Money driving District 9 primary

It’s been nearly 10 years since a fellow Republican last challenged Bill Shuster, R-9th District, for his seat in Congress.

Now, with the 2014 primary 10 months away, he faces two challengers in a race that’s already drawn in accusations of political carpetbagging and impassioned competition to prove local roots.

“I know that Bill isn’t taking anything for granted,” Blair County Republican Party Chairman A.C. Stickel said. “He’s got people on the ground already.”

Shuster’s opponents – Manns Choice real-estate developer Art Halvorson and Franklin County alpaca farmer and entrepreneur Travis Schooley – have assailed Shuster for his supposed moderation, painting him as a career politician who wants to return to the days of pork-laden earmarks and backroom deals.

But both challengers have sniped at one another, as well, while Shuster has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds and held up his success as a powerful figure in the House of Representatives.

“[Shuster]’s generally a staunch defender of earmarks,” said Schooley, 38, a military veteran who tried to run against Shuster in 2012 until a legal challenge left him off the ballot.

Schooley filed for 2014 candidacy even before the 2012 primary, but has remained largely behind the scenes until recent weeks.

“One of the reasons I’m still in the race – even with the presence of Art Halvorson – is that this election is reminiscent of the 1972 election of Bud Shuster,” Schooley of Waynesboro said.

Schooley described both Shuster and his father, who held the 9th District seat before him, as Washington insiders who don’t share his local roots.

He also challenged Halvorson’s local connections, noting that the Coast Guard veteran has lived in Bedford County for only a few years. Schooley has proudly claimed Franklin County ancestry dating back to the Revolutionary War.

“What I don’t like, and what other people are tired of, is outsiders moving into this district and bringing money along to run for Congress,” he said. The bulk of Halvorson’s campaign finance as of July 1 came from a $100,000 loan from his private funds, with thousands more from relatives in other states.

Not to be outdone, Halvorson said he’s regularly visited Bedford County for decades and traces Pennsylvania ancestry at least as far as Schooley’s.

“That’s probably not a winning strategy to use against me. … We’ve got roots here that date well before Mr. Schooley’s family,” he said Tuesday. “My wife’s family dates all the way back to the days of William Penn.”

Halvorson said even Republicans in Schooley’s home county have come out to support him because he’s the only candidate who can “take Shuster out.”

Both men agree, however, that Shuster’s influential position as House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman isn’t necessarily a feather in the district’s cap.

“Mr. Shuster is unabashedly big government, government control, central planning, earmarks … letting the big boys control everything, not the people,” Halvorson said.

Radio advertisements for Halvorson, first run earlier this month by the conservative Virginia-based Madison Project, seemed to blame Shuster even for the national debt, noting that the country’s debts have tripled “under his watch.”

Nevertheless, Shuster’s campaign has hailed his accomplishments since his appointment last year as House transportation chief, a key position often reserved for more senior members.

“Bill Shuster has the ability to influence national policy and provides central Pennsylvanians a voice in the national conversation about the direction of this country,” Sean Joyce, his campaign manager, said in an e-mail exchange. Joyce said Shuster has leveraged his influence to repeatedly challenge President Barack Obama’s policies.

The position has certainly helped his campaign finances: From April 1 to June 30, he reported some $650,000 in contributions, many from political action committees and executives representing transportation, engineering and industrial companies across the country.

That’s more than four times what he made during the same period in the last election.

“You’ve got to raise money for congressmen all over the country” as transportation chairman, Stickel said. “But when you need money, those people will help you out.”

While Stickel suggested that Shuster is taking the primary race seriously, Joyce declined to say specifically what they expect before the May vote.

“Pundits and political professionals can speculate if this is a ‘serious’ race,” he said.

Democratic opponents have never posed a serious threat to Shuster in the 9th District, often described as the most conservative in the state. Federal election forms indicate a Democrat hasn’t yet filed for the 2014 election.

While Stickel said that the Blair County Republican Party remains neutral until after the primary, he noted a local history of veteran officials overthrown by upstarts in their own party: John Eichelberger defeated Robert Jubelirer in a 2006 state Senate race, while longtime state Rep. Rick Geist lost last year to challenger John McGinnis.

In 2004, the last time Shuster was successfully challenged by another Republican, he defeated Tipton business figure Michael DelGrosso by less than three percentage points.

“Now, I think there are a lot of people who are committed to supporting his kind of seniority,” Stickel said. “Now Bill has more name recognition, more money, more experience.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.