Washington – The race to represent Fairfield County in Congress pits a former Rhodes scholar and Wall Street whiz kid against an attorney and former semi-pro football star with roots in local politics in a contest that has so far drawn little notice.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, the former Rhodes scholar, was swept into office in 2008 with the help of President Obama’s popularity in Fairfield County, defeating Republican Chris Shays and turning Connecticut’s congressional delegation solidly Democratic.
Although Himes, 50, has had a GOP challenger each time he has run, his margin of victory has grown with every contest. In 2014, Himes won with about 55 percent of the vote to 45 percent.
Himes has been able to consolidate his support so well that, for the first time since he sought the 4th District seat, the National Republican Congressional Committee has not targeted the race – at least not yet. The NRCC has, however, targeted his neighbor to the north, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.
“He’s going to be pretty hard to dislodge,” said Gary Rose, head of Sacred Heart University’s political science department.
State Rep. John Shaban, 51, who represents Redding, Easton and Weston, is going to try.
An attorney who coaches football for the Aspetuck Wildcats Association, a sports club for second- through eighth-graders, and a member of the Redding Republican Town Committee, Shaban considers himself a “common-sense” Republican who has cut deals with General Assembly Democrats.
Shaban, nominated by acclimation at the state GOP convention last week, says his main platform is trying to wrest control of local education and local road building back from Washington.
To Shaban, Fairfield County residents pay too much in federal taxes, some of which are returned in the form of federal grants – with strings attached.
“It’s ‘send us what you have and we’ll tell you what to do with your money’,” he said.
Shaban would rather the money stay in the district, and in the state, and that local officials set policy.
“It should be funded and managed at the state level,” he said. “We still have failing schools in Fairfield County.”
In fact, other than things like defense and the interstate highway system, the federal government should cede control of most things to state and local government, he says.
“It’s more organic,” he said
To Shaban, Himes is part of the federal overreach.
“He’s an okay guy, I like him. But he’s part of the problem,” he said. “He views the state of Connecticut as a subsidiary of the federal government. I view Connecticut as the owner of the federal government.”
A rebellious streak
Rose said Himes has been skillful in growing support in the Democratic strongholds of the 4th District – Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford – and has made inroads into GOP territory in suburban areas and other Fairfield County towns.
“There’s a percentage of Republicans who support him,” Rose said.
Himes says he’s taking the race seriously.
“I’m respectful of the process and respectful of the fact it’s a swing district,” he said.
While he votes with the Democratic leadership on key issues, Himes has sometimes strayed.
In one recent, notable vote against his party, Himes helped give the White House ‘fast-track’ authority to negotiate a new Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade treaty with Pacific Rim nation that is opposed by unions and most congressional Democrats. In another departure, he voted for more scrutiny of refugees from Iran and Syria.
The Democrat is also a leader of the New Democrat Coalition, a centrist group. He is proud of his independence.
“Sometimes that means going against the party,” he said.
That rebellious streak may have cost him a high-profile position as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. While Himes, DCCC finance chairman at the time, was on the short list for the job, it went to a more liberal, more loyal Democrat – and one that did not have Himes’ ties to Wall Street. Himes was once a Goldman Sachs financial analyst and vice president.
Shaban has criticized Himes for giving the White House the fast-track authority to negotiate a trade treaty Congress cannot amend. Lawmakers can only approve or reject the Pacific trade deal.
“That vote on TPP was the wrong way to go,” he said.
Himes counters that he hasn’t made up his mind on the final treaty, which Congress is not likely to vote on until after November’s election. He also says he has to be mindful that the 4th “is very much a trade [dependent] district.”
“If [Shaban] wants to be an anti-trade Republican, well, that’s a little shift in Republican philosophy,” Himes said.
In an unusual alliance, congressional Republicans are backing President Obama on the TPP.
Shaban also knocks Himes for voting for the Iran nuclear treaty. He, and most Republicans, say Iran got the better of the deal and the agreement put the nation’s security at risk.
Himes, however, says the agreement has stopped Iran from becoming a nuclear power, something he’s able to verify because he sits on the House Intelligence Committee and receives hours of classified briefings each week.
Besides being nearly the same age, both men are married and have young children.
A low-profile race
Rose said the race between Himes and Shaban has barely caused a ripple on the political scene this year.
Of Shaban, Rose said, “He’s probably one of the lowest-profile challengers I’ve seen in that district in a long, long time.”
One reason for the quiet campaign is that Shaban has trailed in fundraising. According to the latest reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission, he’s raised about $60,000.
Meanwhile, Himes reported more than $1 million in cash on hand as of March 31.
Shaban conceded that it’s been difficult to raise money and get the word out, which he’s been doing by holding events at restaurants and peoples’ homes.
He says “national politics”– meaning the heated presidential race – “has disturbed fundraising.”
“It’s distracting [donors] who are saying, ‘It’s too early; it’s too early; I’m still looking at all this other stuff,” Shaban said.
The roar of the presidential race also may have helped drown out any noise the Himes-Shaban contest may have made.
Both candidates say whoever ends up at the top of their party’s ticket will impact the race, but they’re not sure exactly how.
“I know it will move the needle; I just don’t know which way,” Shaban said.
Shaban said he favored New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie earlier in the presidential campaign, but now says he will support the Republican nominee.
Himes is a supporter of Hillary Clinton and a big fundraiser for her campaign.
He says the battle over the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations “are like tectonic plates” shifting noisily over his campaign.
The battle between Clinton and Bernie Sanders has been intense, but “it does not hold a candle to the civil war on the Republican side,” he said.
Himes also thinks Clinton will be his party’s nominee and help “down-ballot” Democrats like him.
Rose agrees Clinton will play well in the 4th District, but says Sanders could change the dynamic.
“I don’t’ think people in much of Fairfield County will vote for a socialist,” he said.
As far as Trump, Rose said the controversial Republican has the support of a lot of business people in the district who admire the real estate mogul’s ability to make money.
“Trump could help Shaban,” Rose said.
Shaban promised to turn up the volume of the campaign after the GOP convention, which was held on May 9. Now that his candidacy became official at that convention, he expects donors to take their focus off the presidential race a bit and support his campaign..
“It’s just a matter of getting the word out and having the money to do it,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had a wrong margin of victory for Himes in 2014.