sold out his values or tarnished his voting record.

Toomey has been a bit different.

Toomey was a Republican congressman who nearly overtook Specter in a Republican primary fight in 2004. This battle was a precursor to the tea party insurgency that occurred later in the decade. Toomey (then 42) was described as “a” in New Yorker Profile of the race: “A conservative Republican of strict doctrinal purity; anti-abortion (except for defence), anti-taxes, pro-spending (except defense); a fiscalhawk, horrified by large deficits, a crusader to school choice, tort reform and Social Security privatization. Specter narrowly won the election with support from George W. Bush. Six years later, primary polls showed Toomey ahead in a possible rematch. Specter changed parties to preserve his place in the Senate. He failed.

Understanding the Toomey-shaped hole in this year’s Pennsylvania Leadership Conference is crucial. This annual meeting, held in Harrisburg suburbs, attracts hundreds and politicians, conservative activists and personalities as well many would-be or has-been officials. It’s the Keystone State’s version of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the National Gathering that has been the launching point for nearly every anti-establishment Republican’s political career since the Bush years.

CPAC, however has become a dismal bacchanalia of fringe right-wing elements. However, the PLC is still a meat-and potatoes gathering of conservative activists that is more focused on policies than individuals.

This gathering is a bit strange, but that’s normal. This is the kind of venue where it’s unlikely that you will be able to stop a discussion about the importance and 10ThAmendment and meet someone with a Trump Tshirt selling hot sauce-infused fake handgrenades. This isn’t MAGA rallies by any means. On a Saturday morning there are more suits and tie than red baseball caps.

For decades, this has been—or at least was—very much a home game for Toomey. Toomey, fresh from his close-miss against Specter gave the keynote speech In 2006. He delivered A keynote speech was delivered at the conference 2009He announced that he would be challenging Specter once again just before he did. Lowman Henry is the president and CEO at the Pennsylvania Leadership Council. This nonprofit organizes the event. Lowman Henry estimates that Toomey made over 10 appearances in the past.

Once the recipient of thunderous applause in the main ballroom, now it’s difficult to get anyone to talk about him—and not just on stage. Many long-time conservative activists who gathered at this weekend’s PLC will be praising Toomey for his principles and voting record. Some will even say they agree with his vote to convict Trump for January 6—but such statements are kept off the record and uttered only in hushed tones.

However, Toomey doesn’t have to show it in his voting record if he has sold out. During the last session of Congress, Toomey’s votes were less conservative than those cast by fellow Senators. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R–Ark.According to VoteviewThe Congressional Index, an initiative of UCLA and New York University political science students, attempts to rank Congressmen based on voting records. Voteview’s analysis shows that Toomey was ranked among the 10 most conservative senators every session from 2010 to 2010. He was a proponent of Trump’s failed attempt to repeal Obamacare and helped write the 2017 Trump tax cut bill—but he also voted against using public funds to build Trump’s border wall and was one of the Senate’s most vocal critics of Trump’s tariffs and other anti–free trade policies.

While all of this is consistent with principles for small-government, it can sometimes clash with Trump’s agenda.

Kurt Schlichter (a former Republican state legislator who runs the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform), a non-profit organization that promotes legal policy, says Toomey has always been “strongly fiscal conservative”. He also said that the “political landscape” in Pennsylvania had changed under his watch.

This may be why Toomey is no longer considered a conservative activist. An April 2021 survey of 3,000 political activists—that is, people who had been local party chairs, run for elected office, been paid political staffers, attended political rallies, or donated to a campaign—conducted by FiveThirtyEight, HuffPost, and YouGov found Toomey rated as one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate.

In his FiveThirtyEight analysis of the poll, Dan Hopkins, an expert in political science from Penn, wrote that Trump’s support has become a defining characteristic of conservative party members. Toomey was joined by Sens. Mitt Romney (R–Utah) and Ben Sasse (R–Neb.) Both were rated liberally despite being conservative voters. Hopkins observed that Trump was rated more conservative by the pollsters than any other politician, except 10 in the survey.

