Political bedfellows of 2016 may be strange but not unheard of

One’s bedfellows made strange by politics is certainly not a new phenomenon. People have been allying themselves with folks they normally would not for the sake of winning — or for the noble a common goal — since the dawn of time.

This year is no exception. In fact, unnatural coupling may be a little more unparalleled, given the volatility both party nominees present for the folks in their respective parties running with them further down-ballot.


Take Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, for instance. The Republican incumbent is essentially facing three challengers in his state this fall to hold his U.S. Senate seat: his Democratic rival Katie McGinty, the non-ideological and often unpredictable Republican nominee Donald J. Trump at the top of the ticket and the possible effect that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Poll: Nearly half of Clinton's former supporters back Biden Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE could have down-ballot in a state that has not voted in a Republican for president since 1988.

Toomey, an A-rated NRA member — who unapologetically discusses how he carries on the gun-tradition with his children by taking his son hunting — just received the endorsement of two high-profile gun-safety group advocates founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Giffords was seriously wounded in a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona. After her long recovery, she formed Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun-control organization with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, that traditionally supports only Democrats.

Three things just happened with those endorsements. First, Toomey gets to retain his long support for Second Amendment issues important to NRA members. Second, he gets some across-the-aisle support from Giffords and Bloomberg’s gun control lobby, an important ‘get’ in a tight contest. Third, Giffords and Bloomberg get to prove that they are not just about Democratic politics and are looking at supporting lawmakers who can make bipartisan legislation happen in Congress.

With strange bedfellows comes complications, though. It’s highly unlikely (although not impossible) that the NRA will invest in ads and get-out-the-vote infrastructure for Toomey in his tight race with McGinty because of the background-check bill he introduced with West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Senate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Labor head warns of 'frightening uptick' in black lung disease among miners MORE after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The bill failed to pass by six votes, five of those voting against it were Democrats. The NRA did not support the legislation.

What Toomey loses from the NRA (their relationship soured after the gun-safety bill, although to date they have not revoked their A-rating they gave him in 2010) he may gain back slightly from Giffords and Bloomberg’s organizations.

Toomey also gets a fresh look from reluctant Republicans and Democrats who have been turned off by Trump’s rhetoric. They may become convinced by the Pennsylvania Democrats’ constant attempts to join Toomey and Trump at the hip, despite the fact that Toomey has never endorsed Trump.

The endorsement also blunts the nearly $1 million television negative ad investment the Democratic Senate Majority PAC dumped in Pennsylvania, with an ad that deceptively pulls only one part of a quote from Toomey when he was in New Castle, Pennsylvania.

The ad stops right after Toomey says “I have a perfect track record with the NRA.” Not exactly the full sentence, as the ad conveniently cut out the end the sentence omitting this line, “I don't believe that background checks infringe upon those rights. There are some holes in our current background checks."

Unholy coupling? Hardly, it makes sense for everyone involved, although McGinty’s team called the moment “a shame.”

Democrats do it too.

Plenty of hay was made when high-profile Republicans rebuked Trump’s candidacy. Maine’s Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' Biden says Congress must move to protect abortion rights MORE, a Republican U.S. Senator, led three days of news with her take down of Trump; followed by several days of stories on the national security leaders who served in Republican administrations who signed a letter rejecting his candidacy.

But scant attention was paid this week when the Democratic nominee for governor of West Virginia, and the billionaire owner of the Greenbrier Resort, Jim Justice, said he could not in good conscience back Clinton because of her coal policies.

"I cannot be a supporter of Hillary Clinton,” Justice, a good friend of Manchin, told Hoppy Kercheval the popular West Virginia radio host, “The reason I can’t be is her position on coal is diametrically, completely wrong in many, many different ways.”

Now, Justice did not say he supported Trump, but that could be on the horizon. He faces a tough race in once proud blue state that has quickly reddened since Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE’s presidency.

In New Hampshire, Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan certainly did not offer her support for Trump last week (she is the Democrats nominee for Senate in a tight race), but she sure didn’t do Clinton any favors either. In an interview last week, Hassan would not guarantee Clinton's ability to behave with integrity, three times declining to vouch for her honesty.

No two presidential nominees have carried more negative baggage with their names in a very long time, so it’s not a shock to see odd couplings of normal political foes. But you have to wonder what will it mean in the aftermath of the November election: are we seeing we will see a realignment of the political parties?

Youngstown State University political science professor Paul Sracic says, maybe.

“We have seen in the recent past a re-sorting of party alignments, with Southern Democrats becoming Republicans,” Sracic said, “When that happens, you will find some politicians and voters straddling the line between the parties.”

It may be that what happened in the South is creeping northward, towards the industrial Midwest.

“Jim Justice is this year’s Zell Miller, although it is too late to give him the keynote spot at the Republican National Convention,” said Sracic of that iconic moment in 2004 when the former Georgia Democratic lawmaker spoke glowingly of George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention.

Also there’s this: West Virginia always has its share of political oddities. We’ve forgotten about the potential “faithless elector” from Charleston in 2004, when Republican Mayor Richie Robb, an elector, said he would not vote for his party’s nominee. Or that time in 1988 when a West Virginia elector voted for Lloyd Bentsen for President and Michael Dukakis for Vice-President.

“As for the Giffords Super PAC and Bloomberg supporting Toomey, this is really not so stunning,” said Sracic, “We are used to NRA members being single issue voters, and now those on the other side are acting in the same way.”

Perhaps what we are seeing is a form of dealignment, with some voters becoming less committed to party and focusing more on individual candidates and issues.

“There is evidence of split-ticket voting in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, when you compare the presidential polls to the senate polls,” Sracic explained of Republican Senator Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHouse votes to boost retirement savings The Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget WANTED: A Republican with courage MORE leading Democrat Ted Strickland in their race for Portman’s seat in the polls, despite the tight race between Trump and Clinton.

Same goes for Toomey’s tight race with McGinty in Pennsylvania, as Trump has fallen behind in double digits to Clinton.

“We need to be honest and admit that none of us really fully understands what is going on this year, or what the implications will be, if any, for the future,” said Sracic, “Overall, I suspect that the old North/South divide has been replaced by the split between the coastal urban elites, and everyone else. Is this populism? Perhaps, but those who we are identifying as populists seem to be defined more by what they are against, then what they are for?” he said.

In short, the odd couplings will continue but the conclusion of what their actions means for the future is certainly not known. As the great Casey Stengel is believed to have said, “I don’t believe in predicting things, especially the future.”

Salena Zito is a political columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com


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