The first time I sat down with Pat Toomey he was talking about — what else? — government spending that was way out of control, tax rates that were hurting people and businesses, and the debt we would be passing on to our children and grandchildren.
Such reckless federal policies, he warned over lunch at the Vietnam restaurant in Center City, would lead to a new majority in Congress. He was the first Republican I heard predict that the political winds were shifting.
That conversation could have happened at any point in the last year or so, as Toomey has campaigned for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Arlen Specter. But it actually took place in the spring of 2006, right after primary voters angry about the midnight pay raise had ousted several GOP state lawmakers. Republicans in Washington were next, Toomey predicted.
During his six years in Congress, from 1999 to 2005, Toomey frequently warned his party about irresponsible spending, high taxes, and earmarks. At one point he annoyed the GOP leadership by drafting an alternate budget.
He challenged the party again in 2004, making fiscal responsibility the cornerstone of his primary race against then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. The party had to bring out the heavy hitters, including President George W. Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum, to eke out a win for Specter.
By the time I met Toomey he was president of the Club for Growth, a group that takes low taxes, balanced budgets, and economic growth so seriously that talking to them is likely a firing offense at NPR.
Though the war in Iraq was the dominant issue of '06, Republicans' bad spending habits gave voters across the political spectrum a reason to listen to anyone preaching fiscal responsibility.
One of those voters was small-business owner Steven Welch. Though a longtime Republican, Welch hosted a gathering in his living room for Democrat Joe Sestak, who was challenging U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon in the Seventh District.
"I was frustrated that Republicans hadn't lived up to their principles," Welch told me last week.
Sestak talked about getting the size of government under control. In response to an Inquirer questionnaire that year he wrote, "I will work to restore budget discipline, reform the tax code to spur job creation, reduce the national debt."
Welch was sold, even switching parties, but Congressman Sestak proved to be a disappointment.
"His actions have not matched his words in any way, shape, or form," Welch says. "Take any government program, and not only is he for it but he says it needs to be bigger."
Welch took two brief runs for Congress, first in the Seventh District and later in the Sixth, where he and his family eventually moved.
That experience confirmed what he knew as a business owner: voters were seeing government spending, including bailouts, as a hindrance to economic recovery, not a help.
"That overstepping is causing the problems in the labor market," Welch says.
Businesses can't make plans to invest and hire, Welch says, because of the uncertainties created by the policies of Sestak and his party: What will labor cost if a pro-union card-check bill becomes law? What happens to energy costs if cap-and-trade is passed? How much will taxes rise to pay for the stimulus and other measures adding to the national debt?
Short-term business tax credits touted by Democrats won't begin to offset those increased costs, Welch says.
With Democrats incapable of charting a fiscally responsible course, the uncertainties will linger, hiring won't resume, and prosperity will remain out of reach. Of course, even if Republicans win a majority on Tuesday, they'll still have to prove themselves. They'll need smart, pro-growth advocates like Toomey, who has experience running a business and acting as a congressional budget hawk, to keep them on track.
"Deep down he understands these issues," Welch says. "He articulates better than any other candidate why the Democrats' economic policies hurt the very people they are supposed to be helping."
Welch feels certain that the principles Toomey has long espoused won't be forgotten if he's sent to Washington, making him a forceful leader for limited government, lower taxes, and fiscal discipline.
Republicans who don't take party challenges well may have been a bit nervous initially in making Toomey their candidate. But they've come around, in large part because they've seen what Welch and many Democrats and independents have seen:
When it comes to the top issues facing the country, Pat Toomey is the most knowledgeable, most capable, and most qualified candidate running for U.S. Senate.