This is in line with Gale’s criticism of Toomey. The senator’s “ultimate betrayal” was not the selling out of his principles or his ideology, but his willingness to vote against the interests of Trump—even though Trump was already out of office when the second impeachment trial occurred, and even though Toomey’s vote changed nothing about the outcome of the proceeding (Trump was acquitted).

Henry says, “The impeachment vote aside. I’ve always stated that I don’t know any way to elect a more conservative Senator than Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania.” He is one of most conservative senators in the United States, if you take a look at his records.”

The impeachment vote isn’t to be forgotten, however. Toomey refused to interview him for the piece, and has not commented on the race to decide his replacement. Toomey had previously announced in October 2020 that his retirement would be permanent. Toomey, in fact, was more free than his coworkers to express his opinion about January 6 events.

Toomey, for what it is worth, has publicly refuted the idea that Trump altered what it means to call conservative.

People know there are Republicans in Congress and the Senate who were, let’s just say, more loyal and deferential to Donald Trump than me. Toomey understands that. Telled The Philadelphia Inquirerearlier in the year. Trump is regarded as one of the most aggressive, vigorous and determined fighters against the left. He was also joined in combat. So to some degree, the one who’s fighting the hardest to win the battle against the left is Trump. However, it can be easy to give an informal answer if all you are able to do with a person is to ask them “Is Donald Trump conservative?”

There is little doubt, however that Trump and Toomey will be more in common than the six-way race to the GOP Senate nomination in Pennsylvania.

On the Republican primary May 17The election will help determine which candidate from the GOP field is going to be trusted with Toomey’s protection in November. That’s an open seat in a swing state in a year when the Senate is divided 50–50, so it’s not a stretch to say that Pennsylvania voters might very well get to determine the Senate majority for the next two years.

The race to be the most critical of Big Government is, in a milder sense, not one that will win.

In fact, the Saturday candidate forum began with Rose Tennent asking a question about the possibility that conservatives would seek to reduce government. Tennent stated that “Big Tech must be held responsible.” Tennent asked the candidates, “What would your proposal be to end that monopoly if elected?”

Mehmet O, longtime host on NBC’s “The Only Way to Fight Back” said: The Dr. Oz ShowReferring to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which is often referred to as the “Internet’s First Amendment.” It ensures websites allow users freedom to express themselves without being held responsible for anything posted. These days, some conservatives (incorrectly) blame Section 230 for allowing social media companies like Twitter to remove posts or ban users—like, for example, a certain former president—even though there is nothing in the law that mandates viewpoint neutrality from online platforms. This is rare case where culture war fighting that underpins much contemporary conservative politics meets actual policy.

Oz doesn’t elaborate on what an internet without Section 230 might look like—but, after all, miracle cures have always been his schtick. Oz claims that the law was created to protect “new companies” (which he describes as fax machines, so they were not responsible for paper leaving their machines). Seemingly aware that this makes little sense, Oz quickly pivots to argue that Section 230 “has been used and weaponized” to allow “sex trafficking children, because they can hide behind Section 230″—though it is never exactly clear who “they” are. It is clear that Oz’s candidacy does not reflect a thorough or thought-through understanding of Federal telecommunications policies.

Oz, with his television background, his shaky grasp of policy and ability to bullshit through any topic all while appearing charming makes him the clear quasi-Trump in this field. There is a lot of competition to that title. Carla Sands (an actress from soap operas who was also an California socialite) is keen to remind everyone that Trump picked her to serve as ambassador to Denmark. Unfortunately, the deal to purchase Greenland failed. The forum is a huge success. She calls Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO and founders, “modern-day Totalitarians” before declaring that Donald Trump “is without doubt the greatest President in American history.”

