The Republican push to censure Sen. Pat Toomey symbolizes a broader question facing the GOP nationally and in Pennsylvania: Where does it go after Donald Trump?
The rush to punish Toomey, one of just seven Republicans who voted Saturday to convict Trump in his impeachment trial, reflects the hold that the former president and his devoted voters retain within the party. Toomey’s defenders, meanwhile, have so far come largely from a more traditional GOP power base: Republicans in the moderate suburbs or the business community, elements that historically drove the party’s candidates, including Toomey, to statewide victories.
But they appear outnumbered as the GOP center of gravity has increasingly moved to the rural and postindustrial areas that provided Trump his largest margins. His supporters there aren’t driven by the wonky, conservative economic policies Toomey championed, but by cultural clashes, white, working-class populism, and fury at Democrats. Many county parties in those areas have already censured or are working to censure Toomey. Some party activists are pushing for a statewide condemnation, and state GOP Chairman Lawrence Tabas has announced a meeting where that issue is expected to be discussed.
“Trump has changed the face of the Republican Party,” said Jeff Piccola, the Republican chairman in York County, near Harrisburg, whose county committee sharply rebuked Toomey. “We have left the country club and we are now the party of the working men and women of the country.”
Even in some of the places where the GOP has struggled under Trump, party leaders are lining up behind his brand of politics. Republicans in Chester County had planned to vote Tuesday on a censure resolution against Toomey, even though his approach had far more electoral success there than Trump’s. That vote was delayed Tuesday afternoon.
In Lehigh County, once represented in the House by Toomey and then centrist Republican Charlie Dent, the local GOP is planning an event later this month featuring Tabas and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R., Colo.), who has ties to the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.
Some Pennsylvania Republicans are pushing back against the censures, arguing that they need people like Toomey to advance conservative policy and win in the kinds of vote-rich suburbs that have shifted sharply against the GOP, costing Trump reelection.
“Our focus needs to be on reaching the people who may only agree with us 70 or 80% of the time, but still lean Republican, and tell them, ‘Hey, we’re a big-tent party,’” said Sam DeMarco, the GOP chairman in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and its suburbs. “If I can get those people into our tent and to the polls we can win. And only if I win can I govern.”
DeMarco disagreed with Toomey’s impeachment vote but also opposed censuring him, even as some of his committee members are pushing for it. He said the party needs to focus on winning in this year’s elections, and that punishing Toomey reeked of the “cancel culture” he associates with Democrats.
The question of the party’s path forward is critical with Senate and gubernatorial races looming in 2022. The choice of nominees will shape the tone and style of the Republican campaigns, their avenues to victory, and the policies they pledge to pursue. The Senate race will help determine who controls the chamber after the midterm elections.
John McBlain, a state committee member from Delaware County, argued against the censure push, writing to Tabas that it “seems like the Purge Horn calling for bloodlust.”
“The problem with purges is that they never work out how you want,” McBlain added.
The state party didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday and Tuesday.
“If somebody forced me to choose Sen. Toomey or Donald Trump, it’s a pretty clear choice to me,” McBlain said in an interview.
David Taylor calls Toomey a longtime friend who has supported the state’s business community, and said he trusts the senator’s judgment.
Censure is “shortsighted and it fails to appreciate Sen. Toomey and his really excellent service to the commonwealth and the country,” said Taylor, president and CEO of the powerful Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association.
Yet, while some Republicans are coming to Toomey’s defense, there doesn’t appear to be a coordinated effort, and party insiders say the momentum for now is against him. Toomey had already announced he won’t seek reelection next year.
Polls suggest that the majority of Republican voters stand with those looking to punish him — though not a majority of voters overall. A Morning Consult survey released Tuesday found that while 64% of all voters blame Trump for the Capitol attack, only 27% of Republicans do. Far more Republicans blame President Joe Biden or congressional Democrats.
The censure push in Pennsylvania is part of a wider fight illustrated Tuesday when Trump blasted Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, now the top Republican in Washington, as a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack” who would lead the party to defeat — a response to McConnell’s blistering criticism of Trump’s conduct after he voted to acquit.
Toomey’s critics argue that the impeachment trial was unconstitutional and that Trump was the victim of Democratic partisanship.
“We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to do the right thing, whatever he said he was doing,” Washington County Republican chair Dave Ball told Pittsburgh television station KDKA in widely circulated comments Monday. “We sent him there to represent us, and we feel very strongly that he did not represent us.”
Even in some places where the GOP has collapsed under Trump, county officials are sticking with him.
Chester County was long a stronghold of moderate but fiscally conservative Republicans. After delaying Tuesday’s vote, the local GOP committee still plans to consider a censure next week, despite the fact that Toomey’s style of politics has proven far more popular there. When he and Trump were both on the ballot in 2016, the senator narrowly won Chester County. Trump lost it by nearly 10 percentage points that year and by 17 in 2020.
Over the course of Trump’s presidency, Democrats in Chester County swept the GOP out of office in municipal, county, state, and federal elections.
Yet, the draft censure resolution blamed Toomey’s vote Saturday for weakening the party, saying it has led to “numerous” Republicans in Chester County and across Pennsylvania indicating they will “no longer actively participate in the Republican Party.”
As of Tuesday, no other county party in the Philadelphia suburbs had publicly discussed censuring Toomey. Delaware County GOP leaders are “not actively considering” it but are asking party activists for “their views on the matter,” said Pete Peterson, a spokesperson for the county party.
Republican leaders in suburban Bucks and Montgomery Counties did not respond to questions Tuesday.
Some Republicans argue that it’s too early to judge the future of the party based on this fight alone. While the impeachment trial is fresh now, several predicted the focus will soon turn to fighting policies pushed by Biden or Gov. Tom Wolf, and making the case that Republicans could do better.
“This is the tempest du jour,” said Taylor, of the manufacturing association. “It will pass as they all do.”
Trump, however, has shown few signs of fading away.
Staff writers Andrew Seidman and William Bender contributed to this article.