By Katy Hopkins - 10/26/09 10:37 PM EDT
Food, football and fun, meet fundraising.
Thompson arrived at the Oct. 17 game with a small entourage of supporters from Washington.
They were there to see Matt Shaner, whose weekly tailgates are a must-attend for the state’s conservative politicians.
On paper, the meeting looked awkward: Shaner ran against Thompson in last year’s Republican primary to replace retiring Rep. John Peterson (R).
But Shaner said there were no hard feelings when Thompson requested to stop by — something many Pennsylvania conservatives have done in the past.
“People know, if you’re running on the Republican ticket in Pennsylvania, Matt Shaner has a big tailgate,” Shaner said.
When Shaner isn’t throwing weekly tailgates or running for office, he works for a family-owned hotel management company.
The Shaners also own an investment company and are the namesake for and substantial financiers of the Shaner Republican Center, the state’s GOP headquarters. Their conservative tailgate has been a known quantity for Keystone State lawmakers for about 20 years, attendees said.
Shaner said when lawmakers and congressional hopefuls call him, he usually grants their requests to stop by — unless they’re a “bad Republican.”
“If Arlen Specter would have called me and asked to stop by, I probably would have said no,” he said of the Pennsylvania senator who abandoned the Republican Party and became a Democrat earlier this year.
Shaner said each week’s tailgate usually features a conservative lawmaker or two and will draw a crowd upwards of 70 people.
But for the Penn State-Minnesota game, only about 30 conservatives stuck it out through the frigid rain and temperatures in the low 30s. Tailgaters, bundled up in layers of navy blue and white, huddled beneath three makeshift tents constructed off the side of an RV.
“We are all for global warming, by the way,” joked tailgate attendee Plato Ghinos, who is also the senior vice president of franchise relations and development at Shaner Hotels.
Attendees enjoyed a spread of fried chicken, meatball subs and finger foods, sipped soft drinks or hard liquor and networked — the key component to the Shaner tailgate’s success.
Tom Corbett, the Pennsylvania state attorney general who is running for governor next year, is well-aware of the networking potential at Shaner’s tailgates.
He has been making appearances since the mid-1990s, he said, to chat with friends, schmooze with potential donors and campaign in a relaxed setting.
“You have a beer in your hand and suddenly [people] say, ‘Oh, wait a minute, you’re not a stiff politician,’ ” Corbett explained. Before the game against Minnesota, he circulated “Governor Tom Corbett” business cards and mingled with the crowd.
Thompson, whose district includes State College, is not the first congressional delegate from Pennsylvania to take advantage of a Shaner tailgate.
Republicans who have stopped by in the past include Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
Todd Palin, the husband of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), parked in the spot next to the tailgate last year, and congressional hopeful and former gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann (R-Pa.) has made an appearance, Shaner said.
Shaner added that a politician’s decision to turn an appearance into a campaign fundraiser is an issue independent of the tailgate.
But Steve Miller, another employee at Shaner Investments who attended the tailgate, noted that sports events offer more than bankroll incentives for politicians.
“Baseball might be America’s pastime, but football is America’s passion,” Miller reflected. “Football is a great equalizer.”
Although they meet weekly near the Joe Paterno statue a stone’s throw away from the legendary Beaver Stadium, Miller estimated that only half of the usual tailgaters are alumni of the university.
“It’s not about the degree as much as it is that team in there,” Miller said, cocking his head toward the stadium.
And of course, an even more important affiliation to have is with the Republican Party.
“We have a wide network of friends that are good, strong conservatives,” Miller said. “We have no problem opening ourselves up to our good friends.”
Another conservative who dropped by the Oct. 17 pre-party was Rep. Erik Paulsen (R- Minn.). He came to support fellow freshman colleague Thompson and his state’s Big Ten team, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who happened to be the Penn State Nittany Lions’ opponent that day.
Decked out in a navy blue jacket and cap, the only accessory distinguishing Paulsen from the hordes of Penn State fans was a small Golden Gophers pin on his hat. He’s a loyal fan of the Gophers, though — the weekend before, he caught their game in Minnesota, where, he said, it was less snowy than State College.
Thompson said a Big Ten rivalry has yet to erode their friendship, although a playful ribbing between the two is evident.
“We’ll be good friends at the end of the day — when the Nittany Lions prevail,” Thompson laughed. (Penn State shut out Minnesota, 20-0.)
And Paulsen perked up at the idea of an ongoing rivalry in the Cannon House Office Building, where the men work in adjacent offices.
This playful fusion of politics and football keeps tailgaters, lawmakers and Shaner employees coming back to the events, which attendees said often include post-game festivities as well.
“This isn’t just fundraising,” Corbett said. “This is fun.”