Sen. Toomey tries to deflect focus on his Supreme Court stance

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Senate Democrats gathered at the Supreme Court last week to press Republicans to act on the nomination. Sen. Pat Toomey has said it is too close to an election to consider a new justice.

WASHINGTON - Facing a barrage of Democratic attacks - and scrutiny as a key figure in a debate dominating national news - Sen. Pat Toomey went to Scranton on Friday.

The Pennsylvania Republican talked about a recently passed bill to combat opioid abuse, toured a prison, where he spoke about a measure allowing guards to carry pepper spray, and visited the state police barracks where two officers were ambushed in 2014.

It was exactly the kind of day that Republican operatives say Toomey should strive to replicate as Democrats mount an all-out assault over the senator's refusal to consider President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, federal Appeals Judge Merrick Garland.

The high court "is not something the average person feels the impact of on a daily basis," said Ian Prior, a spokesman for independent conservative groups focused on helping Toomey and other Republicans win their races and retain control of the Senate. "The key for Republican senators is to focus on the actual substantive things that they're doing in the Senate that have a real impact in their states."

Toomey aides said he intends to keep up a similar schedule during a just-begun two-week recess, when senators will be at home and liberal groups are aiming to take the Supreme Court fight right to their doorsteps.

"We are going to make a forceful case moving forward that Republicans should set aside their political arguments with the president of the United States and focus on their constitutional responsibilities," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday.

Their effort will ratchet up Monday in Pennsylvania and other battleground states. A coalition of liberal groups - including women's organizations, LGBT groups, environmentalists, and labor unions - plans protests outside Toomey's offices in Philadelphia, Allentown, and Harrisburg. Others plan an event in State College.

Another set of rallies is expected Tuesday in Philadelphia and Wednesday in Pittsburgh. Then news conferences are slated for Thursday outside each of Toomey's seven offices - all aimed at drawing the attention of voters who will decide whether to give the Republican a second term this fall.

In Washington, former Obama aides have formed the Constitutional Responsibility Project, which will enlist operatives in key states, including Pennsylvania.

The idea is to pressure Toomey into either changing course on Garland or paying a political price.

"The media scrutiny will sharpen, and the image of Pat Toomey as a partisan politician unwilling to answer for his unpopular positions will be front and center for voters come November," said Preston Maddock, a spokesman for Pennsylvania's Democratic state committee.

Democrats accused Toomey of ducking the issue by refusing to answer last week whether he would even meet with Garland. His office would not say if he would do so, and he did not answer reporters who questioned him in the Capitol on the day Garland was nominated.

The fight has brought a wave of heat on Toomey just as his potential Democratic rivals were set to begin the most bruising part of their primary contest.

Toomey's campaign spent much of last week releasing videos assailing Democrat Joe Sestak, who is seeking a rematch of their 2010 contest, but the Supreme Court news consumed all attention.

Toomey has argued that the president should not be able to make a high court nomination that would tilt the court to the left for decades just months before a new president is chosen. If Garland were nominated again after the election, the senator said, he would consider the judge then - a stand that drew scoffs from Democrats.

Public opinion polls show that majorities of the public, and many Republicans, believe the Senate should at least consider Obama's nominee.

Toomey's office said it was ready for any protests.

"We always welcome hearing from Pennsylvanians, and that's really the whole point of Senator Toomey's position," said his Senate spokeswoman, E.R. Anderson. "He believes all Pennsylvanians should have a voice in whether to change the balance of the court, and they will have that voice in less than eight months at the ballot box."

Conservative groups are aiming to counter the Democratic onslaught.

The Judicial Crisis Network announced a $2 million ad buy to support Republicans and attack Democrats in conservative-leaning states - though none of that money is slated for Pennsylvania.

The group's chief counsel, Carrie Severino, said there may be more coming, and the group is digging into Garland's record, hoping to arm Republicans with talking points to critique the nominee.

While Democrats attempt to stir up "street theater" Severino said, "we're going to have grassroots groups activating to make sure that's not a one-sided story."

As Toomey travels the state, both sides' stories promise to be ringing in the senator's ears.

jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.philly.com/capitolinq

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