RIDGEFIELD, Conn. — With a week left to go until Connecticut goes to the polls, New England’s last Republican congressman is fighting to preserve his political career.
Rep. Chris Shays has represented Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District since 1987. But the vulnerability of incumbent Republicans is glaringly apparent here in Fairfield County, where the most recent poll put Democratic Congressional candidate Jim Himes in a dead heat with Shays.
The election has effectively blurred party lines, as both candidates have sought to distance themselves from the Bush administration and align themselves with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.
And for an election this close, every vote will count. Shays’ 2006 victory was decided by a margin of 7,000, and officials for both campaigns say that this year’s margin may be even tighter.
Before speaking at a “Barack Your Vote” rally before a crowd of approximately 200 people in this small, Republican-leaning town, Himes — a Harvard graduate and former Goldman Sachs executive who began working for a non-profit organization in 2004 — nursed a large cup of coffee. As he faced the last week of a year-and-a-half long campaign, Himes said he hopes to seal the deal.
If he is successful, the 111th Congress may have no Republican representatives from Connecticut.
“In nine days I look forward to seeing the state, from New London to Bridgeport, solid blue,” he said in an interview with the News.
Indeed, Shays acknowledged that his campaign is facing a lot of pressure from Himes for moderate voters potentially inclined to vote for Obama. But, if he maintains a positive tone, he said he believes he can win.
“We are facing a tsunami,” Shays said in an interview. “We need to get to the high ground, and not just the metaphorical one — we need to operate in a manner reflective of the high ground.” The latest University of Connecticut poll, conducted Oct. 8-15, shows the candidates tied with 44 percent of the vote. However, a report prepared by a Republican consultant and obtained last week by Politico.com lists Shays’ seat as “in serious jeopardy” of falling into Democratic hands.
Himes said his opponent has supported President George W. Bush ’68 “lock, stock and barrel.” It is a statement that Shays vehemently denied.
“Any claims that I am a clone of George Bush are simply laughable,” he said. “I have only voted with the president 52 percent of the time — something that could be said of many Democrats.”
Shays uses this attack as an example of the type of negative campaign Himes has run. But, in response, Himes defended himself Sunday with a quote from President Harry S. Truman: “I never give them hell — I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” Both campaigns have also tried to capitalize on Obama’s popularity. Himes has closely allied himself with the Democratic nominee, and one of his most widely distributed campaign items is a button photo of him and Obama.
The Shays campaign, on the other hand, takes a slightly more distant approach. It recently aired an ad that said Shays has the “hopefulness of Obama” and the “straight-talk of McCain.”
Although he is a McCain supporter, Shays said he straddles the Democrat-Republican dividing line.
“Color me purple,” he said. “I am widely regarded on both sides of the aisle as independent and non-partisan. I, like most Americans, fall in the center-right of the political spectrum.”
In Congress, Shays has taken a leading role in energy independence and in implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Himes, however, targeted Shays’s recent statements about the economic crisis as an example of where the Republican has been wrong.
“[Shays] has consistently said that the worst thing that the government could do is regulate financial companies, yet it was deregulation that has caused the current crisis,” he said.
Connecticut has registered 200,000 new voters since January, which both campaigns say has added a new element to the election. Professor Samuel Best, Director of the University of Connecticut Center for Survey Research and Analysis which conducted the October survey, agrees.
“The race is really up in the air because of the number of voters still wrestling with their decision,” he wrote in the poll document. “But if the vote stays as evenly divided as we see now, the eventual outcome will come down to which candidate can get more of their supporters to the polls.”
Shays said he understands that many of these new voters will be voting for Senator Obama next week. But he believes that everything is not lost. He pointed out that his district voted for Senator Kerry in 2004, yet supported his candidacy.
“I tell my staff: We will win the election by doing a good or great job and by getting our story across,” said Shays. “I do not win unless there are many Obama/Shays ballots.”
Connecticut’s 4th district includes the cities Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport in addition to more suburban areas such as Fairfield County.