In 2004, even many Republicans thought Pat Toomey was too extreme for the U.S. Senate.
Toomey was a little-known, fiscally conservative congressman from Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley taking on moderate Arlen Specter, who was seeking a fifth term. Yet the challenger almost won that Republican primary. Only strong backing from President George W. Bush and Senate colleague Rick Santorum saved Specter.
Six years later, Toomey's call for a rematch scared Specter right out of the GOP. And still there were Republicans hoping for someone more "electable," such as moderate Tom Ridge, the former governor and Homeland Security director.
Voters disagreed. Toomey's message of fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, and economic growth carried the day — with Republicans, Democrats, and independents.
This year, former Sen. Specter is doing standup in Times Square, while hawking his book, Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, a Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing as We Know It. It's part memoir, part payback, part "Here's why we can't get anything done."
That "extreme" Sen. Toomey? He's getting things done among the so-called cannibals.
Consider the Jumpstart Our Business Startups — or JOBS — Act, signed into law last week.
JOBS is a six-bill package that eases Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulations enough to let small- to medium-size businesses secure the capital they need to expand — and, eventually, create more jobs.
"What this will do is enable a fair number of already profitable firms to expand and potentially take the next step up to become the next Microsoft or Apple or whatever example you choose," says David John, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Three of the six pieces were Toomey's, and, notably, each of his bills had a Democratic cosponsor. One was New York liberal Chuck Schumer. In today's Washington, that might not seem such a natural pairing. But it made for effective lawmaking.
"Having a Democratic coauthor for these bills was a huge part of why we were able to kind of insist that Reid run with this in the Senate," Toomey told me in an interview.
Final votes in both chambers were overwhelmingly positive and bipartisan: 73-26 in the Senate, 380-41 in the House.
Toomey is quick to praise congressional colleagues of both parties and President Obama for backing JOBS, but he doesn't pretend that all is now well in the nation's capital.
"I'd be hard-pressed to point to a specific example of something that can be done based on this precedent," he says. "It's still a difficult political environment."
And despite the name of the package, this law alone won't resolve the unemployment problem.
"This isn't something where the bill is signed at the end of March and we'll see a significant pickup in employment by the end of May," says Heritage's David John. "This is a longer-term investment vehicle."
Still, Toomey is rightfully garnering praise for his efforts to work across the aisle and push colleagues to think beyond the next election cycle. (If that's what critics meant by "extreme," let's have more.)
"Pat Toomey is a results-oriented guy," says House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who pushed for a jobs package that could win widespread support. "He was critical in delivering the votes necessary to coalesce both sides of the aisle in passing this bill."
John, a former Capitol Hill staffer, says Toomey has picked up right where he left off when he was a congressman.
"He's an incredibly bright guy who understands the intricacies of issues, and can get under the hood and look at complex situations," John says. "He can make the case to other members. It's one of his huge strengths, when he was in the House and now that he's in the Senate."
This isn't Toomey's first go-round at reaching across the aisle. The most notable example is from last fall, when he was a member of the supercommittee tasked with finding a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion. There was much talk from committee members about compromise, but only Toomey offered one. His pro-growth plan included $750 billion in spending cuts, about $500 billion in new revenue, and a decrease in marginal tax rates.
Democrats, naturally, balked at the cuts. Some conservatives saw "new revenue" as tax hikes, but so highly regarded is Toomey that they were careful not to make him the issue. In his remarks about the compromise, conservative stalwart Jim DeMint, the senator from South Carolina, said: "Republicans have offered tax increases, which I wasn't willing to accept … but the problem is that Democrats won't even talk about one cut of a program. …"
Toomey was not as successful last year as he was this spring. But that didn't stop pundits even then from speculating about him as a vice presidential candidate in 2012. Toomey downplays such talk, but, clearly, the freshman senator from Pennsylvania has, in many eyes, gone from being seen as too extreme to "the kind of legislator who knows how to get things done," as John says.
Toomey's description of the JOBS Act aptly sums up his first year in the Senate:
"Underappreciated, but, over time, people will see how powerful this is."