Sen. Toomey’s unfavorability rating growing |
Politics Election

Sen. Toomey’s unfavorability rating growing

Tom Fontaine
James Knox | Tribune-Review
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County, speaks with Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editors and reporters Friday, March 14, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County, speaks with Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editors and reporters on Friday, March 14, 2014.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s unfavorability ratings with Pennsylvania’s registered voters have risen sharply in recent months as his re-election campaign heats up, a poll shows.

Toomey doesn’t have an opponent in the April 26 primary, but the Lehigh Valley Republican is a frequent target of Democrats and special interest groups eager to unseat him.

“I’d say he remains a slight favorite in the race, but there isn’t any doubt that this is a situation where, if you’re Toomey, you’d want (the favorability ratings) to be much higher,” said pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs.

The most recent Franklin & Marshall poll shows that 30 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters have a favorable opinion of Toomey, 35 percent have an unfavorable one and 34 percent are undecided or don’t know. The share of people with unfavorable opinions of Toomey is up from 23 percent a year ago and 13 percent five years ago, shortly after he joined the Senate, the poll shows.

Toomey’s campaign declined to comment on results of the poll, which surveyed 828 registered voters and had a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.

Larry Ranalli, 59, a meat cutter from West Mifflin, said he has an unfavorable opinion of Toomey because he’s “part of the system, just another Republican obstructionist,” citing Toomey’s insistence on waiting until after the presidential election to consider a nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy.

“How about trying to compromise once in a while?” said Ranalli, a registered independent.

Compared with other politicians in the Franklin & Marshall poll, Toomey is beloved. A higher percentage of Pennsylvania’s registered voters have an unfavorable opinion of presidential candidates Donald Trump (65 percent), Ted Cruz (54 percent), Hillary Clinton (53 percent) and Bernie Sanders (44 percent); President Obama (49 percent); and Gov. Tom Wolf (42 percent).

Political experts point to a number of factors for Toomey’s rising unfavorability.

“It’s mostly the result of criticism he’s received on a number of issues over a fairly long period of time. These things build up over time,” Madonna said.

Toomey’s stance on the Supreme Court issue has generated criticism and placed him out of step with 62 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters, the poll said. About 35 percent agree with Toomey that the Senate should wait to hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee, Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C.

Michele Kavalir, 48, of Mt. Lebanon disagrees with Toomey on the issue, but has a favorable opinion of him overall.

Toomey’s failed effort in 2013 to expand background checks for gun purchases “showed he was trying to do what was best, not just what was best for him,” said Kavalir, who describes herself as a moderate Republican.

Thomas J. Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, said it’s “not unusual for opponents to drive up unfavorability ratings” during campaigns.

Baldino and Madonna said that growing anti-establishment sentiment across the country hasn’t helped.

In October 2010, when Toomey was battling former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak for the job, 26 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters had an unfavorable opinion of Toomey. By March 2011, voters’ opinions softened, and only 13 percent viewed Toomey unfavorably, Franklin & Marshall polls showed.

Sestak, the front-running Democrat in this year’s race, and former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty are increasingly attacking Toomey in news releases and on social media.

“We expect to be hit with every false and misleading partisan attack in the book,” Toomey campaign spokesman Steve Kelly said.

Through Friday afternoon, seven of 23 news releases posted on McGinty’s website in March took shots at Toomey, as did about 50 of her nearly 300 tweets. Six of Sestak’s 12 news releases took aim at Toomey, as did more than a third of his 50-plus tweets. The frequency of attacks increased over the past week or so. Neither Sestak nor McGinty mentioned other Democratic Senate candidates in their news releases or tweets.

Most of their attacks so far focused on Toomey’s Supreme Court stance. He said last week that he intends to meet with Garland.

“I have agreed to do so out of courtesy and respect for both the president and the judge. The vacancy left by Justice (Antonin) Scalia’s passing will not be filled until after the American people weigh in and select a new president, and I believe that is the best approach for deciding whether to alter the balance of the Supreme Court,” Toomey said Thursday.

Despite the rising unfavorability with voters, Toomey has raised more money ($17.6 million) than Sestak ($4.1 million), McGinty ($2 million) and John Fetterman ($326,868) combined. And his endorsements include support from labor groups such as the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, International Union of Police Associations and the Philadelphia Fire Fighters & Paramedics Union. He’s done some attacking of his own.

Toomey’s campaign created the website to highlight what the campaign considers the shortcomings of Sestak and McGinty. Click on a button below Sestak’s image, and it redirects you to a website that refers to the former congressman as Joe Saystax and portrays him as an extreme liberal. Click on McGinty, and you’re redirected to, a website that paints her as someone who helped direct millions of dollars in public money to private companies during her career as a bureaucrat and later landed consulting or other work with the companies.

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].

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