Every time Donald Trump digs himself into a deeper hole, Sen. Pat Toomey has to climb out of it without actually, well, getting out.
The incumbent Republican from Pennsylvania is locked into the re-election race of his life. He’s running against Democrat Katie McGinty, who has never before held elective office, and for the last several months, most of the many, many polls have shown the race either tied or within the margin of error.
Toomey has stayed noncommittal — seemingly as indecisive as humanly possible — on whether or not he’ll support Trump, becoming the butt of a joke on late night TV and wading through a deluge of attacks from his opponent tying him to Trump and labeling him “Fraidy Pat.” Meanwhile, the GOP presidential candidate tanks in the polls following the surfacing of a 2005 Access Hollywood tape and now 10 women who have come forward saying he sexually harassed or groped them.
It’s pretty obvious why the senator won’t take a hard stance on Trump.
Experts say he wants to appeal to moderates who may split their ticket, voting for Hillary Clinton for president and Toomey for U.S. Senate. He also doesn’t want to alienate the base by saying he unequivocally won’t cast a vote for Trump.
For Toomey, it’s all going to come down to numbers — numbers that are nearly impossible to predict. Will Trump lose Pennsylvania by double digits? And by how much would Clinton have to win Pennsylvania to put Toomey away, too?
“If Trump really flounders in the state, it may drag Pat Toomey underwater,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “If Trump remains somewhat competitive or makes this a really close race, Pat Toomey is much more likely to have his seat back. It’s close.”
A virtual dead heat
Public polls in this senate race between McGinty and Toomey have been sort of inconclusive for the last several months. Toomey had a strong lead following the primary — he was unchallenged — and consistently led McGinty in the polls through June.
But after the Democratic National Convention, McGinty pulled up in the polls and, despite several outliers on both sides, the two have largely been within the margin of error since. Real Clear Politics, which averages polls, currently has McGinty leading by 0.4 points. Last week, Toomey was leading by the same amount. Not exactly a lead either of them can bank on.
Some experts said Toomey’s dip was tied to Trump’s — the GOP presidential nominee had a hard time bouncing back following the Democratic National Convention and his feuding with a Gold Star family who spoke at the convention in favor of Clinton. Things went downhill for Trump since then.
But that’s not the case anymore. Yes, Trump has plummeted in Pennsylvania. The Real Clear Politics average has Clinton leading Trump in Pennsylvania by seven points. A Bloomberg poll taken after the release of the Access Hollywood tape showed her leading in Pennsylvania by nine points. And yet in the same time period, despite not making a decision on Trump, Toomey has held his ground. Like everything else, that probably has something to do with money.
The Pennsylvania Senate race is on track to be the most expensive congressional race in history, eclipsing the 2014 North Carolina Senate race, in which more than $100 million was spent by the candidates and outside groups.
FEC reports from mid-August show that at that time, the U.S. Senate race here was already the most expensive in the country with $101 million being spent. Of that, $25 million was spent by the candidates — the rest by outside groups, mostly major super PACs. That $101 million total topped the second-most expensive senate race in the country in New Hampshire by about $25 million.
That amount of spending and the barrage of television ads in Pennsylvania are probably what’s keeping this race within reach for both candidates.
“At this point it’s so close,” Franklin and Marshall pollster Terry Madonna said, “you’d have to say either candidate can win.”
Separating himself from Trump
McGinty’s team must be licking their chops at the press Toomey’s gotten in the last week.
The headline on one Philadelphia Inquirer columnist’s piece: “Toomey’s take on Trump not exactly a profile in courage.”
Jimmy Kimmel actually made fun of the senator.
New York Magazine ran a sarcastic headline reading: “Nonconformist Senator Bravely Refuses to Endorse Trump or Not Endorse Trump.”
The Democrats have doubled down. McGinty released the above ad this week called “Dangerous,” that includes excerpts from the Access Hollywood tape. A narrator says: “Even after Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, Toomey stood by him.”
But that isn’t exactly what’s happened. Toomey isn’t standing by Trump, but he also isn’t running away from him. The Republican put out an ad of his own this week. It’s called “Independence,” and it features Toomey explicitly saying he doesn’t agree with Trump and urging voters to support a candidate who will “stand up to any president’s bad ideas.”
