Toomey's stance on Justice Scalia's replacement could be troublesome for his reelection bid

Senate 2016 Pennsylvania
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey speaks with members of the media Monday, May 9, 2016, in Philadelphia.

The trendy takeaway from a Public Policy Polling survey last week was that Pennsylvania voters see the Phillie Phanatic as more presidential than Donald Trump.

You can see why the Phanatic is up on Trump by 6 percentage points. Both are frenetic performers with unnaturally hued complexions. The Phanatic, however, has a hot dog cannon at his disposal.

Tough to beat that.

Deeper in the poll was something more interesting about the state of Pennsylvania's race for the U.S. Senate, and the self-inflicted Republican wound that may haunt Pat Toomey's bid for a second term.

Fifty-three percent of the 1,106 voters surveyed from June 3 to June 5 said the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court should be filled this year. Just 38 percent said the seat, open since the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia, should stay empty.

Asked whether the Senate should hold confirmation hearings for Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee for the vacancy, 66 percent of the respondents said yes, while 18 percent said no, slightly more than the 16 percent who were unsure.

This issue isn't fading, three months after Obama tapped Garland, the chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia Circuit.

Two out of three voters in Pennsylvania - in a poll that included Democrats, Republicans, and independents - want the Republican-controlled Senate to do its job.

The strength and longevity of that opinion does not bode well for Toomey, a Lehigh Valley Republican.

It's been two months since Toomey held a Capitol Hill meeting - merely for show - with Garland.

On the day Garland was nominated, Toomey declared that the next president should appoint Scalia's replacement. He said the same after meeting with Garland.

This from a senator who has looked increasingly pained by the notion of sharing a general election ballot with Trump. Six months ago, Toomey predicted that Trump would not be his party's nominee for president. That sounded at the time as much a wish as a prediction.

Here is why the poll matters to Toomey. Forty-five percent of the voters said they would be less likely to vote for a senator who opposes holding confirmation hearings while 22 percent said they would be more likely, and 34 percent said it didn't matter.

Toomey leads the Democratic nominee, Katie McGinty, 41 percent to 38 percent, with 21 percent undecided. Neither comes off well in the poll, with 41 percent disapproving of Toomey's job performance, 29 percent approving, and 29 percent unsure. Thirty-four percent had an unfavorable opinion of McGinty, while 26 were favorable and 40 percent were uncertain.

McGinty has room to grow by highlighting Toomey's intractable stance.

Conservatives like Toomey fear allowing Obama to replace Scalia - one of their own - with a liberal justice who would tilt the court to the left for a generation.

Here, Toomey makes the same mistake as Trump, who still is playing hard to his base when he should be pivoting to the broader, more diverse audience that will vote in the Nov. 8 general election.

He is probably betting the Democrats who want hearings for Garland won't vote for him anyway.

That's probably right.

The poll shows people who identify as liberal want the seat filled, while the people who identify as conservative want it left vacant for the next president.

Still, the push is strong for confirmation hearings. While 79 percent of Democrats want them, 52 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of independents want them, as well.

There were just over four million Democrats in Pennsylvania as of last week, along with 3.1 million Republicans and just over one million independents.

Toomey represents them all. And a majority of them want the hearings.

brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973@ByChrisBrennan