(Bloomberg) -- Facing a tough re-election battle, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey knows he has a Donald Trump problem. He’s just hoping his opponent has an even bigger Hillary Clinton problem.
As the only endangered Republican incumbent yet to back or reject his party’s nominee, Toomey is campaigning as an independent voice who can be a check on whoever is president. He’s also working to tie his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, as closely as possible to Hillary Clinton, whose unfavorable ratings rival those of Trump.
"There is no question that Katie McGinty will never stand up to Hillary Clinton, but I will, and I’ll stand up to Donald Trump if I think he’s wrong," he said in an interview last month.
Toomey is trying to find the middle ground by motivating disgruntled Republicans and independents to vote without alienating Trump’s passionate backers. Barring a Trump comeback, his message of independence might be the best he can do in the state that has emerged as a key battleground for control of the Senate, as well as the presidency.
Pennsylvania is already the second most expensive Senate race this year by some measures, with campaigns and outside groups spending an estimated $31.8 million on advertising on the general election so far, according to data from ad-tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
Toomey has irritated Trump fans by withholding his endorsement of the nominee and many have peppered him at events across the state for his stance. But he hasn’t gone beyond saying he won’t vote for Hillary Clinton.
The senator is reflecting where a sizable, key bloc of voters stands, particularly in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs -- not enamored with Clinton but not sold on Trump.
"I don’t think I’m alone in that at all," Toomey said after a press conference at a Harrisburg construction company last month. "There are certainly die-hard Trump supporters that would like to see me enthusiastically supporting Trump and there are people in the opposite camp, and that includes Democrats, independents and Republicans."
Most polls in the state have Trump trailing Clinton by close to double-digits. Toomey is doing a few points better, but is still mostly running behind McGinty, who held state and federal environmental posts before running unsuccessfully for governor two years ago. A poll released Friday by Quinnipiac University found Toomey has a one-point lead over McGinty, well within the margin of error.
A Check on Either
Like Senator Marco Rubio in Florida, Toomey emphasizes he will be a check on whoever becomes president, and he dinged McGinty for failing to name a single issue where she disagreed with Clinton at a press conference last month.
"I have played that role. I have separated myself from my party when I thought it was wrong," he added. He touts his long fight against spending earmarks, which were prevalent a decade ago before being banned, and his failed bipartisan push for expanded background checks for gun purchases.
But Republican voters like Dave Salverian could still sink his bid for another term.
Salverian is a fan of Ronald Reagan who voted for Mitt Romney four years ago, but he and his wife aren’t fans of Trump and his rhetoric.
"This is the first time I’ve ever considered not voting," said the 61-year-old resident of Lahaska, Pennsylvania, who works as a broker of manufacturing equipment. "My wife’s talking about not voting. It’s a tough dilemma."
If enough Republicans like Salverian stay home on Nov. 8, Toomey could lose re-election, no matter how well he campaigns.
Toomey said he’s trying to appeal to those voters too. "They are not happy with either of these candidates. We are definitely going to end up with one of them," he said. "I think these folks are going to really want to make sure that we have a Republican-controlled Senate."
Toomey’s position certainly has led to some awkward moments. State Senator Scott Wagner, a major Trump backer who has been quoted calling fellow Republicans cowards for avoiding Trump, says Toomey will come around in the end.
"This is a very patriotic guy," Wagner said in an interview before the Toomey press conference, just as the candidate walked up to him. "I also know he’s not going to walk in and not vote. I think he’s going to vote for Donald Trump, I feel pretty sure of that. I just know his DNA."
Toomey demurred, repeating his insistence that he won’t vote for Clinton, and quickly went off to address reporters.
Buddies With Pence
The tough calculus for Toomey is that he needs all of Trump’s voters to pull the lever for him too.
He has praised Trump for his list of possible Supreme Court nominees and particularly for picking Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his vice presidential candidate. The duo were a tag team atop the party’s right wing a decade ago when then-Representative Pence was chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee and Toomey was president of the conservative Club for Growth.
And the Indiana governor has returned the favor, giving Toomey a shout-out to applause at a rally in Pipersville in rural northern Bucks County last month.
Pence came to the county on a mission to unify and rally Republicans to get behind their man.
"You have but one choice," Pence said.
While Toomey isn’t there yet, some of his policies align with Trump’s.
Toomey recently came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which McGinty rips as a convenient election-year conversion given Toomey’s long record of backing free-trade deals and his vote last year to fast-track trade deals including the TPP in Congress.
He also has highlighted his efforts to punish "sanctuary cities" like Philadelphia that won’t cooperate with the federal government on immigration laws.
Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, doesn’t see Toomey changing his strategy much.
"He’s probably chosen the best path available," he said. "If he had thrown everything in with Trump, that certainly isn’t going to help him." Still, he added, "If Trump fails mightily in Pennsylvania, he’s taking Toomey down with him."
Still, Borick acknowledged, "it’s crazy weird" for Toomey and other congressional Republicans to walk the tightrope on Trump.
“Obviously it’s not ideal,” said Patrick Basom, a Trump backer from Camp Hill, a suburb of Harrisburg. “You’re either behind him or you’re not. You got to get behind him.”
McGinty, meanwhile, has been seeking to capitalize on Trump, tying Toomey to him at every turn and labeling Trump a racist bigot.
"Voters can spot a phony baloney and voters value authenticity, and what they see in Pat Toomey is a guy who is trying to pull the wool over their eyes," McGinty said in an interview last month in Philadelphia. "He’s not being straight with them and it’s a character and a credibility issue."
The race has also revolved around economic issues, with McGinty pushing a $15 minimum wage, a broader child-care tax credit for the middle class and paid sick leave for workers, while attacking Toomey for opposing the Export-Import Bank. Toomey has countered with calls for less government interference in private industry, including the coal and fracking industries, while charging that McGinty’s policies would harm the economy.
John Cordisco, chairman of Bucks County Democrats, said his party is taking advantage of Republican divisions, with 14 paid staff campaigning in the county. The most staff he can recall in previous elections is two.
But Joe Cullen, vice chairman of Bucks County Republicans, said the race will ultimately be about Toomey and McGinty.
"People are able to look at the race for president and the race for Senate separately," he said.
Toomey’s stance on Trump could even help him, Cullen said.
"With a certain segment of people it gives him more credibility with them," Cullen said. "On the opposite end you have people who are hard-core Trump where he’s losing credibility.
"Either way you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t," he added.