Stamford — As she filed out of Steve Obsitnik’s speech last week at the Edgehill Health Center, Susan Miller wondered aloud, “He’s a Republican, right?”
Maybe that’s not the tag line Obsitnik had in mind in his bid for the 4th Congressional District seat against Democratic incumbent Jim Himes — but it may work, at least in Miller’s case.
“I’m a Democrat,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t vote for him.”
A Navy veteran who is now a successful businessman in the telecom industry, Obsitnik, 45, is a first-time candidate for political office. The Stamford native, who now lives in Westport, is branding himself as an independent, moderate Republican who isn’t afraid to vote his conscience.
He hopes that independent stance wins the votes of unaffiliated voters — and even some Democrats like Miller.
“I don’t agree with everything in my party,” Obsitnik told the group of seniors in Stamford. He added that he wasn’t a “career politician” and would limit himself to eight years in office. “That’s what I believe we need more of in Washington.”
Obsitnik’s bid is an uphill battle in a district that voted to re-elect Himes by more than 6 percent in 2010, a year many freshmen Democrats were vulnerable. About 35 percent of voters in the 4th District are registered Democrats, 26 percent are Republicans, and 39 percent are either independent or unaffiliated, according to the most recent data available from the Secretary of the State’s office.
“Himes is in the driver’s seat,” said Gary Rose, a professor of political science at Sacred Heart University. But at the same time, Rose said he considers the 4th Congressional District to be a “swing district,” given a sluggish economy and restlessness among many voters with the status quo in Washington.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Wharton School of Business, Obsitnik has an educational background in engineering and technology. He met his wife, Suzanne, at Wharton, and spent time in Silicon Valley helping commercialize Siri, the popular voice-recognition technology that re-defined the iPhone. The couple moved back to Connecticut with their two daughters in 2005, and Obsitnik later started the company Quintel, which manufactures more efficient antenna systems for AT&T and Verizon.
Chris Shays, who recently lost a Republican primary Senate bid to Linda MacMahon and who held the 4th District congressional seat until he was narrowly defeated by Himes in 2008, said that business background is a huge advantage.
“He’s a very credible candidate who could win this race,” Shays said. “I think Steve would have won last time [in 2010] if he was a candidate. … I just think people would draw some comfort that Steve has been a successful businessman.” (In 2010, Himes defeated former state Sen. Dan Debicella.)
That background did resonate with many at the Edgehill Health Center, a nursing home in Stamford. And Obsitnik showed himself to be quick on his feet, moving seamlessly from talking about education to poverty, to immigration, relations with Israel and health care. He may have been too quick, in fact. As he answered one audience member’s question about Medicare, he spoke so fast that his campaign communication director, Amanda Bergen, began waving wildly at him from the back of the room.
As he answered questions, Obsitnik was careful to paint himself as center-oriented in this district that has been home to moderate Republicans for much of its history. Himes bucked that trend when he swept through the region in 2008 on the coat-tails of President Obama.
Consistent with the House Republicans’ stance, Obsitnik says he would repeal Obamacare — the term used by the GOP and many Democrats for the Affordable Care Act — but he says it should be replaced with a better alternative.
Obsitnik parts ways with the GOP when it comes to immigration. He said border security is important. But as the child of a father who immigrated from Czechoslovakia and was later an ambassador to the Slovak Republic, he added, “We should be finding ways to bring people in and let them contribute as opposed to not.”
Obsitnik said he’s got an open mind about the DREAM Act, a controversial law that would give thousands of undocumented young people a chance to attend college and work toward citizenship. Obsitnik said he finds that the bill, opposed by most Republicans, has some “shortcomings,” but said, “I’m not afraid to talk about it.” He told seniors at the Stamford nursing home that college graduates with degrees in engineering, math and science should be put on a fast-track to citizenship if they find employment.
Democrats say Obsitnik’s positions on health care and the tax code are too vague. Asked how he would reform the tax code, Obsitnik provided few details except to say that the corporate tax rate of 39.5 percent is “the highest in the world” and needs to be lower.
“Some of his answers to questions in interviews have been a little murky,” Rose said. “People have criticized him for not being real clear…and I think that’s probably intentional.”
Obsitnik is following the GOP’s party line on the issue of the recession, blaming Democrats for the unemployment rate.
“The most important social program is a job,” he says over and over again.
While the demographics of Fairfield County and the 4th Congressional District have been shifting toward the Democrats, Rose said all bets are off in this election, given the state of the economy. And Obsitnik’s “outsider” status, though it makes him a newcomer to the political scene in Fairfield County, could be helpful.
“The notion of the outsider is actually advantageous these days,” Rose said. “I’m sure that there are some people that simply are so fed up with the gridlock that any outsider could be acceptable.”
Obsitnik shrugged off that status in an interview, saying, “I’m not sure if it hurts me or helps me.” Predictably, fundraising heavily favors the incumbent. As of June, Himes had raised more than $2 million in campaign contributions, while Obsitnik has raised less than half that, with 16 percent coming out of his own pocket.
The biggest challenge for both candidates, Rose said, is appealing to their base while also pulling in moderates. In the past, Himes has run as an “independent” Democrat for the same reason.
That may also be why Obsitnik was the only federal GOP candidate in Connecticut to attend Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s recent fundraiser in Greenwich, Rose said.
Bergen, Obsitnik’s campaign manager, said he attended because “he believes that if somebody presents an idea, whether it’s a Democrat or Republican, it’s worth sitting down and talking it through.”
The 5th District race and the U.S. Senate campaigns have been more of the focus for political analysts and pollsters this election season. But because of the moderate nature of both Himes and Obsitnik, the lack of enthusiasm from Obama voters compared to past years, and new energy in the Romney campaign, the 4th may very well be a battleground as well.
“There’s not a lot of space between Himes right now and Obsitnik,” Rose said. “So in many ways, it could come down to who’s able to get his base out the most; and then who’s able to convince voters that either the status quo is better, or maybe it’s time for some change.”