HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pat Toomey has the GOP's endorsement in Pennsylvania's race for U.S. Senate and spent a decade in Washington, yet he has avoided any tea party-style challenge and even the dreaded label of Washington "insider."
That could be because he's getting credit from some quarters for helping give life to the movement of small-government conservatives that has drawn considerable fuel from the tea party, patriot and 9/12 groups.
Former House majority leader Dick Armey, a GOP operative who doubles as a face of the tea party, told attendees at a Philadelphia event last week that Toomey's challenge from the right to moderate Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania's 2004 GOP primary was a defining moment for that movement.
"Its moment of conception was six years ago when the Republican President George W. Bush endorsed Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey," Armey told people in a video from the book signing and meet-and-greet that was posted on a Philadelphia Inquirer political blog. "Why isn't the president embracing Pat Toomey?"
Toomey, who was a third-term congressman at the time, narrowly lost the primary.
But Bush's embrace of Specter signaled the moment when small-government conservatives split from the Bush-led GOP, said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for Armey's Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, FreedomWorks.
Toomey is opposed by Democrat Joe Sestak in the hotly contested race to replace Specter, whom Sestak beat in the Democratic primary. It was the prospect of a brutal primary rematch with Toomey that prompted the fifth-term Specter to flee to the Democratic Party. But Sestak beat him by, in part, positioning himself as a trustworthy liberal.
Millions of dollars in TV ads are now flowing into the Toomey-Sestak race from outside groups as the men — ideological opposites — slug it out.
Sestak, a second-term congressman from suburban Philadelphia who spent 31 years in the Navy and retired as a vice admiral, has played up Toomey's kinship with the tea party and his vote for Bush-era initiatives that contributed to later deficits.
As tea party-backed candidates in other states have knocked off Republican Party-establishment candidates for U.S. Senate — Mike Castle in Delaware, Bob Bennett in Utah, Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, Trey Grayson in Kentucky and Jane Norton in Colorado and Sue Lowden in Nevada — the competing threads seem to have unified behind Toomey.
He is backed by Armey's FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth and the Tea Party Express, a group formed by a longtime California GOP consultant, all of which have helped propel outsider candidates to victory.
Pennsylvania's GOP chairman, Robert Gleason, suggests that Pennsylvania has had relative peace because the state GOP has a strong organization, is well-funded and has reached out to tea party groups.
For his part, Toomey doesn't wear the tea party's support on his sleeve, and doesn't identify himself as a tea party candidate. He also points out that his political platform came well before the tea party.
"I will simply say I'm delighted to have the support of many people who associate themselves with the tea party and the many more people in Pennsylvania who agree that this government has gotten too big, is spending too much money and we've got to reign it in," he said at a campaign event Monday.
One man who organizes a network of tea party-style groups, Greg Wrightstone of Wexford, said Toomey did not go out of his way to court tea party groups.
And Toomey is careful not to embrace all the disparate ideas associated with the loose affiliation of tea party groups.
"There's some overlap," he said in a July interview.
But Wrightstone and other tea party-style group coordinators in Pennsylvania say they support Toomey, regardless of the party's endorsement in the primary and Toomey's decade in Washington.
"I just like him," said Diana Reimer, who coordinates the Philadelphia Tea Party Patriots. "I like the fact that he wants to get the spending under control. ... He's a conservative and that's what we need to do is get our conservative candidates into office."