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Tea Party takes on GOP dynasty in Pennsylvania

A fight between the Republican Party establishment and the Tea Party is brewing in a central Pennsylvania congressional district that is home to the United Flight 93 National Memorial.

It pits a dynastic Republican name, known for getting funding for his district, against an outsider who says he is fed up with federal spending and opposes the Ryan-Murray compromise budget, because it increases spending.

It’s been a family affair for the past four decades in the solidly Republican ninth congressional district. President Obama may have won Pennsylvania by 5 points last year, but Mitt Romney won here in this central Pennsylvania district, with Altoona at its heart, by almost 30 points.

The Shuster political dynasty began with former Congressman Bud Shuster, the powerful Transportation Committee chairman, who was first elected to the seat when Nixon was president.

In fact, you can find both the ‘Bud Shuster Highway’ and ‘Bud Shuster Byway’ in the district. Bud’s son, Bill, is the current transportation committee chairman. He took over his father’s job more than a decade ago -- installed by a political convention where he capitalized on his family name.

The Tea Party is trying to change all that.

Shuster, who lives in the small town of Hollidaysburg, home to about 5,800 people, is encountering what could be his toughest test in a decade from Tea Party-backed Art Halvorson. Halvorson is a retired Coast Guard captain, who now works in commercial real estate and lives about 40 minutes from Shuster in an even smaller town, Manns Choice, which boasts just 296 people (up from 291 in 2000).

It wouldn’t be the first challenge from Shuster’s right. Back in 2004, he barely emerged from the Republican primary, defeating businessman Michael DelGrosso by a razor-thin 51-49 percent.

But the political landscape has shifted dramatically since then. The tea party was still something people thought of as happening in the Boston Harbor a couple hundred years ago.

“It’s time for a change,” Halvorson told NBC News in a phone interview from the campaign trail over the weekend. “This is a district that is a bright-red district, extraordinarily conservative. And they have a representative almost thrust upon them—forced down their throats, if you will—who’s not a conservative in my opinion.”

His website describes the Tea Party favorite with deep pockets and the potential to self-fund his campaign as a “staunch advocate of personal liberty, limited government and fiscal conservatism.”

It features a national-debt clock, derides what he calls “uncontrolled welfare,” and lists Shuster’s office phone number urging him to oppose the Ryan-Murray budget deal that overwhelmingly passed the House Dec. 12 and then got nearly two-thirds of the Senate Wednesday in an era when both sides couldn’t be further apart on economics.

Shuster voted for it.

Halvorson also called Speaker Boehner’s recent outburst against outside conservative groups “shameful.”

And the challenger is getting some outside help. Halvorson won the support of the Madison Group—a Tea Party PAC attempting to unseat several other Republican incumbents. The group characterized Shuster as “the embodiment of the big government tendencies within the [Republican] party.”

Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, editor RedState.com, has also taken aim at Shuster and invited Halvorson to speak at an event hosted by his site. Erickson called Shuster a “fake Republican” and is upset with what he sees as lobbying for a reinstatement of earmarks.

Shuster brings with him all the advantages that come with incumbency, including sky-high name recognition, a major fundraising lead, and what he hopes voters will view as a positive record of service.

He also leads by wide margins in early polling. Halvorson and Tea Party groups would stress that campaigning has only just begun with the primary not until May 20th.

Halvorson believes he can capitalize on what he believes is “Shuster fatigue” in the district, something he says he has encountered during his campaign swings through the district. He claims many of Shuster’s constituents “are tired of him; they know he’s arrogant; they know he takes them for granted.”

Shuster also has a huge cash advantage so far. According to the latest campaign-finance figures, Shuster has more than $1.1 million cash on hand, almost 10 times Halvorson’s $125,000. While that is a formidable gap, the fact that Shuster has raised as much as he has in recent months demonstrates his campaign views Halvorson as a serious challenger.

“It is hard for our campaign not to notice an opponent like Halvorson, who is out there every day unabashedly misstating the Congressman’s proven conservative record and attempting to mislead the voters,” Shuster campaign manager Sean Joyce wrote in an email.

“We’re all going to watch this race in Pennsylvania,” says Terry Madonna, director of Franklin and Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs.

Madonna notes, however, that while Halvorson will attack Shuster from the right, the American Conservative Union gives the congressman a lifetime rating of 91 percent, and the NRA gives him an A rating—a crucial factor in this rural district.

“It’s hard to make the case that [Shuster] is not a conservative,” Madonna said. “The question is whether he’s conservative enough, and I think that’s where we’re going to see this campaign go.”