Democrats Hope Blueprint for Shays Works on Johnson

Posted April 4, 2005 at 6:35pm

National Democrats are hoping to follow the blueprint that led to the near-defeat of Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays (R) last cycle to oust fellow Constitution State Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) in 2006.

Late last week House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) traveled to the northwestern Connecticut 5th district to talk to potential challengers to Johnson. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has twice attacked the Congresswoman for her alleged “flip-flops” on Social Security in the past two months.

“We are looking very closely at the seat,” said DCCC spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg. “We believe it is a marginal district and one that we can win.”

A number of names have been floated as potential candidates but Democrats seem most keen on state Sen. Chris Murphy, who moved into the district in February and is openly contemplating a run.

J. Paul Vance Jr., president of the Waterbury Board of Aldermen, is the only Democrat to file a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, however.

“I put my name out there,” Vance said in an interview late last week. “If Chris Murphy or anyone else wants [the nomination] they have to take it from me.”

Vance acknowledged he is not widely known district-wide but believes people do recognize his name since his father is the lead spokesman for the Connecticut State Police.

Regardless of the eventual Democratic nominee, Johnson has shown a capacity to beat back strong challenges — most recently when she defeated then Rep. Jim Maloney (D) in a redistricting-forced matchup in 2002.

“Nancy beat a tough, battle-tested Democratic Congressman two years ago by 11 points,” said Johnson’s chief of staff, Dave Karvelas. “We take every election seriously … but obviously Nancy’s independent style of leadership resonates with the voters of the 5th district.”

Even so, national Democrats believe the toss-up nature of her seat (President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry each received 49 percent there in 2004) make it imperative that they make a serious run at her this cycle.

Feinberg accused Johnson of hedging on Bush’s Social Security reform plan, and called it evidence that “she knows she is in danger.”

That same strategic philosophy led the DCCC to target Shays, who had not had a serious race since winning his seat in a 1986 special election.

Former Westport First Selectwoman Diane Farrell was the Democratic nominee and ran a solid and well-financed campaign — holding Shays to 52 percent. She is considering a return run in 2006.

The comparison between Johnson and Shays is not entirely exact, however.

Shays and Johnson are both considered moderates within the GOP Conference but he has regularly run afoul of party leadership while she is considered much more of a loyalist.

Johnson is also the most senior woman in the House and the longest-serving House Member in Connecticut history.

And while Shays had not faced a real test in more than 15 years before last cycle, Johnson has repeatedly weathered tough Democratic challenges.

“Nancy Johnson’s team knows how to run a campaign and she is a seasoned, experienced, tough, aggressive campaigner,” said one Republican consultant who has worked in the state.

Several Republicans interviewed for this story pointed out that Johnson’s political close calls have kept her campaign mechanism in sound shape.

By contrast, former Republican Members like George Gekas (Pa.) and Phil Crane (Ill.) were defeated in the 2002 and 2004, respectively, after struggling to restart their campaign apparatus following decades of disuse.

Johnson’s closest race came in 1996 when she defeated 1994 Democratic nominee Charlotte Koskoff by 1,587 votes.

Despite beating Koskoff two years earlier by 32 points, Johnson found herself in a political near-death experience due to her role as chairwoman on the House Ethics Committee and close ties to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), as well the extremely poor performance by Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole in the Northeast.

Koskoff made a third race in 1998 but was easily bested by Johnson 58 percent to 40 percent.

Four years later, Johnson saw her 6th district combined with the 5th district that Maloney had held since 1996.

The new 5th was drawn as a “fair fight” seat by a bipartisan redistricting commission.

It included 51 percent of Maloney’s old district and 49 percent of Johnson’s; registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by 13,000.

Johnson ran an extremely strong campaign, raising and spending better than $3 million. She defeated Maloney 54 percent to 43 percent, carrying 37 of the 41 cities and towns in the new district.