Shays lost badly in cities

November 5, 2008 5:50:48 PM PST
U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays was a master at surviving close elections in a diverse Connecticut district that includes some of America's richest towns and deep pockets of poverty. But he was no match for the long coattails of Barack Obama in Tuesday's election, as the rustier part of Connecticut's Gold Coast spoke loudly for his challenger, Democrat Jim Himes.

Shays was trounced in Bridgeport, Connecticut's largest city, as well as Stamford and Norwalk, as he lost his 11th bid for re-election. When he leaves office in January, there will be no New England Republicans in the House of Representatives.

"It's a phenomenon that he was up against," said Gary Rose, politics professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. "In many ways he was really running against the Obama mystique than he was running against Himes."

Shays had to persuade voters like Shirley Corley, a nurse who called Obama's candidacy "ordained by God."

"Our God, he knows everything," Corley said. "I feel with the way the world is going now, he was chosen for such a time as this."

Corley, who lives in Bridgeport, said she believed she voted long ago for Shays, but this time chose Himes and other Democrats hoping together they could achieve change.

Shays said he had no regrets in his battle against Himes, a former Goldman Sachs vice president who now runs an affordable housing organization.

"If you think we lost this race because we didn't go negative, you're just wrong," Shays said Tuesday. "We lost this race because we did our very best but we had this tsunami that was on its way."

Himes said Wednesday that he, Obama and other Democrats benefited from voters' overwhelming desire for change, and he offered some praise for Shays.

"As I've said over and over again, this is a man who could have done anything and he chose to serve his country," Himes said. "I'm sure yesterday was a hard day for him, but he was very gracious as usual when he called me."

Tuesday's election was the third highly competitive race in a row for Shays. Former Westport First Selectman Diane Farrell made the war in Iraq the focus of her 2004 and 2006 campaigns, which Shays narrowly won with 52 percent of the vote in 2004 and 51 percent in 2006.

But this time Shays won only about 20 percent of the vote in Bridgeport, where he lives. In 2006 and the last presidential election in 2004, he got about 30 percent.

Shays also lost by wider margins in Stamford and Norwalk than he did in earlier elections.

Georgia Day, a professor at Fairfield University, said she voted for Shays but felt he did not campaign enough in Bridgeport.

"Frankly, I was really surprised," Day said. "Himes is practically unknown. I think Obama renewed hope, especially in the African-American community in Bridgeport. There was a larger turnout."

Corley, who is black, said she was on a train heading to work the night shift when a man began shouting that Obama had won.

"We just started clapping and hollering," Corley said. "There were thumbs up. One young gentleman, he had a smile, a full-face smile. I knew why he was smiling. I said to him, 'Yes!"' While some supporters said Shays should have defended his record more from attacks, Rose said Shays ran a good campaign and made no major gaffes. Shays had to contend with anger toward President Bush and the economic crisis, while Himes raised a lot of money and had strong backing from national Democrats, Rose said.

Despite the woes of Republicans in New England, Shays could go on to higher office as a senator or governor, Rose predicted.

"I do think he's capable of winning a statewide election," Rose said. "He is such a moderate Republican."