With conservative enthusiasm for Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania clearly not abating despite a controversial position he took on gun control, and with Pennsylvania Democrats apparently stuck with a nominee they are not "wild" over, the Republican senator widely considered the most vulnerable of those facing the voters in 2016 now appears in his best shape so far for re-election.
According to a just-completed Quinnipiac University survey among likely voters statewide, Toomey defeats former Rep. and 2010 Democratic opponent Joe Sestak by a healthy margin of 48 percent to 35 percent. In January, Quinnipiac showed Toomey beating Sestak by 45 percent to 35 percent.
What may be hurting state Democrats is the ongoing corruption accusations swirling around their statewide officeholders. Earlier this year, State Treasurer Rob McCord resigned from office to plead guilty to misuse of campaign funds. Currently, State Attorney General Kathleen Kane is being tried on corruption charges and refuses calls from all sides to resign.
Possibly the worst-kept secret among Keystone State Democrats is their desire for a nominee other than Sestak, considered a far-left contender in the mold of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). Five years ago, with nationwide financial backing from MoveOn.org and other antiwar groups, Sestak won the Democratic primary over the late Sen. Arlen Specter, who had switched from Republican to Democrat. In November, Sestak lost narrowly to Toomey.
But rather than rally behind Sestak for a rematch, party leaders have made little secret of their desire to recruit a contender who, they feel, will have more appeal to the center. The name most often heard as a favorite of Democratic leaders to run for the Senate is that of Montgomery County Executive Josh Shapiro.
The latest Public Policy Polling survey of likely Pennsylvania voters showed Toomey winning over Shapiro by a margin of 43 percent to 31 percent.
Last week, possibly aware of the "Anybody but Sestak" movement within his party, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski announced he would seek the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. Pawlowski, mayor of Pennsylvania's third-largest city, was briefly a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor last year.
Sen. Toomey, a favorite among conservatives for his opposition to spending and his near-successful first Senate bid (as a challenger to then-Republican Specter in 2004), received a hero's welcome Friday when he addressed the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Harrisburg.
"Toomey will win because he has integrity — and that makes a strong contrast with Sestak," Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner of York County told Newsmax. "When Congress was first debating Obamacare, I gave Sestak a copy of the 900-plus page bill and told him if he read it, he would never vote for it.
"He said he read it — and I just know he didn't — and voted for it anyway."
Some on the right still recall with disappointment Toomey's co-sponsorship of legislation to require background checks on purchasers of guns at gun shows and through Internet sales. The measure, co-sponsored with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, died in the Senate.
"And there are some who still bring that up," said Harrisburg attorney Marc A. Scaringi. "Toomey really let them down on that one and, yes, it didn't pass. But there are folks who are disappointed."
As to whether that measure is enough to cause Toomey re-election problems, most who spoke to Newsmax at the PLC were doubtful.
"Sen. Toomey's prospects are improving every day, especially amid the Democratic corruption problems," Ann Womble, former GOP chairman of Lancaster County, told us.
"National Rifle Association members such as myself also know his gun rights legislation was in keeping with, and no more restrictive than, Pennsylvania's current laws," she said. "I look forward to helping the senator with his re-election."
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