Conservative group rips Toomey as ‘RINO,’ underscoring GOP’s shift

A prominent conservative fundraising group has called out Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) as a RINO — a Republican in name only — and “weak,” 10 years after it championed his candidacy for the Senate at a time when some Republicans thought he was too far-right to win.

The attack by the Senate Conservatives Fund underscores how much and how fast the GOP is changing and serves as an opening salvo in what’s likely to be an ugly primary battle next year.

Toomey isn’t particularly threatened. He’s retiring, as are four other targets: Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

But none of the Republicans are likely happy to see their reputations tarnished by the group’s fundraising appeal.

“Senate RINOs are calling it quits!” the group exulted in an email last week asking for money.

“The mainstream media believes these departures are a loss for the Republican Party, but they actually create a unique opportunity to replace weak Republicans next year with strong conservatives who will truly fight for our principles and values,” it said.

Toomey has been a reliably conservative vote in the Senate but voted in February to convict former President Trump in his impeachment trial. That’s made him a convenient target for pro-Trump conservatives.

“This is the beginning. It’s starting really early, it’s crazy,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide. “We’re going to see a battle between the establishment and the conservative wing of the party and that’s playing out with the Senate Conservatives Fund and many of the more establishment groups that will be backing up incumbents no matter what.”

Darling said the definition of “conservative” is shifting to become more aligned with the issues Trump championed while in office. But he also noted there have always been factions in the conservative movement, with free-trade and pro-business conservatives often in their own camp and libertarians and cultural conservatives in other niches.

Still, the attack on Toomey is a remarkable evolution from 2009-2010 Tea Party election cycle, when the Senate Conservatives Fund backed Toomey’s challenge to then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. The challenge spurred Specter to immediately switch parties and become a Democrat, acknowledging he couldn’t beat Toomey in a Republican primary.

Now the group is characterizing Toomey as a RINO.

“How can they say he’s not conservative?” said Terry Madonna, the longtime director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll who is now a senior fellow at Millersville University. “He has a long history of fiscal conservatism.”

After Toomey followed his pledge to serve only three terms in the House and retired from Congress, he became president of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group, which itself has battled Republican moderates and intervened in GOP primaries to back more-conservative challengers.

Toomey chaired the conservative Republican Steering Committee in the Senate after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the founder of the Senate Conservatives Fund, stepped down from that post in 2012. 

Toomey did notably team up with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on a proposal to expand background checks for firearm transfers after 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2013.

But James Wallner, a former Senate GOP aide who worked for Toomey and conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), said Toomey can’t be described as a RINO.

The Senate Conservatives Fund last week also called out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has been feuding with Trump, as an obstacle to electing conservative candidates to the Senate.

“Electing rock-solid conservatives in these states won’t be easy. Senator McConnell and his allies are already working to recruit candidates who will maintain business as usual,” it wrote in its fundraising email.

The group promised to reward donors who give $25 or more by sending them a copy of Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) new book, “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” Hawley has become a hero among Trump supporters after supporting an objection to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes on Jan. 6, even though most of his Senate Republican colleagues thought that wasn’t a good idea.

Mary Vought, the executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, said her group’s view boils down to the Senate impeachment trial vote. Seven Republicans, including Toomey and Burr, voted to convict Trump, though Blunt, Shelby, Portman and McConnell did not.

“True conservatives don’t vote for phony impeachment articles,” Vought said in an email to The Hill. “Sen. Hawley took a stand in fighting for election integrity and against the second phony impeachment while many others did not. Republican voters know this, which is why Hawley has widespread support with the grassroots and why so many establishment Republicans are calling it quits.”

The backing of Hawley also illustrates how loyalty of Trump is a bigger deal to conservative grassroots advocates than fiscal issues.

Hawley has proposed that companies with revenues of more than $1 billion pay their employees $15 an hour, a departure from orthodox conservative economic policy. He was also an outspoken advocate of sending out $2,000 stimulus checks in December, something that Toomey and other fiscal conservatives in the GOP conference opposed. Trump backed the idea of stimulus checks.

Toomey played a central role in negotiating elements of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the 2020 CARES Act, two of Trump’s biggest legislative accomplishments.

Throughout his career he’s been an ardent advocate of lower taxes, less government regulation, fiscal responsibility and free trade. He was viewed as one of the most conservative members of the House, where he was a member of the Republican Study Committee when it battled with GOP leaders over growing deficits in the early 2000s.

Toomey’s denunciation of Trump’s fraud claims and his subsequent vote to impeach Trump, however, have come to define him among Trump supporters.

Toomey ripped into Trump after a mob of the president’s supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College vote.

“We witnessed today the damage that can result when men in power and responsibility refuse to acknowledge the truth. We saw bloodshed because the demagogue chose to spread falsehoods and sow distrust of his own fellow Americans,” he said.

Tags Donald Trump Joe Manchin Josh Hawley Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Pat Toomey Richard Burr Richard Shelby Rob Portman Roy Blunt

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