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Shuster, tea party challenger trade blows at rancorous debate

LEMONT FURNACE, Pa. — Bill Shuster was accused of “cavorting” with a top airline lobbyist during a rancorous debate here Saturday, and the longtime House transportation chairman returned fire by calling his tea party-backed challenger an unprincipled carpetbagger.

The hourlong clash between the two in Pennsylvania coal country came as Shuster scrambles to save his seat against an unexpectedly tough challenge from real estate executive and retired Coast Guard captain, Art Halvorson.

The sharp tone in their sole debate before an April 26 Republican primary was almost inevitable, with Shuster on the defensive over his romantic ties to a lobbyist with major interests before his committee.

Halvorson portrayed Shuster as continuing a family tradition of trading on his position of influence in Washington, comparing the incumbent’s actions to those of his father, Bud Shuster, who resigned from Congress in 2001 under a cloud of impropriety.

“I’m not owned by the lobbyists; Mr. Shuster is,” Halvorson said at one point. “In fact, he cavorts with a lobbyist who lobbies his committee.”

After the debate, Halvorson went further, calling Shuster an “idiot” after the incumbent accused him of not understanding the district based on Halvorson’s characterization of the debate location — far west of its geographic center — as the “fringe.”

Shuster repeatedly said that he’s been open about his relationship with the lobbyist, Airlines for America’s Shelley Rubino, and barred her from lobbying him or his staff directly.

“What’s disgraceful is [Halvorson’s] continued personal attacks on me, his misrepresentation of my record; in fact some of it is just plain not true, but he continues to say it,” Shuster said. “The people of the 9th congressional [district] know me because I’m from here.”

Shuster added, “I didn’t conveniently move back to the district to run here, to spend my wealth.”

Halvorson moved permanently to the district in 2007, though he’s vacationed in the area for decades.

A defeat for Shuster would be the most successful voter rebellion against a high-ranking Republican congressman since then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s went down at the hands of political neophyte Dave Brat in 2014. Shuster is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads and polling in the final weeks of the campaign, an indication he sees Halvorson as a serious threat. But the 55-year-old congressman is far better known in the district and a bigger campaign war chest, and for those reasons remains the favorite.

Shuster’s long service in Washington — he arrived in the House in 2001 — has cut both ways in the race, and it did as well at the debate. The congressman argued that his work on highway and infrastructure legislation as head of the transportation panel has been a boon to the region.

Shuster said he’s been effective at “getting these dollars out and making sure there’s certainty out there to let those folks rebuild the infrastructure,” citing river locks and bridges in the Mon River Valley and a road to connect a small town to a bigger highway.

“Art opposed that,” Shuster said. “He’d rather see that money probably go to some big city in the Eastern United States or somewhere else.”

Shuster said that the Republican-controlled House was acting to lower the debt, repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood, but that it will take a Republican in the White House to enact those laws.

But throughout the debate, Halvorson portrayed Shuster’s D.C. dealings as nefarious. The challenger criticized Shuster’s relationship with Rubino multiple times, then used a question about ethics submitted by a local GOP and tea party leader to level his harshest broadside.

Sixteen years ago, “we had a senior congressman who was chairman of transportation, was reprimanded and resigned in disgrace, and 16 years later we have a similar, almost exact situation happening,” Halvorson said. “And yet it’s ok, and somehow the ethics must’ve changed, or else the friends of the current congressman have allowed a different interpretation of the House ethics rules.

“But as I read it, this close intimate relationship with a lobbyist who has access to his committee and who is able to pass fast-track legislation through his committee and then cavort on South Beach, Florida, almost as a celebration of what they had just foisted on the American public, I think is disgraceful and I think is grounds for him to resign.” That was an apparent reference to a bill to overhaul the Federal Aviation Administration that Shuster’s committee approved in February, days before he traveled to Miami with Rubino and another Airlines for America lobbyist.

Bud Shuster, who also headed the transportation committee, resigned from Congress in 2001, not long after he was rebuked by the House ethics committee for favoring a former aide turned lobbyist.

Bill Shuster didn’t shrink from the confrontation with Halvorson, dismissing his rival as an outsider lusting for a seat in Congress, but lacking any genuine commitment to the district.

At one point during the debate, Shuster seized on an email message that Halvorson sent out and copied the media on. In the missive, Halvorson expressed disappointment that Shuster would only debate “in the geographic fringe of our district, which is heavily populated by Democrats with relatively few Republican voters compared” to other parts of the 170-mile wide district.

In his opening and closing statements, Shuster said the email showed Halvorson “just doesn’t understand the district,” while stressing his own family’s ties to the Mon River Valley.

Speaking to a reporter after the debate, Halvorson said Shuster had taken him out of context to make it sound like an affront to the district.

“What an idiot,” he said of Shuster.

The debate was held on a satellite campus of Penn State University and sponsored by the Uniontown Herald-Standard newspaper.

One wildcard is how Donald Trump’s candidacy will affect turnout in the House race. Halvorson’s campaign has tried to capitalize on Trump’s anti-establishment sentiment, running an ad urging voters to “fire Bill Shuster” with a visual stamp that says “You’re fired” — Trump’s reality show catchphrase.

Shuster supporters countered that voters who haven’t been paying close attention to the congressional primary might just go with the familiar name, giving the incumbent an advantage.

Halvorson lingered long after the debate, seeking out a reporter and greeting even some people wearing red “Shuster booster” shirts. He said it seemed like most of the roughly 150 people in the audience had already made up their minds.

Shuster talked to some attendees afterward, too, before leaving through a back door with aides. As he was about to drive away, he rolled down the window as a reporter approached his car. After hearing the reporter was from POLITICO, he said, “No thanks,” and rolled up the window.

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