Himes has strong challengers, but still favored

Washington –– How political winds can change.

Two years ago, Jim Himes, D-4th District, was on CNN’s Top Hundred list of vulnerable House members, targeted by the Republican national party and given even odds by political pundits of keeping his seat.

The Fairfield County-based district is home to more Republicans than any other congressional district in Connecticut and was represented by a Republican for decades before Himes ousted former Rep. Chris Shays in 2008.

Himes, 45, also has two strong GOP opponents as he tries to keep his seat this year.

Despite the challenges, analysts say Himes is favored to win re-election. One reason is the national Republican Party has to deploy its resources elsewhere this year, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Republican priorities are to protect incumbents, try to win open seats — like the one in the 5th Congressional District — and target Democrats who are much easier to knock off than Himes, who excels at raising campaign cash and keeping himself out of political trouble.

“There are an awful lot of seats they could target before they get to me,” Himes said.

Gonzales agrees.

“The entire cycle would have to shift dramatically against Democrats in order for Jim Himes to be a real Republican target,” he said.

Himes has raised about $1.7 million in this campaign cycle. He’s also been careful to balance his loyalty to the Democratic Party with his duties to his constituents, many of whom earn their living on Wall Street. A recent Bloomberg story called Himes, who sits on the House Financial Services Committee, the Democrat Wall Street loves.

“He’s played it pretty carefully,” said Scott McLean, political science professor at Quinnipiac University.

Himes has voted with his party 89 percent of the time in this Congress — not considered a high loyalty score. He’s criticized some parts of the Dodd-Frank Act, a financial reform law he voted for and calls himself “an independent voice.”

Himes is also lucky to be running in one of the “bluest” areas of the nation.

“In this state, Democratic incumbents have a lot of advantage,” McLean said.

Even so, the race has attracted several Republican challengers. The strongest are Steven Obsitnik, a Stamford businessman and former naval officer, and Chris Meeks, a philanthropist who is also a businessman in Stamford.

Both men are political neophytes and running as moderate Republicans in the mold of former congressman Shays. They’ve been able to attract a respectable amount of campaign cash. Obsitnik has raised more than $620,000 and Meeks more than $350,000.

To boost their candidacies, the National Republican Campaign Committee has place both Obsitnik and Meeks on its “On the Radar” list of a program that identifies top-tier candidates.

Connecticut’s Republican Party also wants to oust Himes from Congress. It will pick a favorite between Obsitnik and Meeks at the May 18 state Republican convention and likely do what it can to support that candidate.

“It’s a Republican seat and we aim to take it back,” Jerry Labriola Jr., the state’s GOP chairman, said last year.

But 2012 isn’t 2010, when voters sent more than 90 new Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the GOP wrested control of that chamber from the Democratic Party. Conservative fires stoked by the tea party that helped defeat many Democrats in swing districts have cooled. In addition, President Obama will be at the top of the ticket, driving many 4th District Democrats to the polls.

“Republicans likely missed their best opportunity to beat Himes in 2010, when the environment was less favorable to Democrats,” said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

Himes beat Republican state Sen. Dan Debicella in that 2010 race, by about 5 percent of the vote.

“Two years ago, there was a pretty strong headwind,” Himes said. “It doesn’t feel as strong as it did then.”

Yet Obsitnik campaign manager John Puskar said there are advantages for a Republican candidate.

Republican Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president will energize 4th District Republicans because he’s a well-liked former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, he said.

Puskar also said Himes will be hurt by his identification as a Democrat who supports “super liberals” like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“He’ll be vulnerable because of his record,” Puskar said.

House members are most vulnerable in their first bids for re-election. And in this second go-round for Himes, he is helped by the power of incumbency, which gives him recognition and better ability to raise political money.

Himes, however, said he can’t forget he represents a swing district. He also said voters — who were concerned by the health care act and Dodd-Franks two years ago — may turn against incumbents this year because of an economic recovery that is, in Himes’ words, “not good enough.”

“There’s no cause for complacency,” he said.