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Shuster on defense in reelection over lobbyist girlfriend

Art Halvorson’s campaign message is unambiguous. He says his Republican primary opponent, Rep. Bill Shuster, is part of the D.C. “cartel” — an unholy axis of longtime Washington politicians and lobbyists who do the bidding of Big Business instead of representing their constituents.

On his website, Halvorson says Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, pushed an overhaul of the air-traffic control system, “which was proposed by an airline lobbyist with whom he was romantically involved.”

Shuster has long brushed off those charges, saying his romantic relationship with Shelley Rubino, one of the top lobbyists for Airlines for America, is completely above board. Despite his girlfriend representing an industry with billions of dollars on the line in front of his committee, Shuster has refused to recuse himself from legislation dealing with the airline industry. In fact, at times Shuster has led the charge on legislation favorable to the commercial airline industry.

But as Shuster fights to fend off Halvorson and win a ninth term in Congress, his relationship with Rubino has become an issue ahead of the April 26 primary. Earlier this week, Shuster appeared to take a step away from Rubino and recast her work before the powerful panel, saying she doesn’t lobby his committee, which has purview over the airlines.

“I have a personal relationship with a woman and I have been completely open about it,” Shuster told the Indiana Gazette this week. “I’ve put in place things I didn’t have to do to make sure that woman — who works for the airline industry — doesn’t lobby my office. She doesn’t lobby the committee.”

That claim is not actually true. Airlines for America responded that Rubino does, in fact, still lobby the powerful committee, while avoiding Shuster himself and his staff.

“As a Democrat lobbyist, she has long-standing professional relationships with many members of Congress and staff. There is no change in her role at A4A,” said the trade group’s spokeswoman Jean Medina.

Shuster’s spokesman Casey Contres said that the Pennsylvania Republican meant that Rubino doesn’t lobby Shuster’s aides on the committee.

“That is what he was referring to last week in the interview,” Contres said in an email. “So there’s been absolutely no changes” to Shuster’s arrangement that Rubino does not lobby him or his aides.

Shuster did not respond to a request for an interview.

Whether Shuster’s coziness with an industry he oversees — and his 15-year incumbency in Washington — matters to central and southern Pennsylvanians will be put to a test in the primary election. Shuster is taking the threat from Halvorson seriously.

The congressman has placed hundreds of thousands of dollars in TV ads on cable and broadcast networks in central Pennsylvania between the end of February and his primary. The more than $400,000 buy insures that his target audience will see an ad every single day in the run up to the election, according to media buying sources. He also has placed hundreds of thousands of dollars of ads running on cable television.

The ads he has publicly released don’t mention that Shuster is a Republican. They refer to him as a “conservative congressman” and note he favors a wall along the border, has worked to curb spending and wants to defund Obamacare. The spots are also silent on his plum chairmanship, in which he oversees not only airlines, but highways, railroads and seaports.

Shuster has a significant political war chest to fend off Halvorson. He had nearly $1.4 million in his campaign committee at the end of 2015 and he has continued to fundraiser at a strong clip in the first quarter of this year. It’s a significant advantage compared to Halvorson who had just $40,000 in his campaign committee and the outstanding debt of $175,000 he loaned his campaign in 2014.

This isn’t the first time Halvorson has tried to take out Shuster. He garnered 34 percent against the incumbent in a three-way race in 2014, which Shuster won with 53 percent. This time, he’s facing Shuster head to head, and said in an interview he believes Shuster is on the ropes.

In an interview, Halvorson said Shuster is “personally outside his comfort zone,” working harder to shore up support than he has in the past. And after several months of back-and-forth about debates, Shuster agreed recently to meet face to face with Halvorson on April 16, less than two weeks before the election.

Top House Republicans in Washington acknowledge the intensity with which Shuster is running his race, and say he must keep it up to avoid an embarrassing loss to Halvorson. Washington groups that play in Republican primaries are watching the contest closely.

Sources familiar with the race say Shuster is hovering around 50 percent, though there’ve been no independent public polls. Halvorson said he believes the congressman is shy of a majority, based on his campaign’s own research.

“He thinks he has to spend money to get elected,” Halvorson said. But “I think he’s past the point of diminishing returns. That’s just my conjecture.”

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

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