On Wednesday, Democrat U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney was nominated at the second district convention in Enfield for a fifth term. Republicans will soon nominate a challenger. Who? It doesn’t really matter — they have no chance against Courtney. That’s a big, ongoing problem for Republicans, and for our democracy.
We’re used to at least a couple of safe seats for Democrats here — the first and the third districts are solid locks for U.S. Reps. John Larson and Rosa DeLauro. But when did all five seats become safe? How did some of the most competitive House seats in the nation a decade ago turn into dull-as-dishwater strolls for Democratic incumbents?
Republicans are likely to protest that the fifth and fourth districts have the potential to be competitive, but this is not true. They’re safe. The reasons why have less to do with the appeal of Democrats, and more to do with the fading relevance of the Republican Party in both this state and in New England generally.
Let’s examine things district by district:
This is where the change between 2004 and 2014 is most stark. In 2004 Republican Rob Simmons fended off yet another tough challenge from a well-funded Democrat; in this case, Norwich city councilman Jim Sullivan. Simmons won all but 10 of the 64 towns in the district, losing only Norwich, New London, two of the more liberal lower Connecticut River towns, and a group of towns centered on the University of Connecticut. But by 2006 Simmons was gone following a razor-thin loss to former state Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Vernon, and the district hasn’t seen a close race since.
Courtney carried every town in 2008 and 2012. The only year he didn’t was 2010, a Republican wave year. His outreach efforts are commendable, but Republicans in general are losing ground here; Obama won the mostly rural district by over 40,000 in 2012. This is why Courtney’s opponents are nonentities. Given how little money they’re raising, few people are interested.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, is also the beneficiary of shifting party allegiances and the ebb of national Republicans. In 2010, when Himes was a relatively vulnerable freshman running for re-election during a Republican wave year, he managed to win what was once one of the safest GOP districts in the region by 6 points. In 2012 once staunchly Republican towns like Fairfield, Weston, Westport, and even Greenwich voted for the Democrat. Himes is the kind of business-focused moderate the district can get behind, and in a money-focused district he has far out-fundraised his opponents.
Even more good news for Himes: He may end up facing the same opponent he defeated in the Republican wave of 2010, former state Sen. Dan Debicella, R-Shelton. Very few people truly believe there’s an upset brewing here.
This seems like the juiciest, lowest-hanging fruit for Republicans. Moderate, well-liked Republican Andrew Roraback lost the district to Elizabeth Esty by only about 8,000 votes in an open seat race in 2012, despite Obama carrying the district by more than 25,000 votes.
On the face of it, 2014 is a perfect opportunity for Republicans to take this seat back. Esty, who doesn’t play well with the Democratic base, is still not a particularly strong candidate. It’s likely that whoever Republicans nominate for governor will do well in the northwest corner of the state, and turnout for Democrats won’t be as strong as it was in 2012.
But Republicans seem set on nominating Mark Greenberg to run against Esty this year. His honesty and willingness to stand up to John Rowland is commendable, but he also is an unabashed social conservative. It’s difficult to believe that any Connecticut district will elect someone who says he “can’t sympathize with homosexuality” and is stringently pro-life.
This is not an aberration. Roraback was one of the last of a dying breed of moderate Republicans —people like Rob Simmons, Nancy Johnson, M. Jodi Rell, and Chris Shays — who could actually compete strongly in major races. There are precious few like him out there now.
The national GOP has less and less to offer places like Westport, Waterford, and Waterbury, where social tolerance mixes with pragmatic business sense. State Republicans have known that they have a national party problem for over a decade, but have done nothing about it.
So all three seats are likely safe for Democrats. This is great news for them, but not such great news for democracy. Republicans desperately need a renaissance of ideas and people in this state, both to be competitive and to make our democracy strong again.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.