The Donald Trump candidacy has made life very difficult for Republican congressional candidates. Do you support the nominee, winning favor with his base but taking on his increasingly grope-y baggage? Or do you denounce him, hopefully solidifying your position with disgusted Republican moderates but potentially enraging the #MAGA crowd? It’s such a fraught decision that earlier this week Paul Ryan, in the course of announcing that he himself would no longer make any effort to publicly defend or support Trump, gave GOP lawmakers permission to decide for themselves how to handle Trump. This is a very unusual presidential election.
If you’re one of those stuck-in-the-middle candidates, it’s a potentially career-defining decision, given the passions aroused by Trump. And one thing’s clear: You have to decide. This is not a question you can dodge.
Unless you’re Republican senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, that is. While most of the rest of his party grits their teeth and announces their plans to either support Trump or not, come what may the consequences (with some folks zigzagging back and forth), Toomey has instead adopted a strategy of radical ambiguity.
This has been going on for a while. In the run-up to Sunday’s second presidential debate, Toomey, who is locked in a tight race with his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty (FiveThirtyEight has his probability of prevailing at 44.3 percent at the moment), had signaled that he could kinda, sorta, potentially see himself supporting Trump, maybe? He just needed to get there on his own terms, to really work through the process.
Then, a week ago, that explosive Access Hollywood tape was released, which would seem to settle matters. If you were on the fence before, shouldn’t that talk of pussy-grabbing knock you violently off it? Not for Toomey. “Toomey has previously said he hopes to support Trump, but needed convincing,” wrote Jonathan Tamari on Philly.com in an article published Monday. “But after the release Friday of the recording showing the GOP nominee bragging about aggressively kissing and groping women, Toomey would not say if he will support Trump, or if he is still considering doing so, despite repeated questions this weekend from the Inquirer and other news outlets.”
On Monday morning, Toomey canceled a planned visit to a high school, where he would presumably have been asked to clarify his stance. On Tuesday, he did appear at a “Women for Toomey” event — awkward timing — only to announce his status as an undecided voter. The next day, he offered up some further muddled thoughts at another campaign stop: “I’m not defending Donald Trump,” he said. “I have said I find his candidacy very problematic. I had hoped by now I would have been convinced to be an enthusiastic supporter. I remain unpersuaded.”
This invites a fascinating thought experiment: If Pat Toomey thinks Donald Trump is too problematic to endorse now, in mid-October, what is the hypothetical event or revelation that would cause him to change his stance between now and the election? Evidence that Hillary Clinton has been dressing up as a clown and terrorizing kids? Leaked audio of her talking about a propensity for groping young women?
Whatever his thought process, Toomey is now attracting more scrutiny and mockery with each passing day, up to and including a mention on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Most candidates would realize it’s time to cast their lot with Trump or not-Trump and let the electoral chips fall where they may; Pat Toomey, though, is walking a different, much foggier path.