This district has been a chore to figure out. There’s a lot of complicated stuff going on as a backdrop to a race that will likely be among the most-watched congressional contests in the country. At this point, it’s also the only race in Connecticut that doesn’t lean definitively one way or the other, mainly due to the huge number of wild cards in play.
Where to begin? Let’s start with history. In 2002, Stephanie Sanchez of
Bridgeport Stamford was the Democratic nominee in this district–and she was absolutely crushed by Chris Shays. It was a Republican year, after all, and Democrats across the state and the country did very poorly. For Shays, it was a routine victory in a district that had re-elected him by wide margins ever since he had won a special election to fill the seat left by the great Rep. Stewart McKinney in 1987. The seat hasn’t been held by a Democrat since Donald Irwin was defeated by then-Republican Lowell Weicker in 1968.
The next year, though, something changed. The United States went to war in Iraq, and Shays became one of the strongest supporters of the Bush Administration’s war efforts in the state (save, perhaps, Joe Lieberman). In 2004, Shays managed to hold off a strong challenge by Diane Farrell of Westport, and in 2006 he defeated her again–but by a razor-thin margin. Farrell had largely based her campaign on opposition to the Iraq War, and that issue, coupled with rampant dislike of the Bush Administration in general, brought her closer than any Democrat in nearly forty years to flipping the seat.
Still, she failed. Shays is the last House Republican standing in New England. Will he stay that way? Are the actual demographics changing in Fairfield County? Or is this an unusual sequence of events?
First, the state of the district as it stands. Here’s a map of Shays’ latest victory, where he won by about 5,000 votes out of over 200,000 cast.
There’s a lot of red on the map, but huge, huge margins for Farrell in Bridgeport and declining margins for Shays in some of his strongholds made this race closer than this map would have you believe. Let’s take a look at a cartogram of the last election:
The blue areas of the map are greatly expanded here. Basically, as is the case all over the state and the nation, Democrats are doing much better in urban areas where the population is denser, while Republicans do better in smaller, less urban towns and counties. This is much more obviously a map of a squeaker.
The 4th district also has a lot fewer towns that might swing one way or the other. Here’s the map of “swing” towns (as described here):
Notice the large cluster of solid Republican towns. This is the history of the district. It is a GOP district, and it was drawn to keep Republicans in power. In past years, the four swing towns of Redding, Westport, Fairfield and Weston would have been solid Republican, as well. But over the past four years they have become more Democratic. They are also absolutely crucial. Take a look at the cartogram:
It should be clear from this map just how crucial these swing towns are to both Jim Himes and Chris Shays. Shays won two of the four last time, but his margins there are clearly declining. They are up for grabs.
The Game Plans
There are two game plans obvious here. First, Shays will want to run up his margins in the GOP-friendly towns, stay near his 2004 and 2006 margins in Democratic towns, and win at least two out of the four swing towns. This is how he won in 2006.
Jim Himes, on the other hand, needs to keep or exceed Farrell’s margins in Democratic towns, keep Shays from running up the score in GOP towns, and win at least three of the four swing towns.
Which is more likely? The data suggests that Himes’ scenario is actually the more likely of the two. Let’s take a look at Shays’ margin of victory in each town from 2002-2006:
Shays starts off well enough in 2002, when he crushed Sanchez. But note that in every year since, he has lost ground in just about every town (save Norwalk and Bridgeport, which he lost in 2004 and 2006). Crucially, he’s lost ground in the towns he needs wide margins in, like Darien and New Canaan. Here’s another way to look at it:
Farrell lost ground in Bridgeport, but that can probably be explained by the lack of a presidential election. This is probably not good news for Shays, because that margin could return this year. The same could be said of Greenwich, of course, which will probably deliver a large margin for McCain and Shays. But it’s clear who Bridgeport and Greenwich will turn out for in a presidential race. What about Fairfield or other swing towns?
Shays, as it turns out, is losing a lot of ground in those swing towns:
Weston and Westport both are now trending Democratic. Redding is right on the line, and Fairfield is trending down towards the danger zone for Shays. If these trends continue, Shays will lose.
There are a few variables to consider. First, the war in Iraq is no longer the main concern of voters: the economy and rising fuel prices are. It’s impossible to tell whether this helps Shays or hurts him, but I suspect it will hurt him more than help. Frustration with the state of the economy is never a good thing for an incumbent.
That isn’t to say that Iraq is off the radar, either. Voters still care, and they still remember Shays’ Iraq stance. However, voters who were unwilling to vote against him over Iraq may well do so over the economy.
Second, Westport was Diane Farrell’s hometown, and the place where voters had elected her first selectwoman. This undoubtedly helped her in 2004 and 2006. Jim Himes is from Greenwich, where he has never held elective office. This could easily be a non-issue, but it could also make a difference in a close race.
Third, the presidential race is a huge wild card. Margins in cities like Bridgeport and Stamford could go through the roof for Obama, and carry Jim Himes into office. Of course, Fairfield County has long been a friendly place for John McCain, as well. Margins for him might go up in Republican towns and even in some swing towns, and help Shays.
At this point, given national polls and the way things tend to go in Connecticut, it’s more likely that Obama will help Himes than it is that McCain will help Shays. Democratic turnout usually goes way up in presidential years (note Bridgeport’s margins, above), and given how poorly Shays performed in 2006, that boost could be a scary thing for him. It’s worth noting that 2004 was not nearly as bad a year to be a Republican as 2008 is shaping up to be.
But still, November is a long way off.
Democrats have their best chance in forty years to win this seat. Himes still needs to prove he can wage an effective campaign, although he has done very well fundraising. A convincing squishing of primary opponent Lee Whitnum ought to help him in that department. But if Himes does run an excellent campaign, and doesn’t let the wily Shays outflank him on issues important to voters (Farrell had this happen to her in 2006, when Shays endorsed a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq), he can defeat Shays and win the seat for the Democrats. The numbers are in their favor.
Shays, on the other hand, has a huge task ahead of him to keep his seat. This looks to be his toughest race yet. Still, it’s never good to bet against him. He has earned a reputation as a scrappy survivor, and he’ll doubtless try to hit Himes with everything he has.
The key town to watch? Fairfield. I’m thinking it’s the make-or-break town for both campaigns. Shays won it in 2006 by about 1,500 votes.
Friday: the 5th district and the end of this series