Big 13th field fuels unpredictability
In the final days of an unprecedented eight-way Republican primary battle, candidates for a newly drawn congressional district have launched their toughest attacks yet.
The large pack — which includes businessmen, military veterans and sitting politicians — has taken a clearer shape in the last stretch before the Tuesday primary. And while little reliable polling has been made available to the public, Republicans will likely be split, with no one candidate taking the majority.
“This is different from anything. We’ve got an open seat; we’ve got a new district,” Lois Kaneshiki, chair of the Blair County Republican Committee, said. “I don’t think Blair County’s ever seen anything like this, and we’ll probably never see anything like it again.”
Eight Republicans are fighting across an expansive, rural district: the newly redrawn 13th, which runs from Westmoreland County to Gettysburg.
While they are not technically running for the same seat as outgoing Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, in practice, they are fighting for most of the same voters who kept the Shuster family in office for decades.
Ideology and personality
Shuster’s legacy — and his most recent electoral fights — weigh heavily in this race, with many of the same issues at stake and the same outside groups taking an interest.
Shuster’s repeat challenger, Art Halvorson of Manns Choice, narrowly led an internal poll released by one of his opponents this month. Halvorson may enjoy broad name recognition from his past campaigns, but he faces several prominent political figures.
Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, has campaigned across the district, as has Altoona dermatologist and political newcomer John Joyce. Along with state Rep. Steve Bloom, R-Carlisle, they have taken the lion’s share of outside spending and attention in recent days.
Four other candidates — Col. Doug Mastriano, Travis Schooley, Ben Hornberger and Bernie Washabaugh II — are also in the running, with each candidate receiving at least a few percentage points in available polls.
“You have a number of possibilities, and it’s sort of a crap shoot,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. “Predicting who will win, that is a folly.”
With little time for the field of candidates to distinguish themselves, their individual ideologies may not win the day. Instead, it could come down to name recognition and electoral history.
“These candidates sound a lot more alike than they sound different,” Madonna said.
That has been borne out at candidate forums across the district, where visitors have told reporters that they could back any of several hopefuls. Most have expressed support for President Donald Trump’s agenda, in some cases hitting their opponents for being insufficiently loyal to the president.
When the candidates themselves don’t lash out, their ideological supporters outside the state often will.
In recent weeks, the conservative Club for Growth spent at least $340,000 on ads attacking Joyce. One, titled “Misgivings,” attempts to tie Joyce to national Democrats through a medical group he had supported.
Joyce hit back online, saying the Club for Growth opposed Trump and calling their ads “fake news.”
Other groups have fought for the other side: CLA Inc., a group that has backed GOP candidates in other states, has spent tens of thousands both to support Joyce and to oppose Halvorson and Eichelberger.
Other groups have poured money into the race in recent days — among them Defending Main Street, a committee that backs pro-business and mainstream Republican candidates. Last week, Eichelberger’s campaign responded to attacks by the group, tying them to Joyce and Shuster.
“As voters know, I don’t respond to lies or half-truths, and we won’t engage in the kind of politics of personal destruction and character assassination that’s defining the last minutes of this campaign. Negative campaigning of this kind is destructive,” Eichelberger said in a written statement. “I do think as a matter of personal honor and fairness, that I am entitled to face the person making the charge.”
The Shuster connection has been used as a cudgel by some candidates, particularly those seeking to win over anti-establishment voters. Halvorson and Eichelberger have both sought to connect Joyce to Shuster.
Joyce has donated to Shuster’s campaigns since he first took office in 2001, and his son worked as Shuster’s spokesman.
Both Halvorson and Eichelberger have battled Shuster in the past, with Eichelberger losing a 2001 caucus fight and Halvorson losing to Shuster in a series of campaigns.
Shuster has not publicly endorsed any of the candidates seeking to take his place.
“I have seen them (the attack ads), and some are more legitimate than others, shall we say,” said Kaneshiki, head of the Blair County party. “Unfortunately, it does confuse voters and will probably turn some people off of voting altogether.”
It is difficult to assess who voters will choose, with no publicly available, reliable polls and only candidate-commissioned numbers released so far. Polls released by candidates should be taken with a grain of salt, as they release them to serve a given narrative, Madonna stressed.
One of the few openly discussed so far — a poll of 400 voters commissioned by Joyce’s campaign through Harper Polling — put Halvorson in the lead with 24 percent and Joyce second at 20 percent as of early May. Eichelberger and Mastriano were positioned to join the lead if they secured a large number of undecided voters.
The poll showed a large increase in Joyce’s support from its predecessor, a shift that may explain why Joyce’s campaign released it.
Other candidates have only alluded to their internal polls, lending an air of suspense in the final stretch.
On Thursday, Eichelberger’s campaign issued a statement: “We’ve just reviewed poll numbers taken in the past 24 hours that show a tight, three-way race heading into election day with a shrinking, but significant group of undecided voters,” his campaign heads wrote. “The next 72 hours will decide this race.”
In the end, Madonna said, the winner could simply be the candidate with the best ground game and the most dedicated activists pushing the vote. In a field of eight candidates, a few votes wield outsize importance.
The stakes are high for the region. After decades with two Shusters in office, Altoona’s district is set for a congressional freshman — possibly even a newcomer to politics. The winner of the GOP fight is slated to face Brent Ottaway, the sole Democrat on that party’s primary ballot.
Whoever wins, the region’s political focus could shift tremendously. Both Shusters focused on transportation, serving as heads of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and taking an active role in funding the country’s roads and ports.
The younger Shuster has long defended the role of some federal spending, positioning himself as an across-the-aisle dealmaker who can secure money for roads, bridges and airports even without the explicit use of earmarks to win over colleagues.
His successor could be a hardline anti-spending candidate of the sort who make up the House Freedom Caucus — the minority GOP group that pushes a hardline agenda and often causes trouble for congressional leaders.
Whoever wins, he will start at the bottom rung in committees and party roles, losing much of the influence central Pennsylvania’s representatives have built up over the years. If Democrats manage to reclaim all or half of Congress, his power would be further reduced.
Heading into a midterm election that could decide the fate of both the House and Senate, local Republicans have much to worry about. Kaneshiki said the party hierarchy has largely stayed out of the House race, but the unprecedented race could leave members divided.
“It’s overload, and it’s splitting up the vote too many ways. The result won’t accurately reflect the will of the voters. No one is going to win a majority of the votes,” Kaneshiki said. “I just hope we can all remain friends when it’s over. That’s the hard part.”