Shuster faces at least 2 challengers in next year's primary
July 21, 2013 4:00 AM
Rep. Bill Shuster
By James O'Toole Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pennsylvania's 9th U.S. House District, spanning the mountain ridges south and east of Pittsburgh, has been represented by a congressman named Shuster for most of the last half century.
Former U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster held the seat from 1973 through 2001. His son, Rep. Bill Shuster, inherited the post in a 2001 special election. The current lawmaker also followed his father's Capitol Hill footsteps in rising through the ranks to take the chairman's gavel on the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
In recent years, Mr. Shuster has cruised easily in re-election after re-election in the most Republican district in the state. The seat's demographics suggest that he will remain effectively immune from Democratic opposition for the foreseeable future.
Already, however, he faces two challengers from within his own party in next year's primary.
With divided opposition and potent fundraising ability, he is certain to be the favorite in that contest. But this is a part of the state with insurrection in its DNA, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the 2006 primary in which Harrisburg's then-top Republican, former state Sen. Robert Jubelirer, was turned out of office, blindsided in a GOP primary by angry conservatives who saw him as a symbol of the establishment.
One national conservative group, the Madison Project, has already targeted the race and sponsored radio commercials that criticized the incumbent's conservative credentials, assailing, in particular, his votes over the years to raise the nation's debt ceiling. That group has embraced the candidacy of Art Halvorson, a businessman and Coast Guard veteran who has loaned his campaign committee $100,000 to jump-start his challenge to the incumbent.
Also eyeing the seat is Travis Schooley, a Franklin County businessman and farmer whose challenge to Mr. Shuster two years ago was cut short when voters who were allied with the political veteran successfully challenged his nominating petitions.
It's too early to tell whether either challenge will evolve into a credible threat to the entrenched veteran. But they illustrate the increasing national dynamic in which partisan redistricting has created more and more seats safe for the incumbents in general elections but ones in which they are forced to defend their ideological purity in primaries where party activists can maximize their clout.
"I'm in it to win it; I think I can beat him," Mr. Halvorson said. "I think there is a strong anti-incumbent sense sweeping the country."
Mr. Halvorson, a retired Coast Guard pilot who reached the rank of captain, said his decision to enter the race was stirred by his concern over the national debt and his outrage over the tax increases that were part of the bipartisan deal worked out at the beginning of the year to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.
"I was enraged by that, that my Republican Party would do that," he said. "My Republican Party lost its way on spending money and raising taxes. ... Mr. Shuster specifically is a tax, borrow and spend Republican. He and I vehemently disagree with federal role in many areas, certainly on transportation."
Mr. Halvorson said he would prefer to see the federal government send the responsibility for transportation and other infrastructure spending back to the states.
"Mr. Shuster loves this stuff, as his father did before him," he said. "Transportation should be devolved to the states. There's no constitutional basis for an expansive federal role in transportation."
Mr. Schooley, the other prospective challenger, touts his family's roots in the district -- he says ancestors arrived there before the American Revolution -- and his strongly conservative views as credentials for the Republican nomination.
Assailing the incumbent, he said, "He's voted to raise the debt ceiling, for the TARP bailout, Homeland Security ... he voted for the Patriot Act. I don't believe we should give up the foundations on which this country was built. ... Bill Shuster, with his voting record, has proven he has no allegiance to the Constitution."
Mr. Schooley said he and his wife sell spinning wheels and looms in addition to raising and selling alpacas.
The Madison Project is headed by former U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun, a former Kansas lawmaker who once held the world record for the mile. The group paid for a radio ad that played on stations in the district that air Rush Limbaugh, which assails "career politician Bill Shuster" for having voted eight times to raise the nation's debt limit.
"Our contention that at this point is that the Republican leadership has failed us, yet we continue to re-elect the same committee chairman year after year," said Daniel Horowitz, policy director for the Madison Project. "It's our goal to really shake things up."
"Bill's very much an established Republican candidate ... he's been the same kind of big government guy his father was."
The Shuster campaign dismisses the criticisms.
"Congressman Shuster continues to focus on promoting conservative solutions for the challenges facing Pennsylvanians. From voting to repeal Obamacare, cutting taxes for 99 percent of our working families, and reigning in the out-of-control IRS, Congressman Shuster has a proven conservative record," said his campaign manager Sean Joyce, adding that the incumbent "is not concerned with D.C. special interest groups attempting to cloud the minds of southwestern Pennsylvanian voters."
The confrontation between the conservative group and Mr. Shuster also illustrates how the terms of debate in Congress and within the GOP have changed in the Tea Party era. The idea that a lawmaker could gain seniority and deliver projects and dollars to his district was once considered a unalloyed political plus. Now, such success risks accusations of pork barrel politics.
Similarly, votes to raise the debt ceiling -- once little-noticed points of financial housekeeping -- are now polarizing political flash points. A Shuster partisan challenged the bona fides of the Madison Project commercial, pointing to the fact that former Rep. Ryun, while regarded as one of the most conservative members of Congress during his years in office, had himself voted multiple times to raise the federal debt limit without attracting any political controversy.
Ray Zaborney, a political consultant and longtime adviser to Mr. Shuster, shrugged off the criticism of his client.
"He's a staunch conservative and he has the ratings from the American Conservative Union to prove it," he said.
Mr. Shuster starts off with an overwhelming financial advantage over his rivals, and given the rainmaking potential of his chairman's gavel, there is every reason to assume that the contribution imbalance will continue. Mr. Shuster raised $652,000 in the second quarter of the year, to bring his cash balance nearly a year before the primary to $921,000. Beyond the $100,000 loaned to his campaign committee, Mr. Halvorson said he had raised roughly $30,000. Mr. Schooley has filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Committee but has yet to raise any significant contributions.
He acknowledged that the challenges of unseating a congressional veteran were compounded by the fact that he and Mr. Halvorson could potentially split anti-Shuster votes.
"I do hear that concern, but none of us knows what tomorrow will hold," Mr. Schooley said. "A race like this, many months off, no one knows how that will change."