Pennsylvania Senate race: The Republican who wants to take your guns

Hugh Daly, Contributing Writer

As the summer draws to a close, the Pennsylvania Senate race between Democratic candidate Katie McGinty and Republican Senator Pat Toomey is starting to intensify. Pennsylvania is one of the major seats that Democrats intend to acquire to secure a majority in the Senate this November.

For months, Toomey held a significant ten-point lead in the polls. However, McGinty has gained ground in recent weeks, even taking low single-digit leads in some polls. Many analysts have attributed this shift in the ballot races to the recent activity in the presidential campaigns. The argument is that Hillary Clinton has increased her lead on Donald Trump in the post-convention weeks, and that candidates such as McGinty have begun to benefit from a ripple effect.

In addition, it appears as though Republicans in battleground states do not know just how to tackle the issue of endorsing Trump. Pennsylvania has been listed as one of the most vulnerable seats for months, and Toomey has attempted to distance himself from the Republican nominee in order to retain his position.

A recent Monmouth University poll showed that 19 percent of eligible voters believe Toomey has not been supportive enough of Donald Trump, 15 percent believe he has been too supportive, and 28 percent think he has given just the right amount of support. In contrast, 43 percent of voters believe that McGinty has given the right amount of support to Clinton. It remains unclear as to what the best decision for Toomey would be when it comes to endorsing Trump, because in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans four to three, Toomey must be creative in how he courts moderate voters.

It is important to note that there are large regions in central Pennsylvania that are staunchly conservative and even Tea Party-affiliated. The state has one Democratic senator and governor, but thirteen of the eighteen district representatives are Republican. The liberal-leaning urban areas of Philadelphia and parts of Pittsburgh are the only reason why the state has leaned democratically throughout the past few cycles. Toomey will have to balance the partisanship across the state not only when it comes to endorsing Trump, but on many hot topic policy issues as well.

In 2013, Toomey crossed party lines and paired up with Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia on a bill that would install stronger background checks. Toomey’s shift infuriated not only deep-pocketed gun rights groups, but it also agitated the hardened conservative Republican base in the state. The issue of guns is a defining issue that can win or lose elections depending on the political leaning of a specific state. Toomey’s shift on gun control coincided with the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. A Franklin and Marshall poll conducted a few months after the Sandy Hook shooting showed that 94 percent of the population supported background checks. Pennsylvania has been historically known to lean strongly in favor of gun rights, as gun rights groups effectively mobilized their conservative rural base for years. However, the liberal-leaning urban areas of the state have become ever more involved in the political process following these mass shootings. This cannot be ignored by someone who is running a statewide race. Not only did  Toomey switch his position following the massacre, but so did Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), who was one of the few Democrats that was pro-gun rights at the time. Whether it was political pragmatism or an actual ideological shift, Toomey’s move to the center has shown mixed returns, including unlikely donors.

This past month, Toomey received $4 million in donations from pro-gun control advocacy groups. One of the PACs is run by former Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who sustained brain damage in an assassination attempt in 2011. Toomey was once rated as an “A” by the NRA and received donations from the organization in his first election. Now he is viewed as a point of compromise by the Democratic party, thanks to his partnership with Manchin. The move by Giffords’ PAC was an unfortunate snub for the McGinty campaign. To make matters worse, this happened as McGinty was trying to capitalize on Toomey’s gun control record in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting. From the gun advocacy group’s point of view, it may be a more strategic move to keep a Republican gun-control supporter in the Senate.

However, the real question is will it be the right move for Toomey, who is a member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus. This cycle, Toomey has been forced to decide between appealing to moderate Democrats and independents, or the hardcore rural and conservative base of the Republican party that got him elected in the first place. As he has not supported Trump and aligns with Democratic ideals on polarizing issues such as guns, it is pretty clear as to how he has played his hand. Only time will tell as to whether Toomey can maneuver his way to a second term through the minefield that is Pennsylvania politics.

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