EVERETT- Late last fall when Congressman Bill Shuster walked into Kelly’s Scenic View in this Bedford County town at the tip of the Cumberland Gap, the waitress knew how he liked his coffee — cream, no sugar — and that he would pass on the coconut cream pie.
“No, no, I’d love to, but …,” he said, indicating he was full, when she tried to coax him into a small slice.
At the time, the House Transportation Committee chairman felt optimistic about several things: After years of bickering, his highway funding bill would pass; Paul Ryan had surmounted a Freedom Caucus revolt to become House Speaker; and constituent feedback at his district town-hall meetings seemed positive.
Four months later, Shuster escaped losing his seat by fewer than 1,000 votes; he was tabloid fodder for a Washington website over dating a transportation lobbyist; and he went from endorsing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to businessman Donald Trump the day after Pennsylvania’s presidential primary.
The near-loss to populist Art Halvorson offers little evidence that Shuster’s establishment status collided with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket.
Shuster and Trump won the state’s poorest counties, Greene and Fayette, by their best margins.
The bipolar split between Shuster and Halvorson is interesting: Halvorson won Franklin, Fulton, Indiana, Blair and Bedford, marginally; Shuster won Huntington, Somerset, Washington, Fayette and Greene with big margins. So did Trump.
We are in the midst of populist fever in this country; the non-ideological tear across the electorate was born of angry perceptions of too much ideology in politics and too much failure in government.
This pattern-less disruption frustrates data geeks, political experts and academics — and, in Shuster’s case, may mean absolutely nothing at all.
Well, at least nothing that explains Trump, or that hints of what to expect in this fall’s congressional races — a possibility that will exasperate a corporate media industry dependent on smart-take political guesstimating.
Shuster’s problem appears unique to Shuster; this race mirrored his 2014 match-up with Halvorson, with almost the same results — a little closer, but the turnout was higher because of the presidential primary.
What does all of this mean to Republican chances of retaining their congressional majorities?
The short answer is that, if anyone says they know, then they’re peddling salt.
The long answer is that conservatives are in a funk over Trump’s ascension to presumptive nominee; they have burned their Republican registration cards, penned prose that they will vote for Hillary Clinton in November, had mild to epic meltdowns on social media, and sworn off voting for any elected official who supports the presumptive nominee.
Trump and the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, have “unfavorable” ratings of 60 percent and 59 percent, respectively, which means a large part of the electorate feels it faces a choice of being shot or stabbed. Do they vote for Hillary over Donald, not vote at all, or skip the presidential ballot in order to support their down-ballot representatives?
Somewhere inside that calculation is the sweet spot for the Republican majority.
Shuster offered his support for Trump the day after he won his race. He, like U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Lehigh Valley and Republicans trying to hold on to their big majority in Pennsylvania, will be scorched with Trump brands on everything they do.
The fire in this race is at the top of the ticket; that is the one thing we do know about this election cycle. Whether the flames spread down-ballot depends on the individual candidates.
The one thing everyone should glean from this cycle is simple — never promise to deliver what you can’t, and always deliver what you promise.