VILLANOVA, Pa. — The U.S. Senate’s most moderate female Republican on Tuesday portrayed Sen. Pat Toomey as an independent willing to push for limited gun control in a direct appeal to a voting bloc crucial in the close Pennsylvania race — suburban Philadelphia women.
“The effort that impresses me most and really tells you all you need to know about Pat is his relentless work to stem the tidal wave of gun violence and to do so in a way that respects our Second Amendment rights,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins told a crowd of GOP loyalists in a tony Villanova restaurant.
Toomey, a first-term senator, is one of the most vulnerable Republicans as the GOP struggles to hold onto its Senate majority. Days after the revelation of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s crude comments about groping women, Toomey enlisted the help of the soft-spoken Collins as he tries to fend off a challenge from Democrat Katie McGinty.
Toomey has called Trump’s 2005 comments “indefensible and appalling,” but on Tuesday he did not rule out voting for or endorsing him for president.
“I had hoped that Donald Trump would persuade me to be an enthusiastic supporter, that had been what I’d hoped … but at this point, I remain unpersuaded,” Toomey said.
Toomey needs to persuade Democrats to split their votes and win independents to overcome the roughly double-digit advantage Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton holds over Trump. Clinton’s strength in the state boosts McGinty, especially with Trump so unpopular in Philadelphia’s heavily populated and moderate suburbs.
It’s unclear, however, whether Toomey has distinguished himself enough from Trump or his party to win a critical mass of ticket-splitters.
Despite his support for expanding gun background checks, Toomey has voted more often than not with the National Rifle Association, and he has not gone as far as some in Pennsylvania in denouncing Trump.
McGinty has seized on both points, telling reporters Toomey is “talking out of both sides of his mouth” to different sides of Pennsylvania. McGinty supports a far broader slate of gun control measures than Toomey and is attacking Toomey for refusing to repudiate Trump after the emergence of the 2005 video on Friday.
“Women, you deserve a straight answer from Senator Toomey as to why he is still standing with Donald Trump,” McGinty said at a Philadelphia news conference.
McGinty, a relative unknown heading into the race, would be Pennsylvania’s first female U.S. senator. She has made the most of Pennsylvania’s presidential battleground status, appearing with Clinton, the Obamas and other high-profile Democrats in their frequent visits.
A former environmental policy adviser to Bill Clinton’s White House, McGinty has hewed closely to Hillary Clinton’s policy positions, but she has struggled to leave a lasting or strong impression on Democrats.
The campaigning comes amid a fierce TV ad blitz in Philadelphia’s suburbs, with a particular appeal to women. Many voters there, Republican and Democrat, seem willing to consider Trump separately from Toomey.
“To me, they’re two different races,” said Cynthia Isom, a Republican from Havertown.
But the news is not all good for Toomey. Isom, who’s leaning toward voting for Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson, still has a bone to pick with Toomey over his opposition to abortion rights and his votes to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Toomey’s prototypical target is Democrat Trish Cavallaro, of Wynnewood, who says she’ll vote for Toomey and Clinton. She’s willing to overlook Toomey’s hard-line opposition to abortion rights in favor of politically risky votes he took on gun control.
“Pat Toomey has done a lot with gun control,” Cavallaro said Friday before going grocery shopping. “It’s a good issue, and he’s crossed party lines, so I feel like he’s solid.”
Suburban Philadelphia Republicans like Felice Fein, of West Chester, who are struggling with their own presidential choice, are satisfied Toomey hasn’t embraced Trump. For some Democrats, Toomey may not have gone far enough.
“McGinty is another woman, and she is pushing back against Donald Trump’s message,” said Democrat Bianca O’Keefe, of Ardmore. “It definitely matters. It matters what each candidate is saying about who should be our next president and what they are going to stand for.”