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Shays may be vulnerable
Shays may be vulnerable
Shays may be vulnerable
Brad Durrell, Perspective
July 15, 2004
After 17 years in Congress, U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays is facing his toughest race for re-election.
Democratic Westport First Selectman Diane Farrell, who has been raising campaign funds at an impressive rate, is challenging the Republican from Black Rock.
In fact, there is a possibility that Farrell may actually outspend Shays, although it's doubtful the GOP hierarchy in Washington will allow that to happen.
Shays, a proven vote getter in the Fourth District, is a moderate Republican who often opposes his much more conservative party leadership in the U.S. House.
He is a liberal on most social issues, such as the environment, abortion, gay rights and gun control, but more conservative on issues involving national security and fiscal matters.
One of his specialties has been combating terrorism, and his name has been floated as a possible new CIA director. However, that won't happen for a long list of political and technical reasons.
Farrell has been complaining that Shays has quietly moved to the right, particularly when it comes to the budget and the war in Iraq.
Shays has been a strong supporter of invading Iraq, and has visited the country a number of times since the U.S.-led coalition drove dictator Saddam Hussein out of power last year.
He knows his support of the war may make him vulnerable, but he is holding firm. He points to the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the nation to justify his position on the war, noting his district lost many people at the World Trade Center.
Farrell is using her involvement in regional transportation issues to criticize Shays for not doing more to stop gridlock on Fairfield County highways.
People are frustrated about congestion, but it's uncertain if they will blame their congressman. Shays has been out front on seeking solutions, promoting ideas such as high-speed ferries and container ports, but most of the answers have to come at the state level.
Still, it may be an effective line of attack by Farrell, especially when she begins airing drive-time radio commercials on the issue to sway the minds of frustrated commuters.
Farrell's candidacy has begun to be noticed in political circles, with more pundits looking at the race as potentially competitive. That's not good for a longtime incumbent.
Former presidential candidate Howard Dean was in Bridgeport Sunday to promote Farrell's candidacy and raise money for her campaign.
Dean apparently is good at reading the talking points put in front of him because he offered many specific criticisms of Shays' record, yet likely knows little about Shays.
Dean has been getting involved in targeted races around the country, supporting progressive candidates as part of an effort to keep his grassroots coalition alive.
The Fourth District is not an easy place to knock off an incumbent. One of the major reasons is the divided media market, with many people in lower Fairfield County preferring to watch New York television stations instead of Connecticut stations.
While the popularity of cable-TV has changed this situation a bit, allowing candidates to buy ads on cable stations, it's still hard to change a campaign's outcome with TV advertising in Fairfield County.
That leaves radio and direct mail, as well as the free media, for Farrell to build up her image, promote her positions and tear down Shays.
She likely will go heavily negative and will have the campaign budget to make an impact. Shays will have to fire back, because if he sticks to his traditional upbeat approach while being attacked, he may not survive.
Mayor John M. Fabrizi could play an important role in the campaign for Congress.
Fabrizi has to work well with Shays because they share a mutual interest in making Bridgeport a better place.
However, Fabrizi still remembers the role Shays played in the campaign of his 2003 Republican opponent, Enrique "Rick" Torres. Shays cut a radio ad for Torres.
Expect to see Fabrizi around town promoting Farrell. It's doubtful Fabrizi will directly attack Shays, though.
As a Republican, Shays has never done well in Bridgeport. He came close to winning the city against a particularly weak opponent in 1998 but lost by an almost 2-to-1 margin against a stronger candidate in 2000.
Presidential election years can be particularly troublesome for a Republican in the Fourth District, and GOP incumbent George W. Bush isn't expected to do well at the top of the ticket here this year.
For a popular incumbent, Shays got somewhat of a scare in 2000 by an aggressive but under-funded opponent. He won 119,155 to 84,472.
He defeated the same opponent by a much wider margin, 113,197 to 62,491, in a 2002 rematch, helped by having then-popular Gov. John G. Rowland at the top of the ticket and a district altered to his advantage by redistricting.
In fact, the new district may be Shays' ace in the hole. Due to the 2000 census, the Fourth District was altered for the 2002 election from 10 towns to 17 towns, and most of the new communities are strongly Republican.
The new district also dilutes the impact of Bridgeport, a heavily Democratic city.
What threatens Shays' prospects the most now is his position on the war, and how that plays out will be determined by what takes place in Iraq, but Farrell will continue to criticize him as a closet right-winger.
Her criticism is sort or ironic since Shays is extremely unpopular with conservatives in the nation's capital. His independence just doesn't make him reliable enough for the GOP hierarchy.
This column represents the opinion of Brad Durrell and does not necessarily reflect the views of Hometown Publications.
©Hometown Publications 2004