Northeast Dispatch

Farrell-Shays squeaker in Connecticut

| Tue Oct. 31, 2006 4:00 AM EST

NEW YORK--In the House midterm elections, 7 seats held by Republican incumbents are now rated as leaning Democratic, while 18 more are too close to call, according to Congressional Quarterly. If 8 of those 18 neck-and-neck seats go to Democrats, they will win their majority in the House. While the New York Times and a host of other media are characterizing many of the challengers as Blue Dog-type conservative Dems, pivotal races in the Northeast tell a different--and somewhat more complicated--story.

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Some of the closest--and feistiest--races in the Northeast are being fought by independent-minded Democratic women, up from the ranks of state and local politics. Representing mostly affluent, fiscally conservative districts in moderate blue states, they are emphasizing newly significant twenty-first century issues like stem cell research and support for first responders, along with the war in Iraq, while seeking--with varying success--to turn the tables on the usual attacks on tax-and-spend liberals.

In Connecticut’s 4th District, made up of mostly upscale white suburbs of New York City with smatterings of poverty in depressed cities like Bridgeport, Diane Farrell, two-term First Selectwoman in the tony town of Westport, is neck and neck with moderate Republican Christopher Shays, who beat her by 4 percentage points in 2004. A poll by local newspapers this week has Farrell 4 points up, with one third of the respondents citing the war as the single most important issue in determining their vote.

Shays is often pictured as a hesitant supporter of Bush policies in Iraq, and recently came out with a timeline for withdrawal, but his earlier votes for the war seem to have taken their toll. And while a majority of voters said Bush's overall performance would have no effect on how they vote, they may agree with the New York Times, which, after endorsing Shays in all previous races, came out for Farrell last Wednesday: "Mr. Shays has been a good congressman, but not good enough to overcome the fact that his re-election would help empower a party that is long overdue for a shakeup."

While benefiting from voters’ hostility toward the Republican establishment in Washington, Farrell keeps the focus local in her campaign events. The day the Times endorsement appeared, she was at the Westport fire department along with police and firefighters to describe how the town's application for Homeland Security funds had been ignored in Washington. Instead, the fire department had to build their own interactive communications system for first responders--all with local money. Homeland Security is a sensitive issue in this district, where many commute to New York City.

If the Shays-Farrell race is any measure, Republican efforts to depict Democrats as weak on national security don’t seem to be finding the same purchase now that they might have four or even two years ago. In Westport, police and firefighters seem taken aback by the Republican National Committee's attack on Farrell, claiming she had actually voted to cut funds from first responders. "Diane Farrell has questionable priorities," reads one RNC ad. "Diane Farrell has supported cutting police and fire funding." But Farrell produced Westport Board of Finance minutes from 1997 claiming it demonstrates she has supported the police by voting with a minority to restore money. "That [referring to the Shays ad] is just a complete falsehood," Farrell said at the firehouse. "This is junk." In a letter read at the firehouse, police chief Alfred R. Fiore supported her position: "This statement is very misleading and could not be more wrong when it comes to Diane Farrell's support for public safety." The fire chief expressed the same sentiments.

Asked about the main issues in the campaign, Farrell said, "The war in Iraq is the number one issue. Then the economy." Asked, "Is Bush himself an issue?" she replied "Without a doubt."

But Phil Ochs described American liberals as "Ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center when it affects them personally." What may matter most, in Connecticut’s 4th as in other high-tax-bracket districts, is whether Farrell can succeed in painting the Republicans as a party of fiscal profligacy (without harping on their tax cuts, which some constituents may like quite well).

On her website, Farrell is upbeat but studiously vague on potentially costly social programs like education and health care, but declares: "The one issue I think we can all agree is the need for fiscal responsibility. . . . Forget mortgaging our future and our children’s future: President Bush and the Republican-led Congress--with Chris Shays as a loyal friend--are in the process of mortgaging our grandchildren’s future!" If she can convince voters to think this way, they won’t be torn between voting their conscience and voting heir pocketbooks.

Tomorrow: Linda Stender's fight to unseat Mike Ferguson in New Jersey's 7th Congressional District.

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