Pols Assessing Shays’ Stand

Posted April 12, 2005 at 5:28pm

As political Washington sought to assess the impact of Connecticut Republican Rep. Christopher Shays’ comments regarding the conduct of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), party strategists and potential candidates began to spin its impact on Shays’ re-election prospects in 2006.

At a town hall meeting Saturday in Greenwich, Conn., Shays called DeLay “an absolute embarrassment to me and to the Republican Party,” later adding that the Texan should step down from his leadership position.

Some Republican leaders were furious — but not enough to jeopardize Shays’ financial support from the party for what is likely to be a tough re-election battle next year.

DeLay has been repeatedly admonished by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and several of his close associates are under investigation in Texas for allegedly accepting illegal campaign contributions.

While Shays backed off his comments somewhat Monday, he did not recant them — standing by his assertion that DeLay is hurting vulnerable Republicans seeking re-election in 2006.

Leading that list is Shays himself; he won a 52 percent to 48 percent victory over former Westport First Selectwoman Diane Farrell (D) in 2004 and is expected to be a major target again in 2006.

Farrell will make a final decision on a rematch in the next few weeks but sounded very much like a candidate when reached Monday.

“Chris is a consummate politician,” Farrell said. “It is safe to say this was a calculated decision on his part that garners him national attention and makes him look like an independent.”

For his part, Shays said Tuesday that “you have no way of knowing how it impacts your campaign.”

“In my 31 years in politics, I have learned that you just do your job and you live with the consequences,” he added.

Without a doubt, Shays had little to lose within the Republican Conference by publicly distancing himself from DeLay.

The Connecticut Republican has long been a persona non grata among GOP leaders because of his willingness to buck the party on crucial issues — most notably campaign finance reform.

Following the 2002 election, Shays was passed over as chairman of the Government Reform Committee in favor of Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R), who had chaired the party’s campaign committee for the previous two cycles.

Last December, Shays was removed from the House Budget Committee, and, despite his narrow win in 2004, he was not included in the Retain Our Majority Program that raises money from within the GOP Conference for its most vulnerable incumbents.

In light of his most recent comments about DeLay, California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) on Monday called Shays “disloyal to the party and to people as individuals.”

One Republican leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Shays’ comments came as no surprise given his past relationship with DeLay.

“There are two Republican Members who have criticized Tom DeLay,” said the aide. “[Colorado Rep.] Joel Hefley and Chris Shays, and both have an ax to grind.”

Hefley was removed as chairman of the ethics committee in early February by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Regardless of Shays’ unpopularity within the Conference, he will have the full financial support of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which doesn’t want the seat falling into Democratic hands in 2006, according to informed sources.

At home, Shays’ stance on DeLay is likely to pay political dividends.

The affluent district, which encompasses much of the southwestern portion of the Nutmeg State, went for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) by 6 points in the 2004 presidential race and is generally to the ideological left of the current Republican Congress.

In their 2004 race, Farrell worked to portray Shays as a loyal DeLay foot soldier — with mixed results.

“A lot of what motivated me initially was outrage at DeLay and the Texas redistricting,” Farrell said, adding that national strategists warned her against linking Shays to the Majority Leader in 2004.

The hubbub over DeLay’s ethical problems in the past four months ensures that he will be much more of an issue in the race this time around, according to Farrell.

“A lot more voters know who Tom DeLay is now than did at the time of the election,” she said.

Farrell acknowledged that Shays’ condemnation of DeLay helps put distance between the two in the minds of voters. However, she believes that Shays’ past comments on the Texan reveal that his latest move is an act of political expediency.

Both Farrell and Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, pointed to a series of actions by Shays to back up that idea.

In October 2004, Shays said that DeLay had been a “great Majority Leader,” although he did not think the Texas Member would ever become Speaker. Just last month, Shays said that Republicans “are very grateful to Tom for his absolute dedication to this party and for having worked so hard to increase our majority.”

Shays also voted against an attempt by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to reverse several rules changes governing the ethics committee that Republicans instituted at the start of the 109th Congress. Hefley was the lone Republican to support that measure.

Shays has, however, signed on to a resolution introduced by ethics ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) that would roll back the Republican rule changes.

Mollohan is expected to seek a discharge petition to force a floor vote on the measure later this month; Shays has said he would not support such a move.

“Chris Shays loves to call himself a moderate, but the reality is he has voted with DeLay a huge amount of the time,” Feinberg said. “Now that he finds himself in political trouble Chris Shays is trying to distance himself from the Majority Leader, but it is too little, too late.”