A Republican senator’s strategy to save his seat in one of the country’s tightest races: Avoid Trump

Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey hopes his distance from Donald Trump can help him maintain his lead in the Senate race.


Donald Trump was down in Gettysburg, in southern Pennsylvania, eclipsing his own speech about his first 100 days as president with a blustery vow to sue women who have lodged complaints against him of sexual assaults.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey was as far away as a top-of-the-ticket mate could be, physically and psychically. The incumbent Republican from Pennsylvania spent part of Saturday in the state’s coal country to the north. He quietly greeted a handful of supporters and a few local reporters in a restaurant that had closed for the event, and held a baby named Reagan — after the president.

A prominent feature behind the bar of the restaurant, in a restored bank building, was the giant old vault, something of a metaphor for the campaign Toomey is waging for reelection, locked away as best he can, removed from the chaotic man who heads his party’s ticket.


Toomey and Democrat Katie McGinty are engaged in one of the tightest Senate races in the country, over a seat Democrats think they’ll probably need to win to gain control of the Senate.

Alone among the major Republican Senate candidates, Toomey is publicly still on the fence about Trump, refusing to say whether he will back his party’s nominee.

The posture is meant to keep him in the good graces of two warring constituencies, both of which he needs: blue-collar Trump voters in rural Pennsylvania and Hillary Clinton supporters in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But it risks making him look as though he’s dodging a call that much of America has made, one way or the other.

When Trump appeared Friday night in Bucks County, one of the Philadelphia collar counties, Toomey was nine miles away at a Republican meeting but didn’t drop by Trump’s event. Neither did Trump bother to mention Toomey to the thousands at his rally.

The distance between the two campaigns is both a curse and a blessing for Toomey. It means the presidential machinery and momentum that are expected to kick in to help Senate candidates like him is utterly absent this year, even as his challenger has the entire array of her party behind her. That includes Hillary Clinton, who is leading easily in Pennsylvania and spent Saturday night blistering Toomey’s indecision before nearly 8,000 fans in Philadelphia.

“How much does he have to hear or to see? If he doesn’t have the courage to stand up against Donald Trump after all of this, then how will he stand up to special interests and powerful forces that are going to be trying to have their way in Washington?” Clinton asked.

But Toomey may have been able to hold on to a minimal lead in recent weeks in part because he hasn’t weighed in on Trump and thus alienated a big chunk of voters.

“I personally think it’s a better approach for him,” said veteran Pennsylvania pollster G. Terry Madonna, whose Franklin & Marshall College survey in early October had McGinty narrowly ahead.

“I think he’s in serious trouble if he endorses Trump, particularly with suburban voters and women, in the suburbs and many places. And what he wants to do is win those blue-collar voters. Since he hasn’t rejected Trump completely, it’s hard for them to say, ‘Oh, I’m not voting for you.’”

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In tandem with Clinton, McGinty has risen dramatically in polls since the summer, and her chances of victory would increase even more if Trump’s assertions that the election is rigged depress Republican turnout. At least one major poll, released Sunday by ABC News, suggested a falloff in GOP voting nationally.

That has left Toomey — a veteran of two extremely close Senate races, one a loss and the last one a win — working to convince voters that he’s nothing like his party’s contentious nominee.

Where Trump is outsize and exaggerating, Toomey is low key and disciplined, repeating the same anti-McGinty lines over and over, word for word, wielding a stiletto to Trump’s machete.

Where Trump goes out of his way to insult, Toomey takes care to praise, for example, the workaholic nature of immigrants and the care they take in providing for their families. Only then does he segue into his opposition to sanctuary cities that protect immigrants here illegally, a position he shares with Trump.

If Trump’s campaign is a roiling and unpredictable venture, Toomey campaigns with all the dramatic verve of Ward Cleaver, home to greet Wally and Beaver before settling into his armchair.

He sees voters judging each race as if the other didn’t exist.

“I am convinced that Pennsylvania voters are going to make a complete separation in their minds,” he said in an interview Friday after he was re-endorsed by a police group that’s long sided with him.

“There’s a presidential race going on, quite obviously, lots of attention, lots of focus, everybody’s got their opinion about it, and then there’s a totally separate thing happening in the Senate race — an incumbent senator most people know and an opponent. Totally separate campaign and totally separate judgment.”

His choice of voting for Trump or not, he said, hinges on his “serious reservations” about the things Trump has said, on the one hand and on the other the probability that Trump would appoint Supreme Court justices acceptable to him and sign both tax reform and a repeal of Obamacare, among other things.

I can’t believe in a country of 300 million people, these are our choices.

— Sen. Patrick J. Toomey

“Therein lies the dilemma,” he said. “I think I’m like a lot of Pennsylvanians: I can’t believe in a country of 300 million people, these are our choices.”

What could Trump possibly do, for good or ill, he is asked, to clarify his decision?

“I don’t have a checklist, and I’m not going to get into a bunch of hypotheticals that may or may not happen,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

The problem is that as Toomey said, most everyone does have an opinion about the presidential race — except, notably, him. In two debates between the candidates, including one Monday night, frustrated questioners repeatedly asked Toomey whether he would vote for Trump. Each time, he declined to take a side.

McGinty and her allies have buried the state in ads linking the two men.

“Donald Trump and Pat Toomey have plenty in common; they’re both putting Pennsylvania women at risk,” says an ad now on the air, featuring video of Trump saying women should be punished for seeking abortions and Toomey saying doctors should be punished.

McGinty’s campaign stops over the weekend were as much about Trump as Toomey. In the basement of a school in Allentown on Saturday, she told of her adopted daughter worrying that she’d be sent back to India if Trump were elected and said that in refusing to give his position, Toomey was avoiding his moral responsibility.

“In politics, the definition of courage and character is doing what’s right even if it costs you votes,” she said, words that she would repeat later at Clinton’s Philadelphia event.

Asked in last week’s debate whether he would announce a position on Trump before election day, Toomey said that “at some point I probably will.”

But in Monday’s debate, he passed up the opportunity. When it was pointedly suggested that his constituents deserved an answer, the senator replied, “I don’t think my constituents care that much how one person’s going to vote. They’re going to make their own decision.”

Until election day, he’s hoping to turn the campaign to his desired topics, which include the economy and security.

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Over and over during a weekend’s campaigning, he cast McGinty as intent on raising taxes and as a rubber stamp for the Obama administration on national security. An ad running on his behalf scolds McGinty for supporting the administration’s Iranian nuclear deal.

The deal “puts Iran on a path to nuclear weapons,” the ads says. It concludes, “Katie McGinty: just too big a risk.”

At least in Trump country, the rural areas where Republicans hope to defy the polls with a big turnout of blue-collar voters who usually don’t cast ballots, Toomey met with some success: On Saturday, none of the local reporters at his event asked about Trump’s campaign, but for a brief mention of his desire for tax reform.

Afterward, asked why he had not attended the Trump rally the night before, Toomey had a concise answer that may be repeated over and over in the final two weeks of campaigning in Pennsylvania.

“You know, I’m not campaigning with Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s running his campaign. I’m running mine.”

Twitter: @cathleendecker


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5:25 p.m.: The story was updated with comments made in Monday night’s Senate debate.

The story was originally published at 6 a.m.