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Outsiders spent more than any candidate for Bill Shuster's seat in Congress

Written by Jim Hook/The Chambersburg Public Opinion | May 27, 2018 8:05 AM
Dr-Joyce-election-2.jpg

Dr. John Joyce, left, candidate for Congress for the 13th Congressional district, meets with Rep. Joe Wilson R-South Carolina, on Thursday, May 10, 2018 at Franklin Volunteer Fire Company's activity room. Rep. Wilson has joined the campaign trail with Dr. Joyce. The two were joined by Dr. Joye's wife, Alice Joyce. (Photo: Markell DeLoatch, Public Opinion)

(Undated) -- Voters in Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District will never know who was behind at least $230,000 spent in the GOP primary.

Conservative Leadership Alliance Inc., a "dark money" group, is not required to disclose its donors. Its separate political action committee also has not disclosed its donors. Both CLA and CLA PAC ads blasted state Sen. John Eichelberger and Art Halvorson, presumably to the benefit of the eventual winner, Dr. John Joyce.

Other PACs supported state Rep. Steve Bloom by running independent ads supporting him and attacking Joyce. Bloom finished third.

PACs and outside political groups spent nearly a million dollars to influence the selection of a candidate to succeed U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett, in Congress.

"We should know who is interested in our elected officials and how much money they are getting from outside," said Alison Dagnes, Shippensburg University political scientist. "If a candidate benefits from $230,000 in an ad drop, we should know where they are getting their support. It could be that they are golfing buddies. That's fine. We should know.

"Amidst all the insanity with Russia, this is about foreign influence," Dagnes added. "What we don't want is for a foreign, hostile government to get involved. We deserve to know who donates the money."

The mystery spending is confounding in a race with eight avowed conservative Republicans.

"There was not a person in there who's a moderate," Dagnes said.  "You do have groups backing different horses, but they're all the same horse."

The winner of the 13th District seat is almost a foregone conclusion. Any GOP nominee is an odds-on favorite to win in the fall because the 13th is one of the most solidly Republican districts in Pennsylvania.

"Somewhere in Harrisburg or Washington or Trump Tower, they predetermined who they wanted to replace Shuster, and money wasn't going to be an object," said Hugh Jones, retired chairman of the Shippensburg University political science department. "It seemed to be clear that Dr. Joyce was supported by Shuster. Joyce facilitated himself with Trump. With Trump, anything can go. There's no such thing as 'dark money.' They think they can do anything."

Republicans are having a civil war, according to Dagnes. The party is split between traditional conservatives and Trump conservatives.

 "It's a little topsy-turvy," Dagnes said. "The bottom line is this: It used to be that under (former House Speaker) John Boehner, the tea party would give him a real hard time. He'd say let's make a deal with the Democrats, and the hard-line conservatives would say 'no.' Now what we have is a very unpredictable and rudderless president who isn't rooted to an ideology and who is demanding things."

Joyce, a Blair County dermatologist, won the Republican nomination race with 22 percent of the vote. His committee spent nearly $900,000 -- $860,000 of it in loans from Joyce.

The other seven GOP candidates together raised less than $600,000.

Outside spending amounted to more than $900,000 --  more than a third of spending in the race.

Election spending data in this story came from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics -- a non-partisan, non-profit group that researched FEC records.

It takes money to win

The total backing for Joyce - campaign contributions and outside support -- was $1.2 million.

"Money certainly plays a factor, but this race was won on the ground," said Adam Breneman, Joyce's campaign manager. "Our team knocked on over 10,000 doors, and Dr. Joyce himself visited each county in the district at least five times. One thing was clear, the reason John Joyce won the Republican nomination is because no other candidate worked as hard as he did, and no other candidate did a better job of relaying a positive message of commonsense conservatism to the voters."

Money had a "profound impact" on the outcome of the election, according to Eichelberger, who finished second.

"Unfortunately, the one who has the most money wins the election," sixth-place finisher Travis Schooley said. "What we get in the end is the best government money can buy."

Schooley previously ran for Congress and relied almost exclusively on a ground campaign.

"I've been to 30,000 doors," Schooley said. "It proves that knocking on doors doesn't win elections. It's sad, but that's the reality."

Candidates with the most exposure get the most attention in the polls and give the impression they can win, he said. Acquaintances told Schooley after the election that they supported him, but voted instead for someone whom the polls indicated had a better chance of winning.

Last-minute ad buys fouled the water for the three front-running Republican candidates, all of whom hoped to emerge as conservatives' great hope in Washington, D.C. The ads targeted either Eichelberger, Halvorson or Joyce.

"When the American public learns about people from these hyperbolic, nasty ads, we're not learning about the people who are running for office," said Dagnes, the SU political scientist. "Most of them are pretty great guys, but you're not going to learn about that from an ad. We need to turn down the volume."

The ads glossed over complicated issues and gave candidates no time to respond, according to Eichelberger.

Candidates can run a positive campaign message while super PACs and other groups can handle the dirty work, Dagnes said.

"Fear and anger motivate people more than anything," she said.

"We had the attack ads in the last five or six days of the campaign," Eichelberger said. "I don't think Halvorson had the base I did. I think my base generally held. I've been around awhile and I had a solid base. Halvorson's was softer."

Eichelberger said the attacks pulled undecided voters away from him. Halvorson faded to fifth on election day.

Halvorson also was hit by a second barrage of attack ads. He claims that the Joyce campaign colluded with the Defending Main Street super PAC on the attack ads.

"He could say anything he wanted about any other candidate, Photoshop it, and spread it like fire, and the people had no shot at knowing the truth," Halvorson said.

