Himes and Shays

I did notice the Courant‘s big article about Jim Himes and his challenge to Chris Shays over the weekend. The big story there is Himes’s fundraising, which has been outpacing Shays so far.

But what is Jim Himes actually facing come November? Where is he going to need to do well? And why is Shays, who was once a pretty safe seat, suddenly vulnerable?

Shays was once a safe bet, and the 4th Congressional District a Republican stronghold. A Democrat hasn’t won the seat since 1966, and Republicans have held it for all but twelve of the past hundred years. Chris Shays seemed like another in a long line of unstoppable moderate Republicans. In 2000 and 2002, he absolutely annihilated his Democratic opponent, Stephanie Sanchez, and won every town in the district save Bridgeport–usually by very large margins.

Then came 2004:


Diane Farrell fought within 5% of Chris Shays, and in 2006 came even closer:


What changed for Shays? The Iraq War, which began in 2003, was obviously his big problem. Shays has long been an outspoken supporter of the war. However, the 4th District itself seems to be changing, as well. In 2002, the SOTS counted 118,541 Republican voters in the district as opposed to 121,094 Democrats. But in 2005, the SOTS counted only 115,294 Republicans and 128,839 Democrats (the number of independents, if you’re interested, was 153,826 in 2002 and 167,080 in 2006). The total number of voters also increased by tens of thousands between those years. The only number that saw a drop was in the number of registered Republicans. Which begs the question: is the 4th District becoming more Democratic overall? And, more importantly, is the change permanent, or is the shift that we’re seeing more a reaction to national events?

Demographics, at least for the moment, is on Himes’s side. Two other House Republicans from Connecticut lost their seats in 2006: Rob Simmons and Nancy Johnson. Diane Farrell, despite being a flawed candidate in many ways, came within 3% of Shays on election night. That should be an encouraging trend. But will it continue?

That depends a lot on what sort of election year 2008 turns out to be. So far voters seem to be signaling that they want some sort of change, which could be good for Himes and bad for Shays, who has been in his seat for two decades. He also can draw on his experience with Goldman Sachs to address concerns about the economy. But he will face an uphill climb in other areas. He is not a politician who has much experience at this level (although this year that could actually end up helping him), he doesn’t have much name recognition yet beyond politically aware Democrats, and Shays has proved to be a clever, elusive and dangerous opponent. Himes may be doing better financially right now, but it’s a sure bet that the NRCC will fight hard to retain this seat, and pour money into the district.

There’s also a long, long time between now and November. The situation may change drastically. We also don’t know just how the presidential race will impact this race. The district was split in 2004, but support for Bush was a lot more tepid than support for Shays. John McCain, a better ideological fit for the district than Bush, may match up very well with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in this district, which could help Shays immensely.

Is Himes a better candidate than Diane Farrell? Everything I’ve seen suggests that he is, although we’ll know more in September and October. But whether or not he can defeat Shays, who has survived two close races in a district that seems to be becoming less and less friendly towards Republicans, is something I don’t think we’ll know until November.


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