On November 8, as Pennsylvania defied the predictions of pollsters and pundits in an upset victory for Donald Trump, the state was also denied the chance at its first female senator. Democratic candidate Katie McGinty underperformed Hillary Clinton in a state that had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.
Instead, the people of Pennsylvania reelected incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey to a second term. For a centrist state with a relatively small number of independent voters and an even smaller gap between Democratic and Republican registrants, Pat Toomey is far-right. With an A-rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA), a 17% pro-public education rating from the National Education Association (NEA), an abysmal 13% pro-civil rights rating from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a worryingly pro-life voting record, Toomey is farther right on most issues than the average Pennsylvanian. A Schoen poll found 88% of respondents in Pennsylvania favored greater background checks for gun purchases.
While his first victory can be attributed to the Tea Party wave of the 2010 midterm election, Toomey’s victory in November 2016 came despite his conservative policies. While Trump’s protectionism swayed white, working class voters in Pennsylvania’s former-industrial midlands, Toomey’s record on free trade is seemingly incongruous.
Pennsylvania voters were given a striking example of Toomey’s new lease on constituent relations during the confirmation hearings of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Given her proven inadequacy of experience in public education, many constituents called, e-mailed, and faxed their complaints to the office of Senator Toomey. About a week before the confirmation vote was to occur, Toomey’s offices stopped answering phone calls due to high volume.
Blaming the call backlog on out-of-state protestors in a Facebook post on February 6, the senator then decided to vote to confirm the eminently unqualified candidate for secretary of education, proving that, while speaking up is necessary, it is not always sufficient. Toomey, despite clear opposition from a vocal group of his constituents and his narrow reelection in a moderate swing state just a few months prior, chose to toe the party line. It somehow seems unlikely that DeVos’s $60,050 campaign contribution to Toomey played no role in his decision.
As Pennsylvanians make their political plans beyond the 2016 election, it is important that they not underestimate the fervor gap that has proven disastrous for Democratic candidates in previous midterm years. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) is up for reelection in 2018, and Democrats must mobilize the electorate behind the guiding principles of the party and the state—the principles that Pat Toomey has continually profaned.
Beyond 2018, it is also imperative that Democrats make headway in the Republican-dominated state legislature before redistricting occurs following the 2020 census. As a state with some of the most gerrymandereddistricts in America, Pennsylvania—a state with a history of casting more overall votes for Democrats and yet receiving more Republican representatives—must get behind fair districting legislation that ends the disenfranchisement of the left-leaning voter.
Pat Toomey has proven that he will choose party over country and put his political interests ahead of Pennsylvanian values. When he comes up for reelection in 2022, Pennsylvanians must see to it that an engaging, progressive, no-nonsense Democrat will be there to take his seat.