GOP downplaying challenge to Shuster

HARRISBURG – Having faced only one primary challenger in about a dozen years in office, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster’s next tough fight may come next spring when he faces a personally wealthy political novice backed by some hard-line national conservative groups.

The Shuster family is a political dynasty in central Pennsylvania: The elder Bud Shuster controlled the 9th Congressional District for nearly 30 years, and was a force who advocated vigorously for transportation projects, eventually running the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee his last six years in office.

Shuster was so powerful he passed higher transportation spending bills than President Bill Clinton or then-Speaker Newt Gingrich wanted and saw them enacted into law. The same committee is now run by his son, Bill.

But Art Halvorson with his brand of conservatism wants to break the tradition and boot Shuster out of office.

The move would essentially end some major clout Pennsylvania has in Congress.

“You gotta be a moron to support his opponent,” said Dick Stewart, chairman of the central caucus, who touted Shuster’s clout in Washington.

“It would be a big loss for Pennsylvania. Our delegation right now has gained so much respect in the conference,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Erie. “We’re fortunate.”

But clout and the ability to “bring home the bacon” might play well for Halvorson and his brand of conservative.

“There are those people who will support Bill Shuster and that family, you know, forever. And there are some people who being conservatives wouldn’t vote for Bill Shuster for dog catcher,” said A.C. Stickel, chairman of the Republican Committee of Blair County, the heart of the 9th congressional district.

Halvorson, a wealthy real estate developer who served nearly 30 years in the Coast Guard, is running a sort of insurgency campaign against the establishment that has become familiar to U.S. politics since the tea party wave in 2010. Halvorson would need hard-line conservatives to support him to topple Shuster.

Backed by personal wealth and outside money, Halvorson’s candidacy has garnered some national political media attention from Politico, which placed the race among the top five primaries to watch in 2014.

“I would hope the voters take a look at … their actual time on the field. … I’d rather go off the running footage. … He’s totally dedicated,” said Kelly, an avid football fan. “He puts a lot of hours in everyday. He worries about Pennsylvania, worries about our infrastructure. He sure worries about getting up and running and knows the key to a good economy is the infrastructure to support it.”

Shuster, who was elected in 2001 and defeated his only primary challenger in 2004, isn’t taking the Halvorson challenge lightly. Franklin County businessman Travis Schooley also intends to run for the GOP nomination, possibly splitting any anti-Shuster vote.

“He’s not really treating it as a race per se,” Stickel said, recalling a recent tea party town hall meeting held with Shuster. “They’re sometimes his biggest critic, but I thought it went very well. They were very respectful of him by and large. … He got a few boos, and he also got some cheers.”

“I thought it was really good give-and-take, and it was probably pretty representative of [the primary voters]. There was a lot of his people there. There were a lot of people who don’t like him,” he said.

A political action committee for the Madison Project, a national conservative group, has run radio ads against Shuster, labeling him as “a big government Republican” who “voted for endless debt.” Stickel said those ads are resonating with some primary voters in the 9th District.

“I certainly think [money from outside groups] will raise the profile of it. But I fail to see how they show Bill has been vacant or derelict in his duties to represent,” said U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Cumberland. “He’s been a good representative. And I don’t see how anybody who’s been further to the right assails him for not being right enough.”

“At the end of the day, I think it will be lost money or wasted money,” he added.

Shuster yields the gavel of a major congressional committee and is expected to have the resources to fend off any attack. Some GOP state committee members here said Shuster will have no problem raising the money to fend off the challenge.

Already, the Freedom and Opportunity PAC, a “Super PAC” that could make unlimited independent expenditures, will back Shuster, PoliticsPA noted.