‘Prince of Asphalt’ Braces for Primary Challenge

Shuster faces a primary this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Shuster faces a primary this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 23, 2013 at 5:48pm

In another era, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster would have his House district on lockdown. Who would challenge the powerful “prince of asphalt” in his safe GOP district in south-central Pennsylvania?

But by many local accounts, Shuster has the fight of a decade on his hands from retired Coast Guard Capt. Art Halvorson.

Shuster’s biography boasts the textbook trappings of an entrenched incumbent: his chairmanship of a committee once known for pork projects, the scion of a local political legend, and a reputation for bringing federal funds to the district. The congressman’s father, 14-term Rep. Bud Shuster, was known for using the same committee gavel to move money into the district — enough so that he picked up the “king of asphalt” title.

But his son reigns in a different political era. In a sign of the times, all of Shuster’s bona fides did nothing to scare off Halvorson.

“Committee chairmanships are no longer a deterrent in getting a primary, but they are still enormously beneficial to winning a primary,” said Brock McCleary, a Pennsylvania-based GOP pollster.

Halvorson is running the prototypical tea-party-vs.-GOP-incumbent race. He met earlier this year with the Club for Growth, rails on his rival’s fiscal record and calls Shuster “a career politician.” He’s already loaned his campaign $100,000.

But what makes this race different from some recent GOP primary challenges is that Shuster is bracing early for Halvorson and any outside groups that might join his opponent’s efforts. He’s made sure he will not be surprised like former Reps. Jean Schmidt of Ohio and Cliff Stearns of Florida — two Republicans who unexpectedly lost re-election in 2012 primaries. For example, Shuster’s organized allies have created their own super PAC to boost his re-election, according to PoliticsPA.

“It’s not like somebody’s going to be able to sneak up on him,” Pennsylvania GOP political consultant Charlie Gerow said. “The element of surprise is completely taken out of this.”

Shuster’s challenge fits the national storyline of a Republican Party civil war, but his biggest problem is rooted in local politics: the fact that he won his seat in a 2001 backroom deal when his father quit just two months after winning re-election to a 15th term.

Since then, the junior Shuster has had some challenges, including a 2-point primary victory over financial consultant and pasta sauce scion Michael DelGrosso in 2004. A decade later, Republicans who still resent the congressman’s ascension say this is an opportunity to finally remove a Shuster from office.

Adding to the younger Shuster’s woes is the fact that that his father was the poster child for the longtime congressman who proved adept at bringing federal money back to the district. Some Republican strategists argue Halvorson may not even have to bring up Shuster’s family ties to remind conservative voters. They’re present on the district’s roads.

The 9th District’s newly finished Interstate 99 is called the Bud Shuster Highway. Before and during its pricey construction, the public works project earned a reputation as a boondoggle of pork.

The Shuster campaign pushed back against the accusations and associations with federal spending.

“Bill Shuster has supported his caucus moratorium on earmarks and proposed a Water Resources Reform and Development Act with no earmarks and $12Billion of offsets,” Shuster campaign manager Sean Joyce wrote in an email. “His record of fiscal responsibility is unmatched.”

Joyce declined to make Shuster available for a phone interview.

Even while some locals do not like how he got into office, many will concede now that he is there, he is adept at the job. He earns praise for his retail politicking and leverages his seniority and chairmanship for fundraising.

His recent fundraising shows Shuster is taking the race seriously. Throughout the 2012 cycle, his fundraising peaked at $267,000 for a single quarter. This cycle, Shuster hauled in almost $500,000 in the first quarter.

Halvorson declared his candidacy in the second quarter. In those three months, Shuster’s fundraising continued to build, reporting $650,000. He ended June with more than $900,000 in the bank.

Halvorson raised $130,000 in the second quarter, which included a personal loan of $100,000. In a phone interview, he predicted that he will need about $500,000 to run a viable campaign. His emphasis will not be “saturating the airwaves” but deploying a grass-roots organization.

What can quickly offset Shuster’s financial advantage is if outside groups rally around Halvorson. Halvorson has the profile of a candidate who would appeal to organizations such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. For now, they are on the sidelines.

Erick Erickson of RedState.com backs Halvorson, as does the Madison Project, which is still considered an emerging political player in conservative circles.

And so the prevailing sentiment in Pennsylvania GOP circles is that Shuster will probably win re-election, but he’ll have to fight harder than he has in a decade to do it.

“When it’s all said and done, Bill Shuster will return to Congress,” Gerow predicted.

“That’s not to say that it won’t be a rocky road through the primary,” he added. “But when all the shooting’s done, he’ll emerge from the smoke with his lapel pin on.”