With more than seven months of campaigning ahead in the 9th District congressional primary, a Republican polling firm said Thursday that Rep. Bill Shuster holds a 52-percent lead over his closest opponent.
According to a 550-person telephone poll by Harper Polling, Republicans in the district hold an overwhelmingly positive opinion of Shuster, who has held the seat since 2001.
Shuster's opponents, Manns Choice real estate developer Art Halvorson and Franklin County farmer-entrepreneur Travis Schooley, carry little name recognition, with a vast majority saying they're unsure how they feel about the Republican challengers.
"The recent poll results showing Congressman Shuster with a large lead over any would-be opponents is good news, but we are staying focused on our job representing the people of the 9th District," Campaign Manager Sean Joyce said in a prepared statement.
Nevertheless, Halvorson - a relatively recent Bedford County transplant who has received support from some conservative tea party groups - was upbeat about the results.
"My name recognition started at zero," Halvorson said. "Bill Shuster's ceiling is 60 percent. He's only going to go down from that."
While Halvorson has declined to identify himself a tea party member, he has expressed support for the movement's goals. The poll's revelation that more than half of local Republicans identify with the tea party is a boon to his campaign, he said.
But the poll found that tea party supporters are, in fact, more likely than other Republicans to back Shuster.
Both Shuster's challengers seem to suffer from a low profile: According to the poll, more than four in five Republicans in the district don't have a clear opinion of Halvorson and Schooley.
With months left before the primary vote, the challengers said they have ample opportunity to raise their profiles.
"We've been really busy with just getting the network up," Schooley said Thursday, noting that his work often keeps him from daytime campaigning. "I'm not distressed. I'm going to be working equally as hard."
Schooley said he has organized a grassroots base of some 300 supporters who will begin door-to-door campaigning soon. According to the poll, he carries a 5-percent vote share.
Halvorson, who spent Thursday afternoon knocking on doors in Altoona, said he expects to take a large share of undecided votes in the coming months.
The poll was carried out Monday through Tuesday at 550 landline phone numbers. Some experts in the past have criticized similar "robopolls" for ignoring cellphone users; Harper Polling lists a 4.16-percent margin of error.
Similar polls have not yet been carried out for Democrats, who haven't announced a 9th District candidate. The district has been listed as "safe Republican" in 2014 by the Rothernberg Political Report, an election handicapper.
For now, the election is solely a Republican contest.
"Art Halvorson's 11 percent proves once again that voters are a lot smarter than Art thinks they are," Joyce said. "That's no surprise to our campaign but might be to Art since he's new to the area."