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Tea Party challenger uses rep’s relationship with lobbyist as ammo

Tea Party challenger uses rep’s relationship with lobbyist as ammo
© Greg Nash

Real estate investor Art Halvorson’s second bid to unseat Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has been fueled by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman’s romantic involvement with a top airline lobbyist.

It remains to be seen if the relationship will be enough to topple a 15-year veteran of Congress on Tuesday whose family has deep ties to the district.

Shuster trounced Halvorson, a retired Coast Guard captain, in the 2014 primary, 53 percent to 34 percent.

This time around, though, Halvorson says he is armed with more experience, presidential election year momentum in a district where GOP candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTillerson: Russia already looking to interfere in 2018 midterms Dems pick up deep-red legislative seat in Missouri Speier on Trump's desire for military parade: 'We have a Napoleon in the making' MORE is a favorite and evidence that Shuster is cavorting with lobbyists who have a deep-rooted stake in the issues overseen by his committee.

“It wasn’t that he didn’t already have problems with lobbyists [in 2014], it just wasn’t as public as it is now,” Halvorson said in a telephone interview with The Hill. “That’s more than a conflict of interest. It’s collusion, it’s anti-trust and frankly I think it’s criminal.”

Halvorson has blasted the House Ethics committee for not investigating Shuster’s relationship.

Shuster has been pushing to separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration, a contentious proposal heavily favored by most of the nation’s major airline carriers.

While the lawmaker acknowledges he has a private relationship with Shelley Rubino, vice president of global government affairs for the trade group Airlines for America, he insists he has gone “above and beyond” House rules to ensure it is appropriate.

“My campaign has been about me. Art Halvorson’s campaign has been about me,” Shuster said during a debate on April 16. “And it’s been a negative campaign from start to, I’m sure, finish.”

Shuster is facing his toughest election yet as he seeks an eighth term in Congress to represent Pennsylvania’s sprawling 9th district, generally considered a safe Republican seat.

No incumbents have yet been defeated in a primary this cycle, despite the anti-establishment fervor shaking up the presidential race for both parties.

A loss for Shuster would be a huge upset for the powerful congressman, who has been a close ally of leadership. His defeat also would shake up the Transportation Committee at a time when Congress is in the midst of reauthorizing the FAA.

Other high-ranking Republicans on the panel have already served out terms as chairmen, but should Shuster lose, the gavel could go to Vice Chairman John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.), who has been on the committee for over 25 years.

“People smell blood,” Halvorson said. 

Halvorson maintains that he is a far more experienced candidate than he was in the last election cycle, saying he has hired more professional staff, shored up more volunteers and reached out to new voters.

Some of Halvorson’s inexperience came to light during his last primary bid, when he called 911 on a video tracker he claimed was “stalking” him.

The revelation last year that Shuster is dating an airline lobbyist handed Halvorson new ammunition in his long-time charge that his opponent is part of the Washington “cartel” of lawmakers, lobbyists and big business.

But the odds are likely still in Shuster’s favor. He has a major cash advantage after raising about $2.6 million, according to the most recent fundraising reports. Halvorson has raised just over $64,000 and loaned his campaign $200,000.

The American Action Network, an outside group affiliated with members of the GOP establishment, spent $200,000 in TV and digital advertising supporting Shuster in a last-minute push ahead of the primary.

Shuster has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life and Tea Party Nation, while Halvorson received a late endorsement from Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund on Monday. 

Shuster’s family also has longtime prominence in the district. His father, Bud Shuster, who chaired the Transportation Committee during his 28-year tenure, helped pump millions of dollars in transportation projects to the region.

Halvorson’s “cruel and personal attacks against Congressman Shuster and his family are despicable, but fortunately the people in the 9th District are more focused on Congressman Shuster’s positive conservative message,” said Casey Contres, Shuster’s spokesman.

Halvorson admits he doesn’t know if Shuster’s relationship with Rubino “matters so much” to voters but believes “more people are paying attention this year.”

“They have a visceral understanding that the establishment has betrayed us,” he said. “Their purpose is not to uphold and defend the Constitution, it’s to perform for their lobbyists.”