After absorbing a midterm shellacking in 2014 that cost them control of the Senate, Democrats began looking forward to 2016 when their chances for winning it back looked bright. With Republicans forced to defend 24 Senate seats, including four rated by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball site as tossups, the odds of a Democratic revival, boosted by presidential year turnout, were good. But in the wake of a new Pennsylvania poll, the odds of the Democrats gaining the five seats they need to take back the Senate just went down. It has long been assumed that Republican Pat Toomey was among the most vulnerable of 2016 Senate incumbents. But a new Harper poll shows Toomey with massive leads over all of his possible Democratic challengers. It may be early but unless something unexpected happens to alter the political landscape, serious pundits are going to have to move Toomey’s seat from the tossup category into the “likely Republican” category thereby seriously reducing the chances of the Democrats getting back their Senate majority.
Though Sabato and others have listed Toomey’s seat as a tossup race, most Democrats have been counting on it as a likely pickup next year. The 2010 victory of that conservative stalwart in an otherwise blue state was thought by many to be a fluke brought on by the 2010 GOP landslide that would be easily erased at the next opportunity. But a combination of Toomey’s political skill in office and the lack of a credible Democratic alternative have made that assumption look pretty silly.
Harper Polling, a Republican firm, conducted the poll so Democrats will likely dismiss its results. But the size of Toomey’s lead over each of the three most likely Democratic Senate challengers is so great that it isn’t possible to chalk it up to the bias of the pollster.
Toomey leads Joe Sestak, his 2010 general election opponent by a 53 to 32 percent margin. Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski is in even worse shape with Toomey holding a 55 to 30 percent lead over him. The last of the trio of possible Democrat challengers, Montgomery County Supervisor Josh Shapiro, trails Toomey by a staggering 28 percent, with the incumbent holding a 55-27 percent lead.
The bad news in this poll for the Democrats is more than just the large margins that Toomey holds over his opponents. Against all of them, Toomey is comfortably over 50 percent, the magic number for an incumbent looking to hold onto his seat. That alone shows that the assumption about Toomey’s vulnerability is mistaken.
Just as bad is the fact that the candidate who does the best of the three, Sestak, is the one that most Democrat professionals in the state want to avoid nominating. The former admiral turned member of Congress, managed to beat turncoat Republican incumbent Arlen Specter in a 2010 primary in whom the party establishment tried to force-feed a man most members of their party despised to an electorate that still remembered him as the man who badgered Anita Hill and backed the war in Iraq. But Toomey’s poor performance in the general election campaign did little to convince leading Democrats that he deserved another try in a more favorable electoral environment.
Shapiro, a young liberal from the Philadelphia suburbs, is being pressured by some leading Democrats to run. Shapiro has a strong track record as a successful politician and had the smarts to back Barack Obama early in the 2008 election cycle when most leading Pennsylvania Democrats lined up behind Hillary Clinton. He’s also the sort of ambitious politician desperate to move up and 2016 is likely to be his best chance for a Senate seat for a long time since Bob Casey Jr. isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future. But a 28 point lead is a lot of ground to make up even if you are assuming that any Democrat will be buoyed by the usual massive turnout of minority voters in Philadelphia that have made the difference in presidential years in that state (and whose absence in 2010 made Toomey’s victory possible).
What changed Toomey from an archconservative fluke sure to be turned out at the next opportunity into a safe incumbent?
Part of the shift has to do with Toomey’s decision to try to position himself more to the center of the political spectrum. His sponsorship of a gun bill with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin garnered national attention and made him an unlikely favorite of many in the liberal media. The National Rifle Association and many in his conservative base hated the move and the measure ultimately failed. But the legislation — which was a weak compromise about background checks that constituted no real threat to gun rights — helped alter his image from that of a right-wing firebrand into a reasonable leader.
It also has to be acknowledged that four and a half years in the Senate has also exposed Pennsylvania voters to a different view of Toomey. Though Toomey’s ideological fervor on fiscal issues — he’s a former head of the libertarian Club for Growth — is no secret, his rational and intelligent manner belies his former image as a radical Tea Partier even if few of his positions have changed. His 54 percent overall favorability ratings, in which he is viewed positively in every part of the state, and liked by moderates and independents as well as conservatives, show that his effort to be seen as more of a centrist have been successful. The Democrats had a chance to brand him as an extremist in 2010 but doing so in 2016 may not be possible.
The bottom line is that if you take Pennsylvania out of the mix for a Democratic pickup next year, their chances of winning back the Senate don’t look as good as everyone thought they would be. Though other 2010 GOP winners like Illinois’ Mark Kirk and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson look to be in for the fight of their lives and Marco Rubio’s decision to run for president puts his Florida seat up for grabs, Toomey’s strength makes it look like Mitch McConnell may be Majority Leader for a lot longer than his critics thought.