by Lou Mancinelli
American politics, even at its most elevated, can seem like boxing without rules. So writes Mt. Airy historian Hal Gullan in his new book, “Toomey’s Triumph: Inside a Key Senate Campaign,” (Temple University Press, 2012). The author’s seventh book tells the story of Pat Toomey’s 2010 Pennsylvania senatorial race from inside the Republican camp.
According to Gullan, the race between Republican Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak, both former congressmen, served as a microcosm of the national political divide of the times. Against a backdrop of a rising tide of dissatisfaction with Congress, Toomey and Sestak worked to sell their plans for fixing a slouching economy and creating jobs.
And the men involved illustrated a fascinating dynamic in which two men may be friendly, yet they maintain that each harbors dangerous ideas.
“I thought maybe this could potentially be that rarity in American politics that generates discourse where two guys like each other but feel if the other guy wins, it would be devastating to the American way of life,” Gullan said.
Toomey’s team granted Gullan unprecedented access to their operations, from the war room to finances, to strategists tracking the polls. Gullan organized the book in chapters that center on a theme or event every month. The narrative picks up when the campaign began to simmer in March and concludes when voters go to the polls in November.
Gullan said he was originally interested in following the campaign but was willing to work with any candidate. He started the project by calling all three camps: Arlen Specter (who was, at the time, in the middle of a primary fight with Sestak), Sestak and Toomey. The former two told him to send an email.
When Gullan called the Toomey campaign, the campaign treasurer answered the phone, and Gullan proposed his idea. Toomey’s campaign manager Mark Harris, a young man in his mid-20s, liked the idea, and Gullan chose to focus on one camp.
What Gullan found in the Toomey camp was a calm and confident candidate who was focused on strengthening his base in the middle of the state. On the Democratic side, Gullan felt Sestak was stuck with a somewhat frantic message that was burdened by answering to Specter’s party flip-flop and shortcomings.
While the book falls short of being the account of a reporter documenting the experience of the campaign trail – a fact Gullan stresses in his preface – it is a historian’s presentation and analysis of the facts as they evolved during the months that led to the election and Toomey’s celebration speech in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 2010, because the election had been so close. It was so close, with many counties, like Montgomery, reporting late, the Toomey camp had to scramble with its lawyers to prepare for a last-minute recount. Toomey won by 2 percent of the vote.
“My disappointment was that the national media didn’t put the focus on this [election] it deserved,” Gullan said.
He said the media covered it as a bland election between two candidates who lacked character. But Gullan saw it as just the opposite: two candidates evocative of the American success story. It had intrigue.
Who would the people like? They were offered, in Gullan’s opinion, two good options. Toomey was a free-market Republican concerned with national debt. Sestak was a big-government Democrat who insisted that his office be kept open seven days a week when he served as Delaware County’s congressman.
At the beginning of the book, Gullan is unsure who will be the Democratic candidate. Sestak challenged five-term incumbent Arlen Specter. But Specter had only been a Democrat for one term. The son of an immigrant salesman, Specter was raised on the New Deal, and was a registered Democrat who in 1965 ran for District Attorney in Philadelphia on the Republican ticket, giving birth to his political career.
After more than four decades with the GOP, he jumped back to the Democratic Party when he supported Obama’s stimulus bill. Sestak’s camp launched devastating ads, branding Specter as a candidate interested only in reelection, and Sestak became the candidate in May.
While Toomey’s people painted Sestak as a liberal, they tried to stabilize Toomey’s image by saying the same thing as many ways as possible: less government – more jobs. Toomey concentrated his campaign in the center of the state between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, two cities that go Democratic in just about every election. Toomey’s people believed he could win by strengthening his presence in the middle of the state with his consistent message.
He traveled in a van to his victory centers (Gullan sometimes watched speeches or debates on Pennsylvania Cable Network) or campaign centers and worked to reenergize the Republican Party. According to Gullan, he had almost all the whole party behind him. After all, it was as if the main priority of Republicans in the 2010 mid-term elections was to get rid of whatever Democrats were in office at the time.
The key to Toomey’s successful campaign, Gullan believes, was the candidate’s demeanor. He won not because of his policies but because of who he was and who he appeared to be in debates, how he was presented before the public eye – confident, low-key, and authentic.
Meanwhile, Gullan sensed an inauthentic schizophrenic tone to Sestak’s campaign. Sestak changed his position and claimed he was not a liberal. He called himself a pragmatic problem solver.
“If you look at them and believe what they are saying,” Gullan said, “you may vote for them.”
That’s Gullan’s 80 percent principle: If you agree with 80 percent of what a candidate says, your disagreements may be bridged by a politician’s character, or is spin the word?
Before turning to writing, Gullan, 80, was raised in Baltimore and graduated from Johns Hopkins University, where he was an indifferent student but earned a degree in philosophy in 1953. After graduation, he became the youngest executive at the nation’s oldest advertising agency, N.W. Ayer & Son, in Washington Square, Philadelphia.
After his marriage to Elizabeth, who worked for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the couple moved to Mt. Airy, where they have lived for more than 40 years. Their home was designed by architect Frank Furness, who also designed the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on Broad Street,
At 58, after working in the advertising agency for years, Gullan decided he wanted to do something meaningful with his remaining time and went back to school. He earned a master’s degree in education from St. Joseph’s University and went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Temple University in 1998 at age 68.
He has taught history at West Chester, Temple, La Salle and St. Joseph’s universities. His other books include one about Gullan’s take on the 1948 Truman election as an upset, counter to popular theories that it should have been a landslide, the stories of the fathers and mothers of America’s presidents, a season of University of Pennsylvania basketball, and collaborations with SJU basketball coach Phil Martelli and Phillies broadcaster Chris Wheeler.
As for the current Republican primaries, Gullan said he is sure Mitt Romney will be the candidate and that Rick Santorum continues to hang around because “people look at him and believe what he’s saying.”
In contrast, he noted, Romney “is like the guy in school who wants to be the regular guy, who was driven to school by his chauffer.”
And that is just the kind of wit and insight Gullan provides in “Toomey’s Triumph.”