Jonathan S. Tobin, 03.23.2012, Commentary
Some will call it payback but to those who know and or have followed Pat Toomey’s political career closely, it’s just yet another instance of his logical mind following a question to its proper conclusion. Pennsylvania’s junior senator told a gathering of conservative activists today that questions about the conservatism of Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney are unfounded. “I think Mitt Romney is a conservative, and I think if elected, he’ll govern as a conservative,” Toomey said at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference. Coming on the heels of another virtual endorsement from one of the Senate’s other leading conservatives, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, the Toomey statement is strong ammunition for the Romney campaign, especially in the lead up to the Pennsylvania Primary on April 24.
It is a given that some observers will merely put down this statement as a belated reprisal for Rick Santorum’s infamous decision to back Arlen Specter against Toomey in a 2004 Senate primary race. But Toomey and Santorum put that dispute behind them long ago. The Toomey statement is actually far worse for Santorum than merely getting even for his role in keeping him out of the Senate eight years ago. Toomey, the former head of the Club for Growth, is as principled a conservative on fiscal issues as one can find in the Senate or anywhere else and his acceptance of Romney’s bona fides is a telling statement about what he thinks about both the frontrunner as well as the challenger.
Though Santorum has campaigned as the true conservative in the race as opposed to the “Massachusetts moderate,” there’s little doubt that Toomey has always been to his right when it came to government spending, entitlements and earmarks. Santorum spent his 12 years in the Senate working hard to bring home the federal bacon to the state Toomey has always disdained that sort of pork barrel politics even when he was representing the Allentown area in the House from 1998 to 2004. When Toomey says, as he did today that Romney stands for “the principles of limited government” that means something.
While I doubt that Toomey would take an active role in the primary or campaign for Romney (now that really would be payback), today’s statement will be a reminder to many Pennsylvania conservatives of all the things they don’t like about Santorum. It’s also why those who assume that Santorum would romp in his home state are probably exaggerating his appeal. While he is ahead in the polls and deserves to be favored, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that he will win.
Even more to the point, Toomey and DeMint are signaling to movement conservatives and Tea Partiers around the nation that it is time for them to close ranks behind the inevitable Republican standard bearer. While Santorum will undoubtedly continue to nip at Romney’s heels at least until Pennsylvania votes, it’s one more sign that the race is coming to a conclusion.