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Veteran Pennsylvania Congressman Can't Escape GOP Civil War

From left, Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., walk to the floor of the House for the final series of votes on a bill to fund the government, in Washington on Sept. 28.
J. Scott Applewhite
From left, Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., walk to the floor of the House for the final series of votes on a bill to fund the government, in Washington on Sept. 28.

At 7 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, the Bedford Diner, in Bedford, Pa., is jumping.

Way in the back, some tables have been pushed together for a weekly prayer breakfast that's really a gathering of old friends — all military veterans, some of whom are retired. Art Halvorson, a 58-year-old regular here, is a real estate developer, a former career coast guard pilot and now a Tea Party-backed candidate going after seven-term Rep. Bill Shuster in next year's Republican primary.

"It's primarily because of the fiscal issues and the way the establishment party is behaving; he represents that. John Boehner represents that. We need to replace John Boehner as speaker. And the way we do that is to put some true authentic conservatives in congress who can vote him out," Halvorson says.

Halvorson says Shuster, who was among the 87 House Republicans to vote to end the government shutdown last month, is too quick to cut deals and too tied to the old ways of spending and dispensing political favors. Before Shuster's election 12 years ago, his father Bud held Pennsylvania's ninth congressional district seat for nearly three decades.

Bud was the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Today, Bill Shuster chairs that same House committee. In fact, not far from the diner is Interstate 99, which is officially named the "Bud Shuster Highway."

But Halvorson is not impressed.

"He plays the game, knows it fairly well. Been practicing it for a long time both his dad and himself and others that comprise that establishment quote unquote 'leadership cadre' and they have to be replaced," Halvorson says.

Halvorson has an uphill climb. The Shuster name as been a winner here since the 1970's and Shuster will likely have a huge financial advantage. Halvorson has put $100,000 of his own money into his campaign, and says he's getting support from both inside and outside the district.

A conservative PAC called the Madison Project has also run anti-Shuster radio ads.

"With Bill Shuster voting you raise the debt ceiling not once or twice but a staggering eight times. Yes, you heard that correctly," the ad states.

Terry Madonna, a political analyst from Franklin and Marshall College says the Tea Party remains strong in rural Pennsylvania, but that right now the movement has nowhere near the energy it had in 2010. Plus, he says, the Tea Party can no longer sneak up on an unsuspecting incumbent.

"Bill Schuster is certainly aware that he has an opponent, he certainly is aware of how conservative his district is," Madonna says. "But there is no way — no way — that Schuster is going to be caught surprised by this."

Last week, Shuster attended the annual Eisenhower Dinner sponsored by the county GOP in the town of Greencastle.

He began his speech by thanking the local party for helping him rise within the GOP ranks in the House and repeatedly mentioned his committee chairmanship.

"You can't become the chairman, you can't be in Congress unless you have great support from the folks here at home," Shuster says. "So, being the chairman, I owe it to you, putting your trust in me and supporting me, and that's why I was able to be able to rise to be the chairman of a committee in Congress and again I owe you that great debt of gratitude."

During a break in speeches, Shuster went from table to table chatting and shaking hands, while at the other end of the room his challenger, Halvorson, did the same.

Afterward, as Shuster hurried to his waiting car, he had no interest in talking about his re-election or his challenger.

"I'm not— right now I'm just doing my job in Washington, I'm not really focused on that at all. But thanks a lot for asking. Alright. Good night," Shuster says.

It's still early — the primary is more than six months away — and it's not yet clear if Halvorson will get any traction. Even so, Pennsylvania's ninth congressional district can already be seen as a microcosm of the internal battles that are taking place within the GOP nationally.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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