Politics becomes about personality when policy and principles get lost in the shuffle. Sands Oz and Oz are both full of it. Since there is no signature policy set or voting record for them to attack, they have little choice but to remind their opponents that neither Sands nor Oz are Pennsylvanians.

Oz actually resides in New Jersey. But he claims throughout that campaign to have been living at his parent’s home in Bryn Mawr, Philadelphia. Sands is the prodigal fresh princess of Bel Air—she was born and raised in Pennsylvania but spent most of her days since 1987 in California. According to the Associated Press she sold her Malibu homes and Bel Air properties and purchased a condominium overlooking Harrisburg’s Pennsylvania Capitol.

David McCormick is a third candidate in the race. He’s an ex-member of George W. Bush Commerce Department and now manages hedge funds. After stints at McKinsey and Bridgewater he has worked on high-powered films and lots of political connections. He’s a resident of Connecticut and the only candidate not to appear on the PLC stage—prompting the others to sling barbs about how there must be too much traffic today. Although he is the leading candidate in the polls and a seven-way primary race can be difficult to accurately poll, both Oz and Sands may also claim the title of being the front-runner.

George Brochette is also present. He proudly reminds everyone that he was part of the legal team who organized Trump’s defense in his second impeachment trial. Kathy Barnette is an Army veteran and Fox News commentator, who narrowly lost the 2020 Pennsylvania congressional race. And there’s Gale, the attorney who condemns Toomey and pledges to be a “disruptive force” in the Senate by modeling himself after Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas).

This might have been Jeff Bartos’ loser race in more regular times. Bartos is a Philadelphia-based real estate developer and long-time Republican fundraiser. He just lost his 2018 bid to become lieutenant governor. His campaign, however, has an older feel. The billionaire raised money to aid small businesses affected by COVID-related lockdowns. His talk about the importance community is an interesting throwback back to when Republicans valued individual initiative over state power.

However, he is not afraid of using the state’s power. He states, “We have to eliminate Section 230. Or we should break up Big Tech firms through the antitrust processes.”

It’s also worth mentioning that one of the reasons why the field is so wide open—and why each of the candidates is angling so hard for Trump’s favor—is because Trump’s endorsed candidate, Sean Parnell, dropped out of the race in November after allegations of spousal abuse leaked out during a messy divorce proceeding. You said it: Clown car.

“None are the Senate Candidates pitching themselves as [Toomey’s]Henry, the PLC organizer helpfully sums up the situation.

Fine. It’s fine. But, is it excessive to ask one of them for something more than an exact replica of Trump?

Toomey was the avatar of the small-government conservatism which briefly overtook the Republican Party following the Bush presidency. This strand could be described as the end of fusionism, the evolution in the long-standing alliance between cultural conservatives (and free marketers) who first joined hands during the Cold War. In the Trump presidency’s wake, there seems to be little room for these voices in the Republican tent. That’s a loss for libertarians, who could rely on politicians like Toomey to be, at least most of the time, skeptical about exercising state power and growing the size and cost of government—even if it meant putting up with less than ideal social policy in some cases. There are fewer Washington voices willing to advocate for free speech and free markets. 

However, it is likely that conservatives will also lose the election. They are abandoning an important part of their coalition to pursue Trump’s win in 2016. Trump is the first Republican in Pennsylvania to win a presidential election since Ronald Reagan. He also lost. Toomey, one of two Republicans who has won several statewide races in a state where Republicans have to struggle to win them, is the only member of his party to have done so. The other candidate is Tom Corbett who won one term in 2010 as governor after being elected two times as attorney general. However, Corbett is perhaps less Trumplike than Toomey.

This model is worth looking at when the U.S. Senate’s control is in jeopardy.

I asked Schlichter to engage in a thought experiment: If Toomey were a member of Congress with his exact same opinions and voting record—including the impeachment vote against Trump—and he were now one of the candidates running for this open Senate seat, against this field of competitors, would he have a chance of winning the GOP nomination?

He pondered about whether he would win, the ex-state representative thought. “I don’t know.”