Pat Toomey's Senate campaign headquarters in Allentown sits across the road from the intricate network of roller coasters over at Dorney Park, perhaps serving as an apt symbol of the unpredictable nature of the wild ride known as politics.
Toomey's hope of holding tight to anti-Obama sentiment in an effort to defeat his Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, is far from inevitable. Yet the man once considered too conservative for statewide office is up in the polls and ahead in his war chest, anxious to bring his message to Washington.
In his quest for the open Senate seat, he is hoping to be the Republican to successfully woo more Jewish voters. Can the Irish Catholic from Allentown who drove Arlen Specter out of the GOP be the one to make Jewish inroads in the Keystone State? After all, before Specter's political apostasy -- changing party allegiance -- many viewed the five-term senator as the archetype of the moderate Jewish Republican.
Put another way, can a candidate who epitomizes a smaller government, limited-spending philosophy -- and who is adamantly anti-abortion -- make headway among a population whose majority has long subscribed to the New Deal, Great Society notion that government should be a benevolent force for change, not something to be feared?
Sitting in the neighboring Perkins -- where he first mingled with patrons and then ordered two scrambled eggs on an English muffin -- the former congressman and president of the Club for Growth said that he doesn't frame his campaigns in terms of ethnic or religious groups. He insisted that he has one consistent message for all constituent groups: The Obama administration is leading the nation down the road to economic ruin, and he, Toomey, has a plan to bring back prosperity.
"I don't treat any group of people as a monolith. There are individuals that I want to persuade," said the 48-year-old, who represented the Lehigh Valley in the House from 1998 to 2004 after a career in banking. "I think the record of the current administration and the current liberal Congress is clearly failing."
Toomey's platform includes efforts to repeal the health care reform legislation, lower income-tax rates, reduce the capital-gains tax, oppose future Wall Street bailouts and new stimulus packages, and strengthen border security while opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants. He's said that he also plans to continue his opposition to gay marriage.
He added that his campaign themes dovetail nicely with the program of the Tea Party. In fact, he said the Tea Party movement has been wrongly labeled as radical, asserting that most of its ideas are well within the mainstream.
Seizing on his perception of widespread voter frustration, he said: "I think that reality is sinking in to more and more people, including people who have maybe traditionally voted Democrat, whether Jewish or not."
He cited his support for Israel and his plan to revive the economy as reasons why Jews, in particular, might pull the lever for him come November.
Israel at Center Stage
In many ways, the Pennsylvania Senate race has been seen as a national referendum on the economy, as well as many of the president's major policy successes, like passage of the health care law. Toomey wants to repeal it, and replace it with a system that would feature more competition and increased use of health savings accounts.
But this has also been a race where the issue of Israel has, at times, occupied center stage, and been the subject of a back-and-forth television ad war.
Toomey, as well as the Republican Jewish Coalition and other Washington, D.C.-based advocacy groups, have hammered Sestak on several points.
Chief among them are the Delaware County congressman's 2007 decision to speak at an event organized by a controversial Muslim group known as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and an early 2010 letter, signed by Sestak and 53 other Democratic lawmakers, which called for an easing of Israel's blockade of Gaza.
With Sestak under attack, the Democrats have attempted to turn the Israel issue against Toomey. Critics cite his repeated votes during his tenure in Congress against foreign-aid appropriations, which typically include some $3 billion in U.S. aid to Israel. In separate gatherings sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition and the American Jewish Committee, Toomey has said that he supports aid to Israel, but opposes other parts of the foreign-aid package.
Asked how Israel might continue to receive $3 billion in military aid if the foreign-aid bill loses support in the Senate, the candidate replied that he would push to have aid for Israel taken out of the package and voted on as a separate bill. Here, he was echoing a sentiment expressed a few weeks earlier by U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip and lone Jewish Republican in Congress.
"Then it's easy," pronounced Toomey. "We have an up or down vote on aid to Israel, and it would pass overwhelmingly. Frankly, we should divide up some of the appropriations bills as a general matter. It would give us an opportunity to cut some spending. Here's an area where there's at least one very important, perfectly defensible program and it's this $3 billion in defense aid to Israel. But there's an awful lot of stuff in that bill that's very hard to justify."
In other funding areas, he is opposed to all congressional earmarks that target specific programs, which has some local Jewish groups concerned since many social-service and other programs have received earmarked dollars in the past.
A Sept. 23 ad in the Jewish Exponent -- paid for by Jewish supporters of Sestak and authorized by the campaign -- stated that during Toomey's tenure in Congress, he voted four separate times against funding for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The ad also cited a 2001 vote against making American funding for Lebanon's military contingent upon Lebanese actions that would disrupt Hezbollah's attacks on Israel.
During the interview, Toomey said that he didn't recall these votes. Campaign spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik later said that he supported funding the museum, but the bill "contained billions of dollars in wasteful spending" that was unrelated.
Regarding Lebanon, she said that "he opposed this amendment because it undermined the capacity for building Lebanon's already weak government, and would have empowered Hamas and Hezbollah."
Too Much Negative Pressure?
Addressing the U.S.-Israel relationship and the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Toomey said that the Obama administration's approach has improved since the first year, but that he still worries that Israel might be feeling undue pressure to make concessions. But he stopped short of labeling American efforts to coax Israel into extending the settlement moratorium as "negative pressure."
"I don't think that that would be the right characterization," he said. "But there could be a fine line between offering inducements and starting to put negative pressure, and I'm very concerned that we not go down the latter road."
One of Toomey's most ardent Jewish supporters in the Philadelphia Jewish community is Robert Guzzardi, the conservative activist who supported the candidate in his unsuccessful 2004 bid to unseat Specter. Guzzardi said that he's confident Toomey will win, but less optimistic about him winning a sizable percentage of Jewish votes.
He also asserted that the Toomey campaign did not invest a lot of time soliciting votes and dollars in the Jewish community, speculating that the campaign felt there wasn't much to gain.
When asked about this observation, Toomey cited his appearances at the RJC and the AJC, but emphasized that he has spent ample time in southeastern Pennsylvania courting voters of all backgrounds, hammering home his basic message of the need for economic renewal.
"There are a lot of people who are registered as Democrats, who are registered as independents, who understand that we can't borrow and spend our way to prosperity, that growing government is not going to be the solution to getting out of this recession, that massive tax increases can only have a negative effect on our economy."