Down Ticket #12: GOP Sen. Toomey hopes to save his seat by bucking his party on guns

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., talks with constituents at Champs Sports Grill in State College, Pa., on August 16, 2016, during his statewide bus tour. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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PHILADELPHIA — With control of the Senate at stake in this year’s election, it’s not surprising to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic star, stumping for Katie McGinty, the challenger to Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, a tea party favorite for most of his career.

It is noteworthy, however, that some gun control groups are backing Toomey. It was news to the people I talked to in the crowd at Harrison Auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania campus on Friday. Many of them were there mainly to see Warren. While they didn’t seem to know much about McGinty — who’s worked on environmental protection at the White House and in state government — they are firm in their dislike of Toomey.

“I’m more anti-Toomey than pro-McGinty,” says Delia Turner, a 65-year-old retired middle school English teacher.

And Warren didn’t disappoint an audience who had come to see her serve up partisan red meat. She bashed Toomey for failing to repudiate Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

“Pat Toomey won’t break with Donald Trump because they share the same ugly agenda. Toomey just wishes that Donald wouldn’t be quite so impolite about it,” Warren said.

But on the issue of guns, at least, Toomey and Trump are quite different. Trump has cozied up to the National Rifle Association, while Toomey is being backed by the two most well known gun control advocates in the country: former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head and nearly killed in 2011.

Bloomberg’s group, Independence USA PAC, has already spent a jaw-dropping $7 million on Toomey’s behalf, airing three different TV ads, including one in which Erica Smegielski, the daughter of slain Sandy Hook Elementary school principal Dawn Hochsprung, praises Toomey.

“When it came time to vote on background checks, Pat Toomey crossed party lines to do the right thing. That’s who he is, and I’m grateful,” Smegielski says in the ad.

Before Warren’s speech, when I’d mentioned Toomey’s unlikely gun control supporters to Jordan Adams, a 19-year-old freshman at UPenn, she looked at me as if I had two heads. We had a brief conversation about why groups that lean left would come into a hotly contested U.S. Senate race, with control of the entire Senate possibly riding on the outcome, to help a Republican.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., had explained the answer just a day earlier. “I don’t think we are going to make progress on this issue if all we do is try to elect Democrats,” Murphy had said during a question-and-answer session after a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

Murphy has emerged this year as a leading voice for gun control, and at the Press Club, Murphy offered remarkable praise for Toomey’s 2013 sponsorship of a bill that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases.

“If you are working on the issue of protecting Americans from gun violence, you have a lot of reason to thank Pat Toomey,” Murphy said in full view of TV cameras. “Pat Toomey, you know, did something that was exceptional in reaching out and working with Democrats on this issue.”

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, left, and Republican Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania announce that they have reached a bipartisan deal on expanding background checks to more gun buyers, at the Capitol in Washington in April 2013. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Murphy acknowledged that his comments wouldn’t be welcomed by other Democrats more focused on winning back the Senate. “Some of my friends get upset when I acknowledge that Pat Toomey did something that was mildly heroic,” he said.

But Murphy is most focused on getting gun control legislation passed. In that respect, he’s like former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who’s chosen to play a major role in helping Toomey get reelected, despite the fact it’s going to anger a lot of Democrats.

Toomey, for his part, is trying not to anger anyone in the state too much. He needs to retain Trump supporters while limiting his losses in the overwhelmingly Democratic parts of the state in and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where Trump is an albatross. Thus, he has half-embraced Trump, and is emphasizing his bipartisan work on guns.

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But why do gun groups that lean Democratic think rewarding Republicans who worked with them is more important than regaining control of the Senate? To grasp Bloomberg’s and Giffords’ strategic thinking, it’s vital to understand the way the Senate works.

It takes 60 votes to pass most contentious legislation through the Senate, because of the way the Senate has functioned in the modern era. Technically, you only need a majority of 51 votes. But it’s become standard procedure for the minority party to block things with a filibuster, and it takes 60 votes to move past it.

Democrats were the last party to hold a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, which they lost in 2009 when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died and a Republican won the election to replace him. So even if they won back control of the Senate by a few seats, that wouldn’t give them a clear path to passing a bill to expand background checks.

