I’m excited. Lots of races, lots of fascinating match-ups including the paradoxical standoff between Congressman Christopher Shays and opponent Jim Himes that pits a Republican from Bridgeport and Democrat from Greenwich.
Shays, the last standing New England Republican in the House of Representatives, is coming off two contentious challenges from Diane Farrell. He had enjoyed easy reelection campaigns until an unpopular war hardened amenable Democrats and some unaffiliated voters against him. Shays has survived because of deep roots in the district helping people and successfully differentiating himself from Bushy.
There’s been a shift in issue dynamics, however, less about the war and more about a languishing economy such as Fairfield County’s highest gas prices in the country. Shays, unlike his candidate for president John McCain, is best when he talks about domestic issues. He has a long and proud history as a budget hawk and delivering moolah for his district. Shays has shepherded millions for transportation projects, energy assistance and social service funding, and a lot of little things that never get reported. He also has a history of going against his party, including the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
Himes has what he needs: strong fundraising and Barack Obama at the top of the ticket to juice an unmotivated urban vote, particularly in Bridgeport. Barack’s turnout impact was evidenced during Connecticut’s presidential primary several months ago, dwarfing the primary turnout of last September’s mayoral race between Bill Finch and Chris Caruso. People came out, not because some district leader asked, but because they wanted to vote.
I spent a couple of hours with Himes several weeks ago. He came across thoughtful and impressive. Raised in Peru and Colombia for his first 10 years, and fluent in Spanish, his father worked for the Ford Foundation and UNICEF. The Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar spent his early years in finance with Goldman Sachs & Co., before running the northeast operations for Enterprise Community Partners on poverty issues and construction of affordable housing units.
Himes received a psychological boost the other day when the Cook Report, hosted by Washington prognosticator Charlie Cook, characterized the race as a tossup. Of course, a lot of folks, including Cook, had Shays barbecued two years ago when Farrell ran a spirited race against the incumbent based largely on the public’s distaste for Bush’s war. It seemed like Shays was in huge trouble then a turning point came a few months before the election when Farrell was filleted by Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hard Ball, on her war position. Farrell was supposed to be the anti-war candidate. Matthews is strongly anti war. But Farrell tried to be cute, claiming she was against the war, but refusing to call for immediate troop withdrawal, a lame attempt to appeal to moderates unsure about an immediate pullout. Matthews hates phony pols. By the time Matthews was done with Farrell it was like watching the wings pulled from a fly. Matthews trapped Westport’s former chief executive in a variety of inconsistencies, stammering all over the place. If you’re going to be anti-war, be anti-war and not wishy-washy about your core conviction against it. Farrell’s gaffe provided Shays an opening. Will the real Diane please stand up? It enabled Shays to survive a few verbal gaffes of his own during their 20 debates.
This is where Barack, so far, as succeeded with his party. He’s saying when I’m president we’ll bring them home. No wavering.
The Shays/Himes race, by virtue of Shays’ standing as the lone New England Republican in the House of Representatives, will have national significance. Shays has stood up and survived intense media scrutiny. What about Himes? We’ll see.
Himes’ shot at winning is a massive Democratic turnout in Bridgeport in the general election. Stay tuned.