By federal election rules, super PACs cannot coordinate with a candidate's campaign.

Joyce campaign manager Breneman called Halvorson's accusation "absurd." Joyce's campaign "had no knowledge of any outside groups until they first sent out a mailer or first hit the airwaves," he said.

Ben Hornberger, the last-place finisher, said he was proud that 1,185 people trusted him with their votes.

Doug Mastriano raised $35,000 and finished a strong fourth with more than 10,000 votes.

"In my experience, I needed two things," Mastriano said. "I needed more time and more money."

He said he needed more time to extend his strong ground game in Franklin and Fulton to Bedford and Blair counties. Barring time, he needed money to get his message out.

"I am really troubled as a citizen that an election can turn on the amount of money and resources that a candidate has," Mastriano said.

Outside money

It should be no surprise that big money made its way to the fight for an open seat that has been in the Shuster family for two generations. Bill and Bud Shuster rarely faced serious opposition.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, PACs and nonprofit organizations spent more than $799,000 independently to influence Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District Republican primary. Another super PAC not included in their summary spent $127,000. Here's a breakdown of the $926,000 they spent:

  • CLA Inc., a "dark money" group, spent $97,768 against Eichelberger, $97,768 against Halvorson and $35,000 for Joyce.
  • CLA PAC, a super PAC, spent $46,000 against Eichelberger and $46,000 against Halvorson.
  • Club for Growth Action, a super PAC, spent $349,118 against Joyce.
  • Defending Main Street Inc., a  Republican leadership super PAC, spent $127,311 against Halvorson.
  • House Freedom Fund, a Republican leadership PAC, spent $4,553 for Bloom.
  • House Freedom Action, a super PAC, spent $121,265 for Bloom.
  • Operating Engineers Local 478, a PAC for a labor union of heavy equipment operators, spent $1,000 for Shuster.

"When it's said, 'There's too much money in politics,' this is it," Dagnes said.

Most of the outside spending came in the final days of the campaign. 

"In effect, our election could have been swayed by outside forces," Mastriano said. "As a resident of the 13th District, I don't think that's good or healthy."

"When as many outside groups get involved as happened in this race, often (money) is 'drowned out' by the public," Breneman said. "To suggest that Dr. Joyce won this race because of outside groups is ridiculous."

Beyond Pennsylvania

Super PACs spent more than $1 billion on the 2016 elections. Their independent spending in elections has jumped 16 fold since 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that that government could not restrict it. So far in this mid-term election cycle, the nation.'s 1,975 super PACs have raised $419 million and spent $90 million.

Spending by groups not disclosing their donors has likewise jumped from $6 million in 2010 to $34 million in 2016. So far this election cycle, their spending has topped $22 million with the general election coming in November.

The congressional district in rural Pennsylvania was on the GOP national stage. Republicans face a big leadership fight in the House.  A candidate's allegiance to different leaders in the House played a role in who got money from whom, according to Dagnes.

The House Freedom Fund supported Bloom but did not attack other candidates. The Republican leadership political action committee is affiliated with Rep. Mark Meadows, a hardline conservative from North Carolina and leader of the House Freedom Caucus.

The Club for Growth attacked Joyce. The club typically targets establishment candidates, according to opensecrets.org.

Joyce overcame the Club for Growth attack "with hard work on the ground and in grassroots," Breneman said.

The Club for Growth and the Freedom groups share benefactors. The Koch brothers, Charles and David, nurtured both. Richard "Dick" Uihlein, owner of packaging company Uline, was the top contributor this year to both the Club for Growth ($5 million) and the House Freedom Action ($250,000). He bankrolled Alabama Judge Roy Moore's unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2017. His wife, Liz, served as national vice-chair for Trump's election campaign in 2016.

The Club for Growth has played a major role in financing the careers of the members of the House Freedom Caucus. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., previously headed the group.

The club's most recent scoring of House members ranked both Shuster and Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazelton, midway down the pack on strengthening the economy and shrinking government. Barletta, after winning the Republican nomination to run for Democrat Bob Casey's seat in the U.S. Senate, is being slammed by Americans for Prosperity, another Koch "dark money" group.

The Defending Main Street super PAC is the political arm of the Republican Main Street Partnership. Shuster is a member of the partnership. The group supported Shuster in the 2016 election when super PACs independently spent $400,000 for Shuster or against Halvorson.

CLA supported Joyce and attacked Eichelberger and Halvorson. The "dark money" group was established just a few months ago. The group advocates for growing the economy, lowering the national debt, fixing the healthcare system and making the nation's defense stronger.

CLA Treasurer Marc Himmelstein, a former American Petroleum Institute executive, is CEO of National Environmental Strategies, a firm that lobbies for the energy industry. The CLA and its super PAC do not list donors.

What to do

Joyce, Eichelberger and Halvorson said they support increased transparency in election spending.

"Dark money has to be exposed," Eichelberger said.

"Our finance system with artificial limits has created a system that allows these groups to operate," Joyce's spokesman Breneman said.

"This has gotten way out of hand," Halvorson said. "The people no longer have any say in this. If you have the money, you can buy the seat."

"It's almost impossible to beat" candidates who are independently wealthy or who are incumbents with access to political action committee money, according to Eichelberger.

Schooley said voters bear some responsibility in confronting the issue of outside money and "dark money." They must make the effort to get involved and to work for candidates during elections.

"People have to think about who is out there, instead of interpreting who are celebrities and who has the most money," Schooley said. "I'm convinced 1,000 people working in the field can beat any amount of money."

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The Chambersburg Public Opinion.

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