Pat Toomey and an extreme test of Bloomberg’s gun theory

Bloomberg endorsing Toomey's opponent. ()
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How serious is Michael Bloomberg about acting as a counterweight to the National Rifle Association?

So serious, apparently, that he'll support a man he disagrees with about just about everything. 

"Make no mistake about it: I will support that guy," Bloomberg said, when I asked whether he could really see himself helping Pennsylvania 's Pat Toomey, a very conservative Republican senator who had just agreed to back a bipartisan compromise expanding background checks for gun purchases.

Bloomberg has made a point of supporting recalcitrant Republicans in the past, but never one quite like Toomey.

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Last year, he held a Manhattan fund-raiser for then-senator Scott Brown, a mostly pro-gun Massachusetts Republican running against a gun-control liberal, which Bloomberg justified by citing Brown's work to beat back a bill, supported by the N.R.A., that would have required reciprocity for concealed carry permits. It was explicitly transactional: Bloomberg felt he owed Brown for standing up to his party in that one instance, even if, by Bloomberg's own estimation, he was less good in other respects.

But Brown, like Bloomberg, was also in favor of abortion rights, same-sex marriage, environmental protections, and, perhaps most importantly, he was a self-styled champion of the financial services industry that Bloomberg holds dear. He was, in other words, very much the sort of Republican the independent but actually quite liberal mayor could do business with.

Toomey, by contrast, is proudly pro-life, believes heterosexual marriage is "ancient and sacred," generally opposes environmental regulations, and, until last week, was considered a reliable ally of the Republican leadership and the National Rifle Association. Also, Toomey was president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, and is a sworn enemy of the sort of activist style of government Bloomberg champions.

In 2010, Bloomberg traveled to Philadelphia to endorse Toomey's Democratic opponent, Joe Sestak, whom Bloomberg praised for being willing to compromise, in contrast to Toomey.

"You know, I don't agree with a lot of Senator [Joe] Manchin and Senator Toomey's views, they're pretty conservative compared to me," Bloomberg conceded on Thursday morning. "But I will say, these are two guys who stood up and have done the right thing." 

The "right thing," in this case, was agreeing to a compromise deal to expand background checks for nearly all gun purchases, which Bloomberg said would dramatically reduce the number of murders in the U.S.

It's a definitive pronouncement from Bloomberg that goes a long way toward clarifying the criteria for his support. Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC included guns as one of its key issues—but not its sole criteria—in deciding on candidates to support last year, which made for a slightly muddled message. 

"I couldn't understand who he was deciding to support in the races, because I knew people that were both anti-gun, and he would pick one or the other," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who nonetheless praised Bloomberg for "having changed the equation" and given "the gun-safety team some backup."

The hope among gun control advocates is that Bloomberg's full-throated support for Toomey means he's narrowing his focus.

"This calculus, this is a strong calculus, that's going to help the gun safety movement and increase our path to change and to victory, to more sensible gun safety laws in our country," said Maloney.

The move could go a long way toward advancing Bloomberg's stated intention to counteract the influence of the N.R.A., something legislators are already coming to expect from him.

Maloney, who recently received death threats for proposing liability insurance for firearms, said she's spoken to the mayor about helping Virginia Republican Scott Rigell, who became a target of pro-gun groups after he joined a bill with Maloney to increase penalties for gun trafficking.

"I am hopeful that Mayor Bloomberg will come in and defend him, and help him," she said.

Howard Wolfson, a top adviser to the mayor, reiterated Bloomberg's commitment to the issue without pledging any specific support.

"The Mayor has made clear -- in word and in deed -- that he will support Members of Congress who take tough stands and do the right thing on this critical issue," said Wolfson in an email.

In the most optimistic scenario, Bloomberg's support for Toomey could sway some waffling Republicans when the Senate takes up a package of new gun laws this week.

"Mayor Bloomberg has done a very good job on this," said Chuck Schumer, at a press conference on Friday. "The N.R.A. had the battlefield to itself. And he's countering it. And that is very very good.

"He said yesterday that he will support—even though he probably doesn't agree with Senator Toomey on a whole lot of issues—he will support Senator Toomey. Maybe that gives some other senators solace if they step out courageously the way Toomey did."

Bloomberg is a liberal in most ways, but he has long maintained that he has no use for parties, and has sought to maximize his national influence by championing the cause of independent actors on both sides of the aisle. 

He doesn't think, or at least doesn't admit, that supporting someone like Toomey is anything new for him.

"If you go back and look, I've supported a number of people aorund the country, some of whom are too liberal for me, some of whom are too conservative," he said. "But I think that we need good government, we need people that believe things because they think it's right, and listen to arguments that people try to change their minds, but then they vote their conscience rather than vote the next election. And guys like Pat Toomey and Senator Manchin are leading from the front."

"And yes, I'd be very happy, I'd be honored, if they wanted help from me, I would be honored to do it," he said.

A spokesman for Toomey didn't return an email asking if he'd accept the mayor's support.