Everyone expected the race between freshman U.S. Rep. Jim Himes and challenger state Sen. Dan Debicella to be a squeaker. It wasn’t. Voters in the 4th district re-elected Himes by roughly the same number of votes he’d won by in 2008 (around 13,000) despite turnout declining by a third. In short, Himes increased his margin of victory during the most Republican year we’ve seen since 1994. This is supposed to be a swing district?
The truth, borne out by the numbers, is that Connecticut’s once solidly Republican 4th district has been growing more and more open to the Democratic Party for a decade. Republicans once blew Democrats out of the water in this district. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays routinely crushed opponents by 30 percent and more, and three Republicans managed to hold the district for a remarkable forty straight years. But that dominance has been eroding ever since 2004’s surprisingly tight race, in which Shays narrowly defeated Democrat Diane Farrell. The last Republican voters in the 4th supported for president was the first George Bush in 1992, and Shays himself was defeated in 2008.
The maps show the story of an increasing blue tide overtaking the district. Note especially how Norwalk and Stamford change from relatively weak Democratic support to very strong, and how Greenwich’s Republican margin shrinks. Other towns fluctuate, but this pie chart shows that Democrat Himes is increasingly winning support in the towns where the most votes are.
There was a lot of hope that Republicans could recapture Himes’s seat in 2010 amidst a national Republican wave, and they recruited a top-tier (for them) candidate in Dan Debicella. But Debicella’s campaign faltered, and Himes actually managed to to win in towns he’d lost to Shays in 2008. Polls suggested a win for 3-4 percent: Himes pulled out a 6 percent victory. It was the largest margin of victory, percentage-wise, seen in the district since Shays crushed Stephanie Sanchez in 2002.
This year the Republican field doesn’t look all that promising. The first candidate, a little-known Darien businessman named David Orner, just announced his candidacy in early October. By contrast, Debicella announced his own campaign in August 2009. A late-entering, unknown field can often be a sign of weakness. Debicella has hinted he may run again, but if he wants to do that he should probably make up his mind soon. This field reminds me more of the lackluster challengers to U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney of the 2nd District in 2008 and 2010 than the tightly-contested toss-ups we’ve seen in the 4th in the past.
There isn’t even a lot of potential in redistricting, as the district is right around where it needs to be already in terms of population. Even if the district shifts, where would it go to make it more Republican? Any gains Republicans might make would be carved out of the 5th, which is the real swing district this election cycle.
Why are Republicans facing such hard times in a district they once carried with ease? True, the region’s demographics are shifting some over time, and the population is a bit more friendly towards Democrats. The real problem, however, is that the sorts of moderate-to-liberal Republicans who used to represent the district, from Lowell Weicker to Stewart McKinney to Chris Shays, have almost entirely vanished as Republicans nationally and locally move right. The abysmal level of support for Shays’ U.S. Senate run may be a symptom of this.
GOP state chair Jerry Labriola seems to think his party’s chances are good, though. “It’s a Republican seat,” Labriola said, “And we aim to take it back.” Sadly for Labriola, it’s not a Republican seat any longer, and their chances of taking it back in 2012 seem remote.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.