Meet the Republican running as a Democrat
Campaign 2016 | Art Halvorson lost his bid for a U.S. House set in the GOP primary but is on the ticket thanks to a write-in campaign by conservative members of the other party
by J.C. Derrick
Posted 9/29/16, 11:53 am
ALTOONA, Pa.—On a recent sunny afternoon in central Pennsylvania, four dozen senior adults gathered in the Calvary Baptist Church basement to share a meal, sing patriotic songs, and listen to a U.S. House candidate.
Art Halvorson, wearing khaki pants and a white shirt with sleeves rolled up, stepped to the microphone to talk about what the Bible has to say about government. It took only a few words for his voice to crack with emotion.
“The government was ordained by God, but we as the church have failed to raise up people who will serve,” Halvorson said. Attendees murmured along with him as he quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14: “I believe God wants to heal our land—or I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Halvorson spoke in halting tones as he neared the end of his remarks, noting the unique 2016 climate that saw him barely lose to an incumbent in the Republican primary.
“We were nominated by the other party,” he said, pausing before finally bringing himself to state it in blunt terms: “I’m a Republican nominated as a Democrat.”
Halvorson’s unusual predicament makes his race one of the most intriguing congressional story lines in the country: He’s a tea party Republican nominated by conservative Democrats to face embattled eight-term GOP Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
“It’s more than unique—we think it’s unprecedented,” Halvorson told the “Faithful Followers” group gathered at Calvary Baptist Church.
Halvorson, 61, grew up in Rhode Island, where he says learned a healthy work ethic from his 90-year-old father, a World War II veteran who still works every day. He professed faith in Christ at age 14.
At 17, Halvorson entered the U.S. Coast Guard Academy en route to a 29-year career piloting ships and helicopters. Following his retirement, Halvorson developed a commercial real estate business.
Frustrated with the direction of the country, Halvorson decided to run for Congress in 2014. He finished 18 points behind Shuster in a three-way primary.
But trouble was brewing for Shuster, who in 2001 won the seat his father, Bud Shuster, had held since 1973. Last year, Politico broke the news that Shuster—who separated from his wife of 27 years in 2014—was dating a top lobbyist for Airlines for America, a major trade association that spends millions to influence his committee.
Shuster insisted his actions didn’t break ethics rules, since his romantic interest is not allowed to personally lobby him or his staff. Good government groups disagreed.
“It’s unconscionable and disgraceful, and the people of the 9th Congressional District deserve better,” Halvorson, who has six adult children and nine grandchildren, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Halvorson ran again in 2016. This time, in a two-way race with double the turnout, Shuster won by only 1.2 percent—1,227 votes out of 97,559 ballots.
It appeared Halvorson was finished, at least for 2016, but days later it became evident he might have received the requisite 1,000 write-in votes to win the Democratic nomination under Pennsylvania’s closed primary rules. After going to court in six counties to ensure all write-in votes counted, Halvorson officially became the Democratic nominee in June.
“This is so unusual they had to change the affidavit for me to sign,” Halvorson told me. “It would have been a fraudulent signature if I had signed the normal affidavit, because I had already run in the Republican primary.”
Halvorson attributes the surprising result to “conservative, pro-life, pro-gun, pro-family, pro-small business” Reagan Democrats who reside in the district.
Shuster ranks in the middle of the ideological pack among the House Republican conference, but Halvorson is running well to his right. He’s criticized Shuster for voting to raise the debt limit, fund Obamacare, and fund President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
He believes the House should exercise the power of the purse in a more robust way: “In Washington, money equals policy. I want to see that power brought back to the House.”
The Democratic nomination did not force Halvorson to change parties. If elected, he would serve as a Republican.
Halvorson, who vows to serve only three terms, would like to serve on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to help eliminate “perks” for lawmakers. He was on the team that crafted the strategic plan for the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, so he also wants to put his military and planning experience to use on the House Armed Services Committee. He intends to join the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives he agrees with ideologically but believes should have a better long-term strategy. Pointing to the continued lack of a regular budget process, Halvorson also wants to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., with a conservative.
“We need to clean the House,” Halvorson said. “They shouldn’t be paid until they pass a budget.”
Halvorson supported Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican presidential primary, citing his Christian faith and conservative principles. He said he will vote for Donald Trump but does not plan to endorse him.
No public polling is available for the race in Pennsylvania’s 9th District, but some signs indicate Halvorson is finding traction: In September, four Franklin County Republican Committee members resigned their positions to endorse the candidate running as a Democrat.
“Unfortunately, the rules of the Republican committee state you must support the Republican candidate in the fall,” Erich Hawbaker told Herald-Mail Media. “I cannot in good conscience support Mr. Shuster.”
Halvorson likened his contest to the recent ousters of former House Speaker John Boehner and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—both of whom lost to members who joined the Freedom Caucus: “Now, for my part, we need to move Mr. Shuster into retirement.”