When Dan Debicella went door-to-door trying to sell his candidacy for the 4th District congressional seat four years ago, he said the most frequent question asked him was whether he was a Republican or a Democrat.
“The No. 1 question this time is, ‘Are you in office right now?’” Debicella said. “People are sick of the partisan bickering in Washington.”
Debicella, 39, is hoping voter disgust with Congress and his appeal as a moderate Republican in a district that has shown a preference for politicians of that stripe will propel him to victory in his second attempt to unseat incumbent Democrat Jim Himes.
Debicella ran for the seat in 2010 — a midterm election that favored the GOP almost everywhere but in Connecticut – and allowed the party to wrest control of the House of Representatives from Democrats. Debicella lost that election by about six percentage points.
He’s running again in a midterm election that may favor the GOP, but analysts say he’s a clear underdog.
“Unless this is a true ‘wave’ election, I would expect Himes to be favored,” said Ron Schurin, a University of Connecticut political science professor.
The Cook Political Report rates the race “solid Democratic” and says Himes will win by at least 5 percentage points.
“Don’t look for a competitive race here in 2014,” it says.
Still, Debicella has raised nearly $800,000 in the first six months of this year and hopes to raise at least $2 million. If he reaches his goal, he’ll have a war chest Himes can’t ignore.
Debicella’s supporters also hope the candidacy of Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, who is popular in the 4th District, will help drive Republicans to the polls in the mid-term election, which are notorious for low voter turnout.
The Debicella campaign has been running ads since June, hoping to raise the candidate’s name recognition.
In his first ad, titled “Messy,” Debicella portrays himself as a problem-solver who can clean up a mess his young son has made – and also scrub up Washington.
The GOP challenger is also positioning himself as a moderate in a district that has been represented by a number of Republican moderates in the past, including Lowell Weicker, Stewart McKinney and Chris Shays, whom Himes defeated in 2008.
Debicella supports abortion rights and gay marriage, following a Connecticut GOP tradition of being a mainstream Republican on fiscal issues and a liberal on social issues.
But Debicella says he embraces Democratic ideas on a range of other issues, from taxes to health care.
While he joins the GOP majority in saying the Affordable Care Act should be scrapped, he differs from most other Republicans in supporting government subsidies to the poor so they can afford private insurance. He also blames both Democrats and Republicans “for screwing up health care” and criticizes the House GOP for dozens of votes to repeal all or parts of the Affordable Care Act.
“Voting 40 times to repeal ObamaCare is a waste of time, especially without offering an alternative,” his campaign web site says.
Debicella agrees with the majority of his party that tax reform should include a reduction in business taxes, but says there should also be incentives for businesses to hire and re-train the long-term unemployed, as many Democrats argue.
Debicella also breaks with many in the GOP in talking about the disparate impact of the recession on the 4th District, which is home to the very wealthy and has pockets of poverty and a struggling middle class.
“Folks who either don’t have a job or families who are dependent on a single income are really struggling,” he said. “People are hungry for new ideas.”
To burnish his moderate credentials, Debicella asked former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican who sometimes voted with Democrats and is now running for a New Hampshire U.S. Senate seat, to campaign for him.
“Dan Debicella is a practical problem solver who knows compromise doesn’t have to be a dirty word in Washington,” Brown said in a campaign spot in May.
UConn’s Schurin said Debicella’s bipartisan messaging “is just what the district wants to hear.”
The Republican’s campaign received a boost last week with the endorsement of the Independent Party of Connecticut. That means his name will appear on the ballot twice this November – as a Republican and as an Independent candidate.
Living the American Dream
Debicella was raised in Shelton and still lives there with his wife Alex and 14-month-old son. He said he met his wife on his first and only blind date and fell in love at first sight, although it may have taken Alex longer to warm up to him.
His campaign taps the story of a working-class background. His father was a Bridgeport police officer and his mother was a secretary, and he said he’s the only one in the family who has attended college full time.
“My family has lived the American Dream,” he said.
Debicella earned a B.A. in finance from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. He went on to receive his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 2000.
He was the owner of Textbooks Online, worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company, as a director for strategy for PepsiCo and as a marketing executive for The Hartford insurance company.
Most recently, he’s taken a leave from a lucrative job at investment firm Bridgewater Associates to run for Congress.
While he has quite a resume in the business world, Debicella has political experience too.
When he graduated from Wharton and moved back to Shelton, he served on the town’s Board of Apportionment and Taxation. He then ran successfully for a Connecticut Senate seat.
Debicella’s fundraising success has earned him a nod from the national Republican Party. The National Republican Congressional Committee has elevated him to “Young Gun” status, which means he’ll get party help in his quest to unseat Himes.
The NRCC hasn’t spent any money on the race yet, but Debicella said he hopes it will come next month– in the form of third-party ads that are likely to attack Himes.
Meanwhile, the Debicella campaign continues to run its own ads. His latest continues the theme that he’s ready to clean up a failing political system. Called “Grimes,” a jab at Himes, it features a filthy refrigerator, filled with rotting food, roaches and flies. “Six years of Jim Himes and Washington is a real mess,” the 30-second spot says.
Debicella has attacked Himes, a member of the House Finance Committee, for seeking a modification in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that is sought by many big banks, including Citibank, whose executives are among many of Himes’ Wall Street supporters.
Debicella said both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of favoring legislation pushed by campaign supporters, a “corrupting influence” on Congress and a practice he’d avoid.
Schurin said the voters in the 4th District, many of whom work on Wall Street, expect their representative to look out for their interests. “If Himes continues to present himself as someone who supports that sector, that would be appealing,” Schurin said.
Debicella is also hitting Himes for failing to do more to improve transportation in the 4th District. Connecticut’s slow economic recovery is another campaign theme.
If Debicella wins, he would be the only Republican in Connecticut’s House delegation and one of the few Republicans in Congress from New England. To Debicella, that would be an advantage since the House of Representatives is expected to remain in Republican hands after the Nov. 4 election.
“Dealing with some of the issues (successfully) can only be done if you are in the majority,” he said. “Being in the majority would be very, very helpful.”