Articulate voice for growth and capitalism: Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey

“@Rick Santorum for Specter. wrong but ancient history. More importantly: @Mitt Romney’s strong pro-growth tax reform plan, very much like mine.”

With that succinct message the morning of February 23, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) began his Twitter career on by tweeting a mouthful.

Not only did he offer a succinct assessment of what conservatives consider the most controversial move by former Pennsylvania Sen. and now GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, but Toomey also sparked speculation about his own role on the national political stage with his warm words about Romney’s tax-cutting, spending slashing agenda. Was Toomey poised to endorse Romney over Santorum before the April primary in Pennsylvania? Could he possibly be considered as a running mate for Romney?

“No, nothing like that,” Toomey told us with a laugh, shortly after his tweet went viral, “And I have no plans to endorse anyone for nomination—certainly not before the primary, anyway.”

The first part of freshman Sen. Toomey’s tweet was a not-so-subtle reminder of a defining political drama featuring him and then-Sen. Santorum in 2004. Toomey, then completing his third term in the House (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 97 percent), was challenging liberal Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (lifetime ACU rating: 42.17 percent) for renomination in a race that rallied support for Toomey from conservatives across the nation. Excluding Toomey, nine of Pennsylvania’s 12 GOP House members endorsed the veteran Specter but did little for the incumbent, who had long irked most fellow Republicans around the state. While stalwart conservative Representatives Joe Pitts and Melissa Hart proclaimed themselves neutral in the primary.

Santorum did something else in that race. In a move that jolted and dismayed his admirers on the right, Santorum not only campaigned vigorously for Specter—despite sharp differences on abortion and other key issues—but cut a hard-hitting commercial for his senior colleague. In primary results that weren’t finally counted until early the next morning, the embattled Specter eked out a win over Toomey by 15,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast—or about one vote per precinct.

Specter went on to win in November over an under-funded Democratic nominee. Santorum (who then lost his own re-election battle in ’06) has long insisted he supported his former colleague because Specter gave him assurances that, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he would support all of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

“Flatly wrong,” was the response to Santorum’s explanation from Specter himself, who—after casting deciding votes for the Affordable Health Care Act and the Obama economic stimulus packages, became a Democrat in 2009. “It would be improper to make a commitment on a vote before I knew who the nominee was and whether I thought the nominee was qualified.”

“Rick is now learning what it means to trust and believe Arlen Specter,” remarked Pennsylvania State Rep. Curt Schroeder, one of five state legislators who backed Toomey’s challenge in 2004.

Toomey went on to head the Club for Growth, which supports conservative House and Senate candidates nationwide. In 2009, he announced he would again challenge Specter, who was still a Republican at the time. But then Specter became a Democrat and lost renomination to far-left Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak. In one of those classic ideological contests from the 2010 election cycle, Toomey narrowly defeated the well-funded Sestak with 51 percent of the vote.

The second part of Toomey’s Twitter message reminded pundits and pols of just who Toomey is: a freshman Republican senator whose primary concern is not just making the cuts in spending necessary to grapple with and finally conquer the federal deficit, but also to make changes in tax policy as well as how entitlements are managed that would permit growth within the free market. This is the passion that has long motivated the Harvard graduate and small businessman in his brief-but-exciting political career. And, like such fellow young conservative Republicans as Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida who joined him in the Senate in 2010, the 50-year-old Toomey is willing to take on the political status quo to achieve his goal.

Like the young Barry Goldwater

Any talk with Pat Toomey turns very quickly to policy and the issues that motivate him — mainly those related to the free market and freedom in general. Barry Goldwater, Toomey came to conservatism through reading and his experience in private business.

The son of a union member from Rhode Island, Toomey graduated from Harvard and worked briefly on Wall Street. From there, he settled in Allentown, Pa., launched a string of successful sports bars, and became a member in the state affiliate of the National Restaurant Association. After serving from 1994-96 on the Allentown Government Study Committee, where he led a successful fight to require a supermajority of voters to raise taxes, Toomey won the House seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Paul McHale in 1998.

In both the House and Senate, the Pennsylvania conservative has been in the forefront of battles to cut taxes and reduce the size and influence of the federal government. From his support in the House for the Bush tax cuts and the fights to make them permanent, to his opposition to the Obama-backed stimulus packages and to ObamaCare, and his own calls for ending the capital gains and estate taxes, Toomey has been a forceful and reliable conservative voice.

“And I changed from pro-choice to pro-life in my second term, after the birth of our first child,” Toomey, a Roman Catholic, volunteered to us, freely discussing a change he made on a significant issue through personal experience (although he was always rated near-perfect on his voting by the National Right to Life Committee during his time in the House when he considered himself pro-choice). The issue was not one he focused on or thought about much until he became a father, recall friends

Toomey surprised fellow conservatives during his 2010 Senate race, when he indicated he would support President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. As he explained, “Look, I believe if a nominee has not done anything egregious or outlandish in his or her opinions and writings and if that person has good personal character, than he or she should be confirmed. There are some who say that Republicans should just oppose any nominee of a Democratic President. I won’t accept that, and I would hope Democratic senators feel the same way about Republican appointees.” Later that year, Toomey indicated he would have opposed Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan because of controversial writings and positions she took while a dean at Harvard Law School.

Toomey’s somewhat unpredictable streak came out last year, when the freshman senator called for closing some loopholes on higher income taxpayers and raising tax revenues $250 billion over ten years. Explaining that “the Toomey compromise” was part of a broader plan to reform the tax code, the Pennsylvanian said at the time that “we should set a goal of getting all the tax rates lower by 20 percentcent — across the board… And then let’s find the combination of deductions that we would diminish, and exclusions that we would treat as taxable income… I was willing to accept that the $250 billion… revenue increase would come from the top two [tax] brackets, which was another huge concession to the Democrats. That by definition makes the tax code more progressive.”

For a time, it seemed as though the “Toomey compromise,” which also included about $750 billion in spending cuts, might be accepted by the Supercommittee. But the White House turned a blind eye to it and it was never the topic of wide discussion. Many Conservatives such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform made it a point to say they disagreed with the senator’s belief that he could get spending cuts from Democrats in return for making the tax code “more progressive,” recalling how Ronald Reagan in 1982 and George H.W. Bush in 1990 went down this path and regretted it. But the same skeptics avoided any strong criticism of Toomey himself.

What’s ahead

Like other conservatives in the House and Senate, he is concerned about the recent decision of the leftist-dominated National Labor Relations Board and how to stop it.

“There are going to be questions about the legality of the President’s two recess appointments to the NLRB, no doubt about it,” Toomey said, “but the challenges are not just going to be on the appointments. Watch [lawmakers] try to stop what they’re doing by holding up the funding for the board. It’s going to be a major fight in this session [of Congress].”

And he stands firmly behind his compromise of last year, pointing out that “this would have averted some bad situations that we are going to have to come back by November.”

So, would he consider a future run for president or the vice presidential nomination this year? Toomey enthusiasts point out that he is from a state with 20 electoral votes, and that his budget and economic acumen would be a good fit for the present national situation.

“It’s really not in the cards,” he replies, and then quickly notes that with the retirement of other Republican senators, he could move up on the Banking, Commerce, and Budget committees, “and things could get more interesting around the Senate.”