HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Former Navy vice admiral Joe Sestak tells a punchy story on the campaign trail about the voting record of Pat Toomey, the incumbent he wants to beat in Pennsylvania's important U.S. Senate election this year.
In 2002, as a congressman from the Allentown area, Toomey visited the USS George Washington aircraft carrier battle group that Sestak commanded while Navy warplanes bombed Afghanistan.
Toomey, Sestak told a luncheon crowd in Harrisburg last week, "voted to send me to war, visited me on the aircraft carrier as we were bombing away ... and then came home and voted against every veterans appropriations bill."
It's only part of the story. But it underscores the fact that Toomey's voting record over the last five years is being closely scrutinized as Democrats try to convince voters that the Republican senator went against their interests, time and time again.
Toomey contends that he works capably with Democrats, despite his conservative voting record. His campaign also notes that the senator voted for some veterans affairs funding bills, contrary to Sestak's claim.
The election — and perhaps control of the U.S. Senate — could hinge on Toomey's ability to defend his voting record, a task made more difficult by the political mechanics of lawmaking.
Toomey narrowly won the seat in 2010 while aggressively attacking Sestak's votes during his two terms as a U.S. House member from suburban Philadelphia. This year, the winner of a three-way Democratic primary race — Sestak, John Fetterman or Katie McGinty — will have Toomey's much longer, and still evolving, voting record to pick apart.
According to information supplied by the Sestak and Toomey campaigns, it appears that Toomey subsequently voted "no" on every major veterans affairs funding bill until he left the U.S. House in early 2005. That does not count resolutions Toomey supported that continued the same level of funding or supplemental funding bills that settled up end-of-year costs.
His Senate record is more complicated.
At a time when agency appropriations bills get wrapped up into larger, more complex appropriations bills to finance the federal government, Toomey has voted "no" on most of them.
In 2011 and 2015, he voted with every Democratic senator to support a stand-alone veterans affairs appropriations bill. Those bill versions never became law, and Toomey later voted against the broader, catch-all appropriations bill that folded in veterans affairs dollars, including one in December.
Last month's vote was against what Toomey called a bloated measure "that was crafted behind closed doors, is filled with special interest giveaways and will continue Washington's addiction to overspending and fiscal irresponsibility."
In 2014, Toomey supported the catch-all appropriations bill, as did most Democrats. Toomey called that $1.1 trillion bill "far from perfect," but also praised it for being fiscally conservative — it locked in spending levels negotiated in prior years between Republicans and Democrats — and for achieving several policy triumphs, including boosting aid to the federal Veterans Employment and Training Service.
Asked later about Sestak's statement, Sestak's campaign said Toomey had voted against every major veterans' appropriations bill that became law until the VA health care scandal hit in 2014.
With an estimated 940,000 veterans living in Pennsylvania, a strong record on veterans funding could be important.
Meanwhile, the Democrats' attack on Toomey's voting record is intensifying, even as Toomey awaits the result of the April 26 primary election to find out which Democrat will run against him.
The man Toomey replaced in the Senate, the late Arlen Specter, once suggested that a voting record can be made to tell any story.
"You can pick at 10,000 votes, you can find a lot of votes to support most any proposition," Specter told The Associated Press while running unsuccessfully for re-election in 2010.
Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said incumbents may have lots of advantages, but defending a voting record is a particular soft spot. The onus is on Toomey to explain his voting record, Borick said, and provide context to voters who are unlikely to understand how Washington works.
"It becomes this tough territory to defend because you have to show the reasons why you voted against something that had a component that was probably very popular with voters," Borick said. "It is a staple of negative ads and negative charges against incumbents. It's used over and over because it's so simple."
Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/marc-levy.