In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, first term Republican senator Pat Toomey is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.
His race with Democratic challenger Katie McGinty, a former state environmental official, is virtually tied with just over two weeks before election day. And with Democrats needing to flip just four Republican senate seats to take control of the chamber if Hillary Clinton wins, the race in Pennsylvania is one of a handful likely to have national implications.
Across the state Toomey and McGinty have sparred over a litany of issues from taxes to reproductive rights to trade. But it’s Sen. Toomey’s relationship to the top of the Republican party’s ticket that has become a key point in the race. While Republicans across the country have either stood by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, or in some cases distanced themselves completely, Toomey is the only senator running for reelection that hasn’t said whether he will vote for or support his party’s nominee.
It’s a point that has been repeatedly emphasized by his Democratic challenger Katie McGinty.
“Every day when ever more horrific evidence comes to light about what and who Donald Trump is and Pat Toomey fails to have the courage to say this is wrong, this is beneath human dignity, McGinty tells NewsHour Weekend. “Pat Toomey is making clear where he stands. That’s with Donald Trump.”
“I am running an independent race,” says Sen. Toomey in an interview with NewHour Weekend.
Sen. Toomey argues his race for reelection is separate from the presidential contest. “I think Pennsylvania voters are totally capable of distinguishing between the presidential race, which has in my view, two very badly flawed candidates.”
In Pennsylvania, running for reelection in a battleground state at the same time as Donald Trump has complicated the dynamic for Sen. Toomey.
More than a fifth of the statewide electorate is in the suburban “collar” counties surrounding Philadelphia, where recent polling shows Trump trailing by nearly 30 points behind Clinton. At the same time, Sen. Toomey needs to not alienate Trump’s most fervent supporters.
“[Toomey’s] on that tightrope,” says G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. “Somewhere he’s gotta find a middle road to get both of them.”
With fewer and fewer voters choosing to “split” their tickets and vote for president of one party and congressional representative of another party, Sen. Toomey’s task is even more difficult.
“If one of the two presidential candidates wins let’s say seven, eight, nine points, I think it’s gonna be very difficult, if not impossible, for the Senate candidate in the other party to prevail,” says Madonna.
Read the full transcript below.
JEFF GREENFIELD, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: This is Trump Country—Wilkes-Barre, in northeast Pennsylvania—where his fervent backers offer cheers for the Republican presidential nominee.
DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Everyone in Pennsylvania wants Trump you know…
JEFF GREENFIELD: But outside the event, Trump backers offer tough words for the party’s incumbent Republican senator, Pat Toomey, who is the only senator running for reelection who hasn’t said whether he supports or will vote for Trump.
DONALD, TRUMP SUPPORTER: He should endorse Trump. He’s a Republican. He should’ve done it.
BARBARA, TRUMP SUPPORTER: He’s not listening to the will of the people.
GREG, TRUMP SUPPORTER: I don’t like the arrogance, and he’s part of the establishment.
JEFF GREENFIELD: A day later, at a Toomey breakfast 100 miles to the south, in the Philadelphia suburbs, the senator offers them no comfort.
SEN. PAT TOOMEY, (R) PENNSYLVANIA: I had hoped that Donald Trump would persuade me to be an enthusiastic supporter. That had been what I hoped. I’ve supported every Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan without exception. But at this point, I remain unpersuaded.
JEFF GREENFIELD: To many of the voters at this event, that is exactly that distance they admire.
TOOMEY SUPPORTER: I don’t believe that you have to think the same way as everybody else all the time.
JEFF GREENFIELD: Elected as a conservative Republican during the 2010 midterm wave, Toomey points to his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion… Passing legislation signed by President Obama to help small businesses and working with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin after the Newtown school massacre to require universal background checks for anyone buying a gun.
Katie Mcginty is Toomey’s Democratic challenger. She worked for two Pennsylvania governors and in Bill Clinton’s administration…And Hillary Clinton lent her support in Pennsylvania this weekend.
HILLARY CLINTON: I hope that Philadelphia will send Katie McGinty, on behalf of Pennsylvania, to the United States Senate!
JEFF GREENFIELD: Both are tying Toomey to the top of the Republican ticket.
KATIE MCGINTY, (D) Pennsylvania Senate Candidate: Every day whenever more
horrific evidence comes to light about what and who Donald Trump is and Pat Toomey fails to have the courage to say this is wrong, this is beneath human dignity. Pat Toomey is making clear where he stands. That’s with Donald Trump and that’s against the values, the family values that Pennsylvanians really stand for and honor.
PAT TOOMEY: I think Pennsylvania voters are totally capable of distinguishing between the presidential race, which has in my view, two very badly flawed candidates, and the senate race, which is a totally different thing. So I am running an independent race. I have from Day One. I’ve been an independent voice, and I think that Pennsylvanians will make a separate judgment.
JEFF GREENFIELD: That’s why Toomey invited Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins—who has flatly said she will not be voting for Trump — to underscore his message.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R) MAINE: He puts people ahead of politics; he is beholden to no one…”
JEFF GREENFIELD: Toomey’s struggle to open daylight between himself and Trump is
playing out across the country for other Republican Senators in battleground states where Trump is trailing or falling in the polls. Some–like John McCain and Kelly Ayotte–broke with Trump following the release of the Access Hollywood video showing Trump speaking lewdly and disparagingly about women.
G. TERRY MADONNA, FRANKLIN AND MARSHALL COLLEGE: If one of the two presidential candidates wins let’s say seven, eight, nine points, I think it’s gonna be very difficult, if not impossible, for the Senate candidate in the other party to prevail.”