As Murphy noted, even if all the Democrats in the Senate voted for a bill, they’d still need Republicans. Let’s say Democrats have 51 seats after this election, up from the 46 they have now. They’d still need nine Republicans to vote with them. But not even all Democrats have voted for bills to limit gun purchases. Toomey’s 2013 bill, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., after the Newtown shooting, got only 54 votes, even though Democrats controlled the Senate then. Of the 46 votes against, five came from Democrats. There were four Republicans who voted for the bill, Toomey included.

Toomey-Manchin would have expanded background checks beyond purchases from federally licensed gun dealers to gun show and Internet purchases, while carving out exceptions for sales between friends and family members, and explicitly prohibiting any kind of national gun registry. Toomey took plenty of heat from the right and the National Rifle Association for backing this.

“It was a rough time,” Toomey told me. His office was overwhelmed with “angry calls” from people in his state who he said were misinformed about the substance of his bill. “It was extremely intense,” he said. “I’m still amazed that my staff manning the phones didn’t just walk off the job.”

Historically, the NRA has been the biggest political force in the gun debate. The group spent $34 million in the 2014 elections. The whole point of backing a Republican in such a high-stakes race as the one in Pennsylvania, then, is to encourage Republicans and Democrats in conservative states to vote in favor of future gun control bills.

Donald Carder wears his handgun in a holster as he pushes his son, Waylon, in a stroller at the National Rifle Association convention on Saturday, May 21, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

“There has been this imbalance for so long,” said Mark Prentice, a spokesman for Giffords’ group, Americans for Responsible Solutions. “There was the gun lobby on one side, and basically nothing on the other.”

Toomey, for example, got $1.4 million in ad support from the NRA in 2010 — the most of any candidate that year — when he first won election to the Senate. The NRA in 2016 has not endorsed Toomey, remaining silent so far on the race.

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky is a D.C.-based analyst on social issues and politics for the group Third Way. She has worked behind the scenes on efforts to expand background checks under the law. In 2013, Erickson Hatalsky said, Giffords’ group gave Toomey a promise that if he took the political risk of supporting background check legislation, the organization would stand by him when he ran for reelection.

“They said, ‘We will help protect you when the backlash comes,’” Erickson Hatalsky said. “The question was whether they would stand by their word. I don’t see how you can make progress without standing by your word. If members of Congress don’t believe you, they won’t step out with you.” (Toomey himself said he did not “recall any discussion at all with any of those folks about campaigns and elections.”)

Bloomberg is an independent who views political parties with near disdain. “For Mike Bloomberg, party affiliation is just not important. He’s not a partisan person, and he believes that if there are Republicans who stand with us on this issue, they deserve to be supported,” said Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser to Bloomberg and a past adviser to Hillary Clinton.

Wolfson noted that while Bloomberg’s PAC is spending millions for Toomey, it is also putting money into the New Hampshire Senate race on behalf of the Democrat there, Gov. Maggie Hassan. Hassan’s bid to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte — who voted against the Toomey-Manchin bill — is another key part of the Democrats’ effort to retake the Senate majority. But so far, Independence USA PAC has spent only $788,927, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Wolfson said the PAC will spend over $10 million on Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, which gives the Bloomberg group some space to draw closer to parity in its spending in the two states. And by playing in races that cut both ways, Bloomberg can argue he is not putting his finger on the scale for either party in the fight to control the Senate.

“We thought it was important to demonstrate that we stand by our friends regardless of party when they do the right thing, and that regardless of party, we oppose people who do the wrong thing,” Wolfson said.

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The idea that a gun-controlling, pro-choice former New York Mayor like Mike Bloomberg would consider Pat Toomey a “friend” would have seemed almost unthinkable a decade ago. Toomey was an anti-establishment insurgent congressman during the presidency of George W. Bush. He was tea party before it existed.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016. (Photo: Paul Sancya/AP)

His first race for the Senate was in a primary against a member of his own party, Sen. Arlen Specter. That was in 2004, not long after the 1999 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law diminished the moderating influence of political parties relative to outside groups that could spend unlimited amounts to pursue specific agendas. Toomey won the backing of one of the first big conservative organizations to attack Republicans for not being ideologically pure enough: the Club for Growth.

