Representative Bill Shuster’s 2014 re-election race may become a showcase for the feud between the business community and the small-government Tea Party movement.
That’s because the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is on the verge of passing a bill, as early as today, authorizing $8.2 billion in federal water projects over 10 years sought by the construction and maritime industries.
That sort of success has turned Shuster into a magnet for campaign cash from companies and trade groups while also attracting the wrath of some Tea Partyers and their supporters.
“I can’t see where he’s found a spending bill he doesn’t like,” said Art Halvorson, Shuster’s chief primary opponent.
The Pennsylvania primary contest is being recast after a rift in the Republican Party between industry backers and Tea Party activists was intensified during the budget fight that led to a 16-day partial government shutdown and brought the country to the brink of a default of its $16.7 trillion indebtedness.
After failing to use the showdown to defund Obamacare, the Tea Party is vowing to challenge Republicans -- including Shuster -- who supported a bipartisan deal to end the stalemate. Business groups are also monitoring the elections, and some are prepared to step in to protect their allies.
Shuster is “committed to business, committed to infrastructure, wants to decrease regulation, speed up project delivery, find opportunities for private investment and maintain and increase public investment,” said Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said Halvorson is “disingenuous” to attack a chairman for doing his job.
“He’s doing an excellent job reaching across the aisle to develop legislation, and he’s a pragmatist,” Josten said of Shuster. “He’s the kind of member of Congress we can work with on all sorts of issues.”
Shuster, 52, is better prepared financially than some other House Republicans to weather the fight. The $2.03 million in donations to his re-election committee and his Bill PAC, a leadership political action committee, received through Sept. 30 exceeds the $1.88 million he collected in 2011 and 2012. The campaign cash comes from the PACs of Boeing Co. (BA:US) and United States Steel Corp. (X:US), among other companies.
Shuster’s emerging as a draw for industry donations, even before his panel turns later this year to a measure to reauthorize the Amtrak passenger-rail system and turns in 2014 to a multiyear highway bill.
Those Shuster has outraised include Representative Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican who heads the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and House Appropriations chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican.
“Appropriations is not the best place to invest your campaign money right now,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “For certain companies and interests, there’s a lot of money at stake in transportation policy.”
Political groups supportive of Tea Party challengers are rallying around Halvorson, a commercial real estate broker who has loaned his campaign $100,000 so far and said in an interview yesterday he will “spend what’s necessary” to beat Shuster. When Halvorson, a Coast Guard veteran, announced his candidacy, he criticized Shuster as “not an authentic conservative.”
Army veteran Travis Schooley, who says he is a “constitutional conservative,” also is eying the primary race.
The Madison Project, a Washington-based fundraising network run by former Republican Representative Jim Ryun of Kansas, has endorsed Halvorson and ran a radio ad for three weeks in July accusing Shuster of driving up the nation’s debt.
Also considering jumping into the race is FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group that spent $19.6 million in 2012 to help elect Tea Party candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
“We’re looking closely at this race,” said Russ Walker, FreedomWorks’ political director. “Shuster is a big-pork Republican and his challenger is by all appearances someone we can back.”
Shuster, who declined to be interviewed, “takes every challenge seriously,” his campaign manager, Sean Joyce, said. The lawmaker has voted against other spending measures, as well as President Barack Obama’s health-care law and the revision of banking regulations.
“Mr. Shuster’s record of fiscal responsibility is unmatched, whether he’s fighting against wasteful spending like the stimulus, or the failed Dodd-Frank bailout,” Joyce said.
Shuster won re-election last year with 62 percent of the vote after facing no primary opponent. His southwest Pennsylvania district is the state’s most Republican-leaning; Mitt Romney carried it by 27 percentage points in the 2012 presidential contest.
Polls showed Shuster with a wide lead before the shutdown. He led Halvorson, 63 percent to 11 percent, according to a poll by Harper Polling, a Republican firm. Schooley, who failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in 2012, got just 5 percent. The Sept. 30-Oct. 1 poll of 555 likely Republican primary voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.
David Wasserman, House editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report that tracks congressional races, said Shuster’s early fundraising was evidence that the chairman has been looking over his shoulder for challengers.
“The knock on him in the district for a long time is that he simply followed in dad’s wheeler-dealer, pork-barrel footsteps,” he said, a reference to the congressman’s father, former Representative Bud Shuster, who headed the transportation panel in the 1990s. After the older Shuster resigned his office in early 2001, his son won the special election to replace him.
If Halvorson continues to tap his own finances, Wasserman said, “it will be a real race, given the mood of the Republican base across the country and their skepticism toward House Republican leadership.”
After serving on the transportation committee for almost dozen years, Shuster took over the chairmanship this year from Florida Republican John Mica.
Mica helped trigger last year’s partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration after leading House Republicans in a fight with Senate Democrats over union organizing rules and other issues. Mica declined to comment through a spokesman, Brian Waldrip.
Former Representative James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who led the transportation panel from 2007 to 2011, said Shuster offers a bipartisan, congenial style.
“Mica had a flair for the dramatic,” Oberstar said in an interview. “Bill Shuster is more in the mold of his father -- keep your head down, keep your eyes open and your ears receptive and work with people on both sides of the aisle. He has a very workmanlike approach to the responsibilities of the committee.”
Bailey Wood, a lobbyist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said Shuster, an auto dealer before he ran for Congress, knows how to work a room and close a deal.
“His goal is to accomplish something,” said Wood, whose group has donated $64,500 to Shuster during his congressional career, according to the responsive politics center. “Shuster applies his first-hand experience as an auto dealer: Let’s find some common ground, where can we move forward, and go from there.”
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