NORWALK, Conn. — New England lost its last Republican congressman Tuesday, as Democrat Jim Himes unseated incumbent Rep. Chris Shays in Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District.
After multiple successful campaigns and 21 years in Congress, Shays’ luck finally ran out: With 74 percent of precincts reporting, Himes led the incumbent by six percentage points, 52 percent to 46 percent. Shays’ hometown of Bridgeport, which turned out in record numbers and voted overwhelmingly for Himes, ironically sealed Shays’ defeat to an opponent whose campaign rode on the coattails of president-elect Barack Obama.
Shays said his one regret was that his campaign could not overcome what he called the Democratic “tsunami.”
“We all knew it was there,” he said in his concession speech Tuesday night.
Harkening to the wave of Democratic support Obama had amassed, Himes, 42, said his win was based on the foundations laid by the Illinois senator. Throughout his campaign, Himes worked to link himself with Obama and capitalize on his growing voter support. He widely distributed campaign signs with both his and Obama’s campaign logos.
“Leadership is moving to a new generation at this level and in the White House,” Himes said in his victory speech here Tuesday night.
The crowd responded with cheers of “Yes We Can,” a rallying cry of the Obama campaign. The same chant echoed throughout the building at 11 p.m., when Obama’s victory was announced.
At Himes’ victory headquarters, the Brewhouse restaurant, the growing crowd became increasingly jubilant as the night went on. About 150 attendants spent the evening milling around the vacuous restaurant with hopeful anxiety. At 9:45 p.m., the blaring ’90s music playing over the speakers cut out, and one of Himes’ staff members announced Shays’ concession.
A minute later, the campaign’s communications director, Michael Sachse, repeated the announcement in front of the cheering crowd. By 10:20 p.m., Himes appeared to address his cheering supporters, doling out hugs, smiles and handshakes. His victory speech hinted at the ground-breaking nature of his win, invoking the theme of change he shared with the Obama campaign.
Himes was quick to congratulate his opponent, whom he described as a man of conviction.
“Chris Shays is a man of courage who stood for many things — frankly, against his party,” he said in his speech. “We all owe him a tremendous debt of thanks.”
Early analysis of election returns showed Shays did not succeed in capturing Obama voters. He had told the News last week he could not win without some of them.
Looking back over his campaign late Tuesday night, Shays made it clear he had no regrets about not resorting to negative ads, something he said he has never done in his 34 years as a politician.
“If you think we lost this race for not going negative, you are just wrong,” he said in his speech. “We did our best, but this tsunami came our way.”
Dan Malloy, the mayor of Stamford, said he partly attributed Shays’ loss to an article in the News last week in which Shays, in an interview, predicted an Obama victory and discredited the McCain campaign.
“The coverage of Shays slamming his own candidate, I think, played a role in it,” he said in an interview.
In 2004, Shays edged out former Westport First Selectwoman Diane Farrell by six percentage points. He narrowly defeated her again in 2006, by about 7,000 votes. Cognizant of these past successes, Shays’ wife, Betsi, told the crowd she was proud of her husband’s contributions to the state and the ethical manner in which he ran his campaign.
“We have never wanted to win a race by lowering the standards or compromising our principles,” she said. “We lost an election; we didn’t lose our souls.”
Shays said that in the coming weeks, he will do what he can to assist Himes in transitioning to his new office.
“Over the past 21 years, our office has been taking care of business,” he said. “We will make sure the new member of Congress can do so as well.”
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 said he was “ecstatic” about Himes’ historic victory, but he said he regretted the loss of a moderate Republican in Congress.
Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District includes the cities Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport, in addition to more suburban areas such as much of Fairfield County.