“Pennsylvania voters want a senator who will be an independent voice for them,” Toomey’s spokesman Ted Kwong said in a prepared statement, “and Pat Toomey has taken on his own party on important issues like gun safety, fighting corporate welfare, and ending taxpayer bailouts of big Wall Street banks.”
I asked McGinty’s camp if they really think voters will tie Toomey to Trump in their heads even though Toomey hasn’t explicitly said he’s endorsing Trump or even voting for him.
“I think they will,” spokesman Sean Coit said. “Particularly since Toomey has made sure he’s just not going to denounce Trump.”
Experts also say we shouldn’t expect Toomey to fully denounce Trump any time soon, unless something (else) explosive and unexpected happens. Borick, of Muhlenberg, said though this middle-of-the-road take on Trump is “awkward” for Toomey, it’s probably the best position he could hope for.
“He certainly can’t get tight with Trump — there’s too much volatility there and you’re attaching yourself to a hand grenade that can go off at any time,” Borick said. “But [Toomey] doesn’t want to appear to be deserting someone that a lot of hardcore Republicans support.”
Larry Ceisler, a Pennsylvania political consultant and principal of Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy, agreed, saying, “If there was a time for [Toomey] to break with Trump, it was last week.”
“Pat Toomey has run as good a campaign as he can run,” Ceisler said. “That being said, Trump is a problem.”
The problem for Toomey is that he can’t accurately predict how many voters he’d lose if he denounced Trump. Surely his campaign has asked the question in internal polls, but focus groups aren’t the voting booth. And Toomey doesn’t know what Trump might do — urge his voters to not vote in the down-ballot races? — if he comes out fully against him.
So now, the question everyone’s asking of Toomey is this: What’s the breaking point?
“It might get to the point where Trump becomes so toxic,” Borick said, “and seems to be completely imploding that [Toomey] has to roll the dice and say, ‘You know what, I have to create distance to win over voters that are going to be flocking away from me and every other Republican because of Trump.’ ”
Can Toomey win even if Trump bombs?
You can bet on Toomey winning some ticket-splitters, meaning likely moderate Republicans who will vote for Clinton at the top of the ticket and Toomey for the senate. The question is just how many.
In 2012, split-ticket voting was at an all-time low as politics and rhetoric have become more partisan than ever before. Pundits expect ticket-splitting this year to be a bit higher because of Republicans abandoning Trump and voting for Clinton at the top and members of the GOP down ballot.
But banking on ticket-splitters puts Toomey in a bad place. He could win enough ticket-splitters to prevail, even if Clinton wins the state. But if Clinton wins the state in a landslide, Toomey’s in big trouble. There just aren’t that many ticket-splitters in the state. Ceisler said he couldn’t see a way Toomey could withstand a Clinton lead of seven, eight, nine points or more.
“You can run the best campaign in the world,” he said, “but ticket-splitters are like moderate Republicans. They don’t exist anymore.”
Madonna agreed, saying the “key point” of this race is that if one candidate wins the presidential race by even seven or eight points, it’s nearly impossible for the senator from the other party to win.
The good news for Toomey is that there is some precedent here in Pennsylvania, where Democrats currently hold a voter registration advantage of about a million people. The last three times incumbent Republican senators ran for re-election in a presidential year — so this is going back two decades — the Republican won even though a Democrat won the presidency.
Arlen Specter won by 11 points in 2004 even though Democrat John Kerry won the state for the presidency. In 2000, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum won by seven points while Democrat Al Gore won the presidency in the state. And perhaps the best example for Toomey is from 1992, when Bill Clinton won Pennsylvania by nine points, but Specter still won his race by three points. Similarly, in 2014, Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf won the state by almost 10 points. Down ballot, Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican, won his almost evenly-split congressional district by a whopping 13 percent.
Still, none of these races are at all equivalent to what’s happening in Pennsylvania this year. If Toomey wants his seat back and the presidential race stays how it is now, the senator will have to convince a large amount of Clinton voters to split their ticket down-ballot.
“I don’t know how they do that,” Madonna said. “It’s just a superhuman job. Having said that, we’re in this weird election where nothing any of us has said has been right.
“We don’t have a clue what the hell’s going on.”