JEFF GREENFIELD: Terry Madonna directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
G. TERRY MADONNA: Toomey needs to do two things. Win a high percentage of the white, working class voters, particularly in the southwestern part of Pennsylvania and the northeast, that’s Trump’s biggest area of support and win the suburban counties with the college-educated voters that Hillary Clinton is winning right now. So he’s on that tightrope. Somewhere he’s gotta find a middle road to get both of them. And that’s very difficult.
JEFF GREENFIELD: And it’s especially difficult, Madonna adds, because Pennsylvanians and voters nationwide are splitting their tickets much less than in past elections. That is, they are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate and congressional candidate of the same party.
JEFF GREENFIELD: The problem for Senator Toomey — as with many other endangered Republican incumbents — lies in places like this: these are the suburbs of Philadelphia. Once reliably Republican, they’ve grown increasingly Democratic in presidential years. A trend likely to accelerate given who is at the top of the GOP ticket
The four large suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia make up more than a fifth of the state’s electorate and a recent poll of likely voters in these counties found Clinton is preferred over Trump by 28 percentage points.
At Main Line School Night, a non-profit community education program in Delaware County, I sat down with three women who have voted Republican in the past, but who don’t support Trump. Carole Rubley supports Clinton.
CAROLE RUBLEY, PENNSYLVANIA VOTER: I was a Republican until one month before the primary, when I realized it was going to be, at that point, between Trump and Ted Cruz. So, I switched. It was really hard after 40 years.
JEFF GREENFIELD: So it sounds– it sounds like again, if the Republicans had put someone else on the ticket like a Kasich or a Bush or a Rubio or somebody, you might have been tempted to vote Republican?
CAROLE RUBLEY: I would have considered that candidate, absolutely.
JEFF GREENFIELD: Constance Carino says she’s not voting for either presidential candidate, but will likely support Toomey in the senate race.
What do you think is leaning you more towards Toomey than his opponent?
CONSTANCE CARINO, PENNSYLVANIA VOTER: I don’t like one party in control, okay. And I’m really very worried about the senate, in particular, turning. And so, I would like to have a balance. I think it’s the only chance.”
JEFF GREENFIELD: The check and balance of a Republican congress–
CONSTANCE CARINO: Right.
JEFF GREENFIELD: –and a Democratic president appeals to you?”
CONSTANCE CARINO: It does. It does. It really does. I like it.
JEFF GREENFIELD: Barbara Cohen is for Clinton and says she plans to vote for Democrat Katie McGinty because of the Trump factor.
BARBARA COHEN: I’ve really thought very hard about this, and it’s just I don’t trust
Toomey. I feel he’s trying to straddle a fence in so far, he hasn’t endorsed Trump. On the other hand, he hasn’t come out in a brave open way, the way Senator McCain has done, for example. I respect that.”
JEFF GREENFIELD: For Democrat Katie McGinty, the argument is very simple. Whatever Senator Toomey says, he and Donald Trump are two peas in a pod.
Even when she was campaigning with Democratic New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for better childcare for working parents, Trump was still front and center.
The argument that your opponent is making that I can work across party lines, I have shown that, I’m not a rubber stamp, and that you would simply
do what a President Clinton wants, we need checks and balances, to which you say?
KATIE MCGINTY: Well, it’s time for Senator Toomey to stand up right now today, and show us that he’s ready to stand up to Donald Trump, not in Washington, right here and let us know: are you voting for Donald Trump, or are you not?
JEFF GREENFIELD: It’s a question dominating their TV ads — so many this campaign has become the most expensive Senate race in the country.
MCGINTY POLITICAL AD: Even after Trump bragged about sexually assaulting
women, Toomey stood by him.
TOOMEY POLITICAL AD: What’s important for Pennsylvanians is having a senator who will stand up to any president’s bad ideas.
JEFF GREENFIELD: The bipartisan bill to tighten background checks for gun buyers failed to pass the Senate.
SEN. PAT TOOMEY, SENATE FLOOR: The goal was to see if we can find a way to make it a little bit more difficult for the people who have no legal right to have a gun, for them to obtain it.
JEFF GREENFIELD: Toomey’s stand earned him the endorsements of gun safety leaders like former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But Toomey’s stance cost him the support of some gun rights advocates in Pennsylvania. David Dalton is the founder of the Pennsylvania-based American Gun Owners Alliance. He won’t vote for Sen. Toomey.
DAVID DALTON, AMERICAN GUN OWNERS ALLIANCE: It’s a scary situation. But I honestly believe and so do many other groups in the state that if we do vote for Toomey, we’re giving credence to him and Bloomberg and Giffords. It’s basically come down to vote for anyone but Toomey if you believe in gun rights. We want to tell the Republican Party: ‘enough is enough.’ If you don’t want to back us anymore, we’re not going to back you.
JEFF GREENFIELD: McGinty argues her positions on gun control are even stronger than Toomey’s and that he’s out-of-step with Pennsylvanians on several key issues.
KATIE MCGINTY: Pat Toomey is not only right, he’s extreme right. Not only wanting to defund Planned Parenthood but shut down the entire government to do it. A rare Republican vote against bipartisan legislation that offered tax cuts to families to afford college. Pat Toomey’s way out of the mainstream.
JEFF GREENFIELD: Toomey remains optimistic that his message — that he can build
bridges if he is sent back to Washington — is connecting at home.
PAT TOOMEY: This has been a very polarizing election at the top of the ticket. It’s been ugly. And that does make it more difficult. But that doesn’t mean we give up.
JEFF GREENFIELD: With just a little more than two weeks until the election, the latest polls show the race between Toomey and McGinty virtually tied…which means that a handful of Pennsylvania voters could well determine who controls the Senate next year..
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