The founder of the club, Stephen Moore, was calling Republicans who didn’t meet his standards “Rinos” — “Republicans in Name Only” — even back then. (Moore is now an adviser to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump). And although Specter’s voting record on economic issues was just as conservative as Toomey’s was during his six years in Congress, Moore threw the club’s support behind Toomey to give him a “major scalp on the wall” and heighten his group’s influence.

The Club for Growth spent more than $2 million to help Toomey, but he still narrowly lost to Specter. Toomey voluntarily retired from the House the next year and took over the Club for Growth from Moore, until 2009.

In 2010, Toomey again challenged Specter, and this time, he caught the anti-establishment tea party wave. Specter, the definition of establishment after 30 years in the Senate, didn’t even try to contest the primary. Instead, Specter switched parties and ran as a Democrat. He lost the nomination to Joe Sestak, who was beaten by Toomey, again with the help of Club for Growth spending.

The Club for Growth pioneered the rise of outside groups in politics, a trend that exploded after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that further weakened the political parties. And over the last several years, outside groups have wreaked havoc on the Republican Party establishment. Groups like Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund have helped ambitious politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz fight against the Republican leadership in the Congress, leading to the 2013 government shutdown.

Anti-establishment rhetoric has ramped up each year, and in 2016, Trump took Cruz’s playbook, put it on steroids, and injected a heavy dose of celebrity, running as the ultimate outsider, beholden to no one.

But Trump’s candidacy has put Toomey in a difficult position. He has made his distaste for Trump clear, declined to endorse him, and stayed away from the GOP convention in July.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Toomey “hopes to support the GOP presidential nominee, but is ‘waiting to be persuaded.’”

Donald Trump speaks at a National Rifle Association convention, May 20, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

“I am inclined to support the nominee of my party,” Toomey wrote in May. “There could come a point at which the differences are so great as to be irreconcilable.”

“Toomey is a movement conservative, and you know how they generally feel about Trump,” said Chris Nicholas, a Republican consultant who worked for Specter in multiple elections. Trump “has, in general, no ideological moorings, so that gives [conservatives like Toomey] great pause.”

Still, Trump appeals to many voters outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the two urban centers in the southern corners of the state. And while many Pennsylvanians hate the description of their state coined by Democratic strategist James Carville — “Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in the middle” — the 2016 election is only heightening the contrast between the red and blue parts of the state.

In fact, said Nicholas, local polling around the state is showing off-the-charts support for Trump in rural parts of the state. Longtime state Sen. John Wozniak, a Democrat from Johnstown, retired after 20 years this year because he saw no chance of winning his seat back, Nicholas said.

But districts around Philadelphia where 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney got support in the mid-40s are now polling in the mid-30s for Trump, Nicholas said.

So Toomey can’t ditch Trump entirely, but he has to counter the Trump effect in and around the two big cities.

There are almost one million more Democrats in the state than there are Republicans. Of the 8 million or so registered voters in Pennsylvania, nearly 3 million live in or around Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. And Democrats make up around 2 million of those voters.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and his son Duncan, 6, meet constituents at Bridgewater Church in Montrose, Pa., during his statewide bus tour, August 14, 2016. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The gun issue gives Toomey a way to reduce his margin of loss in the two cities, while giving himself a fighting chance in some of the suburban counties around Philadelphia. And the Republican senator was quick to pick up on the issue, running a TV ad in the spring that showed him talking to two women at a playground. Toomey, the ad claimed, “led the fight to keep guns away from criminals.”

“It’s very clear from the ad he ran on this that he’s thinking of this as his insulation with suburban moms,” Erickson Hatalsky told me. “Trump could not be doing more poorly with white women in the suburbs, and that’s a group Republicans have to do well with to win.”

Toomey noted to me that he’d voted in favor of background checks all the way back in 1999, after the Columbine school shooting earlier that year. It was a bill proposed by Florida Republican Bill McCollum, who was himself running for a Senate seat that year. It was criticized by gun control advocates as inadequate, but it did draw support from 137 Republicans.

“I haven’t changed,” Toomey said. “The environment changed, there’s no question.”

