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Political figures consider options

Eichelberger, Shuster keep open mind concerning future plans in office

Even as party volunteers and political higher-ups spend their efforts on a slate of local elections this November, many are keeping an eye on another process already unfolding behind the scenes: next year’s congressional and state races.

Primary season is still months away, and next year’s elections — including key races in both Washington and Harrisburg — are nearly 15 months out. But in an era when campaigns seem to stretch longer and longer, rumors are already swirling over important local seats.

Few major officeholders in west-central Pennsylvania have explicitly ruled themselves out for repeated runs or confirmed their plans for next year. Asked in recent days, however, they and their spokespeople have notably left their options open.

At the top of the food chain, electorally speaking, is U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District. Now in his ninth term of office, Shuster is slated to leave his influential position atop the House Trans­portation and Infrastructure Committee next year under a rule that limits chairmen to six years.

“Congressman Shuster isn’t focused on any election right now,” spokesman Joey Brown said last week in an email.

“Right now Congressman Shuster’s focus is on working alongside President Trump to advance the conservative policies voters in central Pennsylvania supported overwhelmingly in the last election,” Brown wrote.

Campaign still active

On paper, it is difficult to gauge a long-sitting congressman’s plans so far from an election. Shuster’s campaign committee continues to raise and spend large sums of money, although he has raised somewhat less than at the same point in the 2016 and 2014 election cycles.

According to Federal Election Commission filings, Shuster’s committee took in $822,000 in the first six months of this year, compared with more than $1 million at the same time in 2015 and nearly $1.2 million in 2013. However, the committee has spent more this year than in the past, including regular payments to private fundraising and finance consultants.

For a powerful member of Congress with many corporate allies, incoming donations and outgoing expenses are not a certain sign of November plans. In the last election, Shuster waited until January 2016 — less than 11 months from Election Day — to formally announce his re-election bid.

Still, early movement could be underway. It remains unclear whether any other candidates plan to seek Shuster’s seat; repeated GOP challenger Art Halvorson announced his plans to do so in May 2013 and September 2015.

Last week, Halvorson said it may be getting late for a total newcomer to start making his or her name known in time for 2018.

A domino effect?

What happens in Congress, however, could depend on a clockwork series of decisions at lower levels. Next year marks a decision point for many, from gubernatorial candidates to state Senate hopefuls and local House representatives.

The issue is particularly important among Republicans, who in many cases have run state candidates unopposed in recent years. Last year, Halvorson took the Democratic spot as a write-in, leaving two Republicans on the final U.S. House ballot.

Asked in recent weeks, a collection of local Republicans — party officials, committee members and activists — acknowledged hearing rumors that some prominent figures could seek new positions or even step down. But they stressed that the rumors are unconfirmed and sometimes contradictory.

Blair County GOP Chair­woman Lois Kaneshiki said she has heard talk of internal challenges and political shifts, but remains focused on upcoming local government elections.

A.C. Stickel, Kaneshiki’s predecessor and a committee member, said the same.

“I have heard rumors since last April,” Stickel said. “I’ve had no confirmation from anything. … I don’t even have a gut feeling.”

Traditional wisdom not infallible

Stickel said the last two years, a period that saw the unexpected rise of President Donald Trump, have taught him not to rely on common wisdom in politics.

Much could depend on state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, whose third four-year term is up after next year’s elections. Eichelberger’s first political foray above the county level, in 2001, pitted him against Shuster in a party vote to fill the 9th District congressional seat.

In a phone message last week, Eichelberger said he is focused on state judicial elections this fall but said he would soon be looking at “decisions” on his next political steps.

“I’ve been focused on that and continue to be,” he said of the judicial races. “We’re focusing on that, and we’ll see how things work out in the fall and start to look at some point for decisions next year.”

Eichelberger himself has backed three-term limits for state senators, although in a broad legal sense and with some exemptions.

In 2007, he circulated plans for a state constitutional amendment that would limit lawmakers to 12 years in office: three terms for senators and six for representatives. Eichelberger’s final plan, which did not pass, allowed for eight years in one chamber and eight in the other, he said in a 2007 KDKA interview.

The plan would have exempted sitting lawmakers from the rule.

“No matter how smart you are or what kind of ideas you bring to the table, if you’re here long enough, you’ll be in charge of something,” he said at the time. “And that’s not a good way to do business.”

Self-term limits

Whether Eichelberger will limit himself to 12 years remains to be seen. But his moves could affect those at lower levels, some of whom have themselves backed limits to lawmakers’ time in office.

Rep. John D McGinnis, R-Altoona, has long maintained he would only serve three two-year terms in the state House. That deadline is approaching, with his third term expiring at the end of 2018.

At least one representative has already been clear about her plans for next year. State Rep. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, who serves as a Republican State Committee member, said she plans to stay put and seek a third term in the House.

“I’m staying where I’m at,” said Ward, who first won election in 2014 and ran unopposed last year. “I’m running for re-election in the 80th — that’s one thing I do know.”

Ward acknowledged hearing rumors of possible moves and changes at other levels, as did several of her GOP committee colleagues. On and off the record, most said they haven’t heard anything firsthand; only chatter at social gatherings and party events.

“I think it’s really up in the air,” one said.

Another point where Ward and her colleagues agreed: That uncertainty means many outcomes, including surprising ones, remain possible.

“Anything can happen,” she said several days ago. “And it’s only August.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.

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