The Tea Party-backed candidate challenging House transportation leader Bill Shuster has spent months portraying the Pennsylvania Republican as a big spender behind some of Congress’s priciest infrastructure measures.
The strategy is backfiring. Donors are ignoring commercial real estate businessman Art Halvorson, who campaign finance reports show raised $8,700 in the three months ending Dec. 31 for the state’s May 20 primary contest. Shuster’s $558,000 intake included a check from the political action committee of Koch Industries Inc., owned by two brothers who have bankrolled the Tea Party movement.
Local Republican officials say Halvorson’s portrayal of highway and water-project measures as wasteful isn’t catching on in Pennsylvania’s most heavily Republican district.
“With the majority of Republicans here, it really doesn’t sell,” said Franklin County Republican Party chairman Dwight Weidman, a Shuster supporter. “People see these as must-do bills. Ultimately his constituents benefit from these projects and they really do see these things as legitimate functions of government.”
Analysts say the donation gap may show that some supporters of the small-government Tea Party movement who want to shrink federal spending have a different attitude about money that goes toward roads in their community.
“Infrastructure is a hard issue to campaign on,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Transportation isn’t like gay marriage or abortion or guns. It doesn’t strike voters in quite the same way as some hot-button cultural issues.”
Shuster is one of only two House Republicans facing potentially serious Tea Party-backed primary challengers, said Dave Wasserman, House editor of the Washington-based non-partisan Cook Political Report.
Shuster’s also a magnet for donations due to his chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a panel that at a time when few bills are getting through Congress is moving measures authorizing billions of dollars in spending benefitting companies including those in the construction sector. The Republican-controlled House last year approved a bill, with only three no votes, authorizing $8.2 billion in federal water projects over 10 years.
His race’s profile increased after business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has advocated higher gasoline taxes for pay for transportation projects, said they would make an unprecedented effort to help their Republican allies in primary contests against Tea Party-backed rivals.
It’s a tension that intensified during last year’s budget fight that led to a 16-day partial government shutdown in October and brought the U.S. to the edge of a default on its $16.7 billion indebtedness.
“The pro-business wing of the party is really circling the wagons,” Wasserman said.
Some of Halvorson’s Tea Party-group backers outside of the district were looking for better evidence he can attract donor interest before they make major financial commitments to aid him through super-political action committees.
“We obviously aren’t excited about his recent fundraising numbers, but it’s still early,” said Daniel Horowitz, political director of the Madison Project, a Washington-based fundraising network run by former Republican Representative Jim Ryun of Kansas. “This is a national battleground and conservative outsiders are really surging across the map.”
Halvorson has raised $52,579 overall and has $72,398 in cash on hand, while Shuster has raked in $2.14 million and has $1.36 million left to spend.
Halvorson discounted the significance of raising just $8,674 in the fourth quarter. Having loaned his campaign $100,000 last year, he also said he’ll dig deeper if needed.
“I didn’t make any effort to raise funds,” he said in an interview. “I have enough money to do what I need. And I’m running a race based on personal contacts and grassroots at its essence, and we’re going to beat him.”
Shuster in the fourth quarter drew donations from scores of corporate campaign committees with interests before his panel. The PAC of Caterpillar Inc., the Peoria, Illinois-based construction-equipment maker, gave $2,500, while Cemex Inc. PAC, which gets donations from employees of the Houston-based cement and concrete maker, donated $5,000.
He also attracted campaign checks from a broader swath of companies. Clear Channel Communications Inc. PAC gave $2,500, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. PAC gave $2,000, and Google Inc. Net PAC gave $2,500. Koch PAC, which represents the interests of Koch Industries Inc. and its employees, gave $4,000.
‘Proud’ of Backing
“Congressman Shuster is proud to have such an outpouring of support financially across the district, Pennsylvania, and our nation as a whole,” said Sean Joyce, his campaign manager.
Shuster is the son of former Representative Bud Shuster, who headed the House transportation panel in the 1990s and helped his south-central Pennsylvania district reap millions in federal funding. After the older Shuster resigned in early 2001, his son won the special election to replace him.
Farms and small towns pepper the district, which is nestled along the Appalachian Mountains. Starting in the early 1940s, the Pennsylvania Turnpike -- the first long-distance limited access highway in the U.S. -- helped aid a local economy that had been heavily reliant on rail.
Shuster barely survived the 2004 Republican primary, winning with 51 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 49 percent. He had no primary opponent in 2012 and won re-election with 62 percent of the vote. Republican Mitt Romney carried Shuster’s district by 27 percentage points in the 2012 presidential contest.
Shuster led Halvorson 63 percent to 11 percent, with a third candidate getting 5 percent, in a poll last year by Harper Polling, a Republican firm. 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.
Halvorson recently released an internal campaign poll that put him 26 percentage points behind Shuster, with 28 percent undecided. That poll of 1,661 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.