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Baby face or heel? ‘Rhyno’ Gerin runs for Michigan statehouse

Terrance Guido Gerin and Gerin as wrestler ‘Rhino’ at the Stars of TNA Impact Wrestling in 2014. (Photos: terranceguidogerin.com, Jackie Brown/Splash News)

By Christopher Wilson

 

It’s not unusual for pro wrestling and politics to mix. Jesse Ventura had a long career in the squared circle before becoming Minnesota’s governor. Former WWE CEO Linda McMahon twice won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, losing in the general election both times. Even Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president of the United States, is a member of the WWE Hall of Fame for his work as a promoter and for WrestleMania appearances. But even so, it’s a little unusual for an active wrestler to also be competing for office.

But that’s the case with Terrance Guido Gerin, who’s running to be a state representative in Michigan. Gerin won the 15th district’s three-way Republican primary in August by just 54 votes, but that wasn’t his only accomplishment of the evening: He also appeared on “SmackDown Live” on the same night. Gerin is a veteran pro wrestler who competes under the name Rhyno (also known as Rhino), and he’s had a pretty productive summer in and out of the ring. In addition to his primary, he also won the WWE Smackdown Tag Team Championships on Sunday.

The crux of Gerin’s platform — in fact, the only issue currently listed on his website — is to keep the public pools of Dearborn, Mich., open. His plan is to work with local businesses to get sponsors for the public pools, which he considers an important part of the community and a place he and his brothers visited frequently while growing up.

Gerin is not running away from his pro wrestling career. Both his website and Facebook page are under the title “Vote for Rhino,” and the only current endorsements on his website are from pro wrestlers Kurt Angle and Shane Douglas. A pro-Gerin campaign ad featuring Angle, an Olympic gold medalist, putting an “undecided voter” in a submission hold has over 70,000 views on YouTube:

It’ll be a tough race for Gerin to win, as Democrat George Darany won 67 percent of the vote in 2014. (Darany is term-limited out of office, leading to the open seat.) The Democratic candidate, Abdullah Hammoud, says Gerin’s day job hasn’t been an issue in the race.

“Since the start of our campaign, we’ve been focused on the residents of the Dearborn community and the issues impacting them,” Hammoud said in an interview with Yahoo News. “Running against Mr. Gerin has added an element of interest in the election from media and wrestling fans, but overall, it has not affected the way we run our campaign.

This is Hammoud’s first race, but he got some early battle testing after prevailing in a six-way battle royal of a Democratic primary. The 25-year-old, who grew up in Dearborn and is a product of its public schools, is on good terms with his opponent.

“We actually work out at the same gym, so I do see him from time to time,” said Hammoud. “He’s a great guy, and I respect him and his team. Running for public office is no easy feat.”

“I’m sure there’s a lot we agree on, but it’s a matter of how we get there. I hope to work with Mr. Gerin on some of those issues post-election, as we ensure all Dearborn voices are heard and accounted for.”

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Out of sight, W fights for a GOP Senate

George W. and Laura Bush at the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 11, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

George W. and Laura Bush at the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 11, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

Yahoo News Chief Washington Correspondent Olivier Knox reported on former president George W. Bush’s efforts to keep a Republican majority in the Senate, while staying away from Trump. The senators he’s planning on helping.

The former president headlined an event for Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire in May in his hometown of Dallas, the first of eight fundraisers he has done to date, according to a source familiar with his efforts. He appeared at others for Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri in St. Louis in June; Sen. John McCain of Arizona in Dallas in June; and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio in Cincinnati and Columbus in August. That same month, Bush attended a fundraiser organized by Texas Sen. John Cornyn to help Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as Joe Heck and Todd Young, who are Senate candidates in Nevada and Indiana, respectively. On Sept. 12, Bush held fundraisers for Young in Elkhart and Indianapolis.

Bush has at least six more events coming up. He’ll raise money with Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the Republicans’ Senate Leadership Fund at an upcoming event in Dallas, and for the National Republican Senate Committee in Washington, D.C. In October, Bush will headline fundraisers for Heck in Nevada, Rubio in Florida, Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and Sen. Richard Burr in North Carolina.

Read his full story here.
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