WASHINGTON — Chris Shays is not on the ballot in Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District this year, but one of the candidates in the race is channeling the former Republican congressman’s persona.
It’s the Democrat who ousted Shays two years ago, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes. He is adopting his vanquished predecessor’s sales pitch, proclaiming himself as New England’s new maverick in Congress.
Himes’ campaign has released a TV ad that portrays him as a moderate and the winner of the Aug. 10 Republican primary, state Sen. Dan Debicella of Shelton, as an extremist.
“After just two years, Jim Himes is New England’s most independent Congressman,” the ad’s narrator says, touting Himes’ support for budget cuts and health care reform before launching into a sharp critique of Debicella’s voting record in the state legislature.
Political observers say Himes’ strategy is no surprise — though Shays finds it a stretch.
“This election will come down to Chris Shays’ old voters,” said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. And a key question, Wasserman said, is whether those voters “like the course Democrats are taking or whether they are wary of one party-control” in Washington.
Gary Rose, chairman of the government and politics department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, noted that nearly 40 percent of the 4th District’s voters are unaffiliated, the largest bloc.
“This election cannot be won by emphasizing one’s partisanship,” Rose said. The political middle “is where all the action is.”
So it’s no wonder that Debicella ran an ad in the primary, juxtaposing a photo of Himes next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and saying he votes with “party insiders” too much. Or that Himes responded in the dog days of August with the current spot that tries to starkly define both himself and Debicella. The battle lines have been drawn.
“The sweet spot of the 4th District is socially progressive, business-oriented, and fiscally responsible, and I think that describes me,” Himes said. “It’s an interesting question, if you put Chris Shays between me and Dan Debicella, who he would be closer to.”
Indeed, just as Himes is eager to tout his record bucking the House leadership on federal spending and ethics issues, Debicella is also vying for a centrist label.
“I’m pro-choice, I’m pro-stem cell research, I’m pro-civil unions,” Debicella said in an interview Wednesday, as he sought to counter Himes’ ad calling him “reckless, radical and wrong for Connecticut.”
The Himes ad cites Debicella’s vote in the state Senate against extending certain health benefits, such as hearing aids for deaf children, but Debicella said he voted no because he opposed mandating insurance coverage, not because he was against those particular benefits.
“The whole question in this race is, are people happy with what’s going on in Washington, D.C.?” Debicella said. “And if the answer is yes, then Jim Himes is your guy. On every single vote, he has been in lock-step with the Democratic leadership.”
Himes says this is no replay of the 2008 race, where he narrowly beat a well-respected incumbent with a clear moderate voting record.
In the 2008 race, Himes said he found himself wooing Democrats who said they supported Shays because of his strong environmental record, his support for universal health care, and other such issues. This time, he doesn’t expect to have that problem.
“Having run against Chris Shays … I am gratified the Republicans have nominated an extremist,” Himes said.
Clearly, “extremist” is not a moniker that Himes ever could have used against Shays. But Shays, for his part, said he doesn’t think Himes can credibly claim his old maverick mantra.
“This doesn’t even meet the laugh test,” Shays said.
The source for Himes’ ad is a Washington Post votes database, which shows that Himes voted with his party 94 percent of the time during the current Congress. That is indeed lower than other lawmakers in New England. (The next closest New England lawmaker is Rep. Paul Hodes, of New Hampshire, who has voted with his party 94.7 percent of the time in the 111th Congress.)
But, as Shays noted, every other House member from New England is now a Democrat, and 94 percent is still pretty high.
“That is not independence,” Shays said, pointing to his own record of voting with his party about 70 percent of the time or less. (See this story for more on the Washington Post vote tally.)
Shays said he had been trying to stay mum about Himes’ record, but now that he is using the New England moderate label, he plans to weigh in more forcefully in the contest. He is supporting Debicella.
Whatever Shays’ role, the race is intensifying and will be closely watched.
Rose notes that in 2010, Himes won with considerable help from the coattails of Barack Obama, who drew thousands of extra voters to the polls, especially in the district’s largest city, Bridgeport. Without him on the ticket, Himes is expected to be more vulnerable.
The Cook Report currently has the seat listed as likely to stay in Democratic hands, but the report’s Wasserman said it will probably move into a more competitive category in the coming weeks.
“The noise level in this race has increased,” generating more buzz at the national party committees, he said. “I still give Himes the edge, but I do think it’s closer than a lot of people realize … This is one of those next-tier races that could turn a big Republican year into a gigantic Republican year.”