While there’s still a lot of road ahead in the 2012 presidential race, one fact is already clear: The eventual GOP nominee is probably going to leave a certain number of conservative Republicans wary, or even skeptical. The selection of a running mate will be even more important than usual, as it will be the biggest decision of the campaign and the clearest signal the nominee can send to GOP doubters looking for reassurance.
For Mitt Romney, numerous conservatives just don’t trust him. Between the health-care plan and individual mandate that he signed into law in Massachusetts and the leftover flip-flop charges from the 2008 cycle, many tea party–affiliated Republicans see Romney as too establishment, too moderate, too flexible, and too unprincipled to effectively carry their banner in the coming year. If the former governor wins the nomination, he will need a running mate who can restore confidence in him among the GOP base while avoiding a firebrand whose style and philosophy completely contrasts with Romney’s.
The other poll leader, Newt Gingrich, has enjoyed a significantly different career path from Romney, but faces many similar challenges as a potential nominee. The former speaker of the House has been an outspoken conservative at many times — but also made millions advising Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, taped a global-warming-related commercial with Nancy Pelosi, endorsed liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava over tea-party favorite Doug Hoffman in a key special U.S. House election, and has had numerous other (often brief) departures from conservative orthodoxy. Gingrich is creative and eloquent but also erratic.
That pair — and almost any other potential nominee — will need to compete in the upper-midwest Rust Belt, and bringing into play any state in the Northeast beyond New Hampshire would be a considerable bonus.
The Republican nominee is likely to need a running mate who has impeccable free-market credentials, is admired by the tea partiers, and preferably comes from a swing state. A figure who would face little learning curve if thrust into the presidency and is experienced enough with how the federal government works to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, but hasn’t become a stale creature of official Washington. Someone who built his reputation as a staunch defender of conservative principles and by making the hard choices, but has also demonstrated a certain flexibility and willingness to compromise to achieve what he deems the nation’s highest priorities.
If the Republican nominee is willing to pick someone who only returned to elected office in January 2011, then this figure does exist, in the form of Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey.
Toomey is quick to express skepticism that he’ll be receiving any consideration as the Republican nominee’s running mate. “I really don’t see that happening,” he says in an interview. “I have to catch up with the work I have to do on my ordinary committees because I’ve been so engrossed on the supercommittee.”
Toomey’s blue-collar upbringing in a Catholic family in Providence, R.I., would contrast nicely with Romney’s. Like the former Massachusetts governor, Toomey is also a Harvard man and spent his early career working in international finance for Chemical Bank and Morgan, Grenfell & Co. During these young adult years, Toomey lived in New York, London, and Hong Kong. Like Romney, he’s a businessman, although Toomey’s entrepreneurial efforts were on a smaller and quite human scale: In 1999, Toomey moved from New York City to that emblematic city of blue-collar Americana, Allentown, Pa., where he and his brothers founded and ran a trio of sports bars, two in Allentown and one in Lancaster, Pa.
His first elected office was to Allentown’s Government Study Commission, where he drafted a new charter requiring a super-majority for any tax increase — a charter that eventually passed. In 1998, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, winning by 10 percentage points in a year that was generally bad for GOP congressional candidates.
Toomey could have been a longtime star in the House, but he honored his commitment to term limits and in 2004 began his bid for U.S. Senate, challenging Republican incumbent Arlen Specter. With more than a million votes cast in the GOP primary, Toomey came within 1.7 percent of ousting Specter. With his career in Congress temporarily derailed, Toomey went on to become president of the Club for Growth, where the organization became a major player in GOP primary fights.
While Toomey’s bread and butter in Congress has been economic and fiscal issues, he is a reliable pro-life social conservative. In three of his last four years in the House, Toomey scored a perfect 100 percent on the American Conservative Union’s voting scorecards. He backs right-to-work laws in heavily unionized Pennsylvania, and, in 2000, as Al Gore was winning Pennsylvania handily, Toomey held off a challenge from a former steelworkers’ union president. Then he beat him by an even larger margin in 2002.
In 2008, Romney and Toomey both attended the National Review post-election cruise, and the pair sat on a panel discussing the still-fresh economic meltdown and the federal Troubled Asset Recovery Program. Romney generally defended TARP as necessary; Toomey lambasted it. Romney emphasized he had qualms with TARP and pointed out that it was impossible to know the consequences of inaction. The pair had a good-natured back and forth on the wisdom of that bill, two political veterans going at it with vigor but not ire.
“We’ve gotten along very well when we’ve had interactions; I think the NR panel might have been the most recent time I had any lengthy conversation with him,” Toomey said. “I have a lot of respect for him, but I haven’t talked with him much recently.” He says he’s had “brief conversations” with some of the GOP presidential candidates in the past year.
“I’ve been a very boring policy wonk for the past several months — some would say several years,” Toomey says. He has not endorsed a candidate in the Republican presidential primary and said that at this point, he doesn’t expect to.
When the prospect of Toomey on the 2012 ticket is put before GOP campaign veterans, the response is cautious enthusiasm.
“Pat Toomey is a respected conservative senator from a critical swing state,” says Ed Gillespie, a veteran political strategist, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and current chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him show up on running-mate short lists when that time comes.”
“The GOP nominee could do a lot worse than to consider a substantive, econ-focused, Pa.-winning, liberal-beating, supercommittee solution-finder,” says Tucker Eskew, a former Bush–Cheney campaign strategist who worked closely with Sarah Palin on the 2008 McCain–Palin campaign. “That might represent a new kind of ‘excitement’ to a country hungry for a turnaround.”
Charlie Cook, the editor of the Cook Political Report, sees Toomey as a possibility but only one of many.
“If Romney is the nominee, Toomey will likely be on the list but, if he was going to go with a freshman senator, [Ohio Republican] Rob Portman might make more sense as he has considerably higher level pre-Senate experience,” Cook says. “If one subscribes to the view that Obama was inexperienced and not ready to be president, going with someone who’s been around only marginally longer might look a little thin. If I were Romney I would look for mainstream people with executive experience who project competence more than ideology.”
One Republican candidate would be unlikely to select Toomey, partially because of an electoral-college complication about their shared home state, and partially because of a complicated history: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who endorsed Specter during Toomey’s challenge in 2004. While Toomey doesn’t speak ill of Santorum, he doesn’t mention him at all in an interview with NRO, even when asked if any candidate would have a particular advantage in the Keystone State.
Asked whether a scenario of a Santorum nomination would drive him to turn the tables and endorse Arlen Specter for president, Toomey only laughs heartily and says, “that’s a good one.”