Republican Sen. Pat Toomey seems to have dodged a bullet with gun supporters upset over his compromise on background checks, as his speech to a gathering of Pennsylvania conservatives garnered a warm reception over the weekend.
There was quite a bit of nervousness about what would happen when the Pennsylvania senator made his appearance Saturday at the state’s biggest conservative conclave.
With more than 700 activists from throughout the Keystone State gathering in Harrisburg for the annual Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, organizers of the event were worried that Toomey would face a hostile reception for sponsoring a bill expanding background checks to gun shows and online sales.
As it turned out, Toomey emerged mainly unscathed following his address. There was a little grumbling at points in his remarks, but no booing and no one walked out.
“There were a lot of crossed arms and complaints at my table before Pat came, and they were talking about staying silent during his speech,” said veteran conservative activist Everett Hamilton. “But when he was done, everyone stood and applauded. They liked the way he dealt with this issue.”
Having energized Pennsylvania conservatives with his near-successful primary challenge to liberal GOP Sen. Arlen Specter in 2004, and after being elected in one of the closest Senate races of 2010, Toomey was not going to be abandoned by his base — not even in a state where it is often said that “gun control” means “how straight is your aim?”
The senator, in turn, made it clear in his remarks Saturday that “we can agree to disagree on this.”
He also left no doubt that his support of gun control through the compromise measure he drew up with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin was a brief flirtation. As he told the PLC audience, “I hope we can move on.”
But given some of the emotion over the gun-control issue and the national attention given Toomey on his compromise measure which the Obama White House embraced, there were some anxious moments in Harrisburg leading up to the senator’s speech.
“Toomey lost my vote on that one,” Jeff Goldberg, a pharmaceutical company executive from Frazer and a backer of Toomey in his two Senate races, told me. “When he voted to lift the debt ceiling during the fiscal-cliff debate, I kept my mouth shut. But after [Manchin-Toomey], I decided not to support him anymore. When push comes to shove, he does not take the conservative position.”
Exton real-estate agent Jeff Belford was even blunter: “Toomey’s finished with his base after this.”
Even freshman Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus, who introduced Toomey in glowing terms, had his doubts about the Manchin-Toomey proposal. When I asked him if he would consider voting for the measure, Rothfus replied: “No, not in its present from.”
“We can agree to disagree on this,” Toomey told the audience. “Most of you in this room probably disagree with me. I appreciate this.”
After reminding the standing-room-only crowd that he received an “A” grade from the National Rifle Association, the senator segued into an explanation of how his proposal was not as strong as language in Democratic measures and still “allowed people to enjoy their Second Amendment rights.”
Toomey also pointed out that the background checks this bill called for were not as strict as those in Pennsylvania.
But Toomey said, “I lost,” and added he would turn his attention to his usual issues. These include “rushing back on excessive regulation” and offering free-market alternatives on healthcare because “Obamacare is unraveling right before our eyes.”
That was all that conservatives needed to hear from the senator who they highly regarded long before he joined with Manchin on the gun-control proposal, which failed in the Senate last week.
Others at the session pointed out that Toomey will not face the voters again until 2016. With Democrats increasing their voter registration ranks in the state and Pennsylvania’s history of voting for the Democratic presidential nominee unbroken since 1988, it seems a safe bet to say the Republican senator will face a spirited challenge from the other party.
“I can’t see the conservative base abandoning Sen. Toomey over one issue — and on a bill that didn’t pass,” said educator Jim Broussard of Hershey, who has been coming to PLC sessions since they began in 1989. “Besides, you are just not going to get anyone here more conservative on taxes, spending, or abortion.”
When I caught up with Toomey following his speech, I asked if he was going to pursue a background-check measure in another form during the coming Senate session.
“No, not for a while, anyway,” he replied.
That said it all.
John Gizzi is a special columnist for Newsmax.com
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