Conn. Republicans Eye Race Against Freshman Courtney

Posted April 9, 2007 at 5:24pm

The Connecticut Republican Party’s victory celebration last year probably could have been held in a phone booth as Gov. Jodi Rell and Rep. Christopher Shays were the lone GOP victors for statewide or federal office.

But Republicans in the Constitution State say they are rebuilding and have not been relegated to minority party status permanently.

“We know what we have to do,” said Chris Healey, the state party chairman. “Our bench is very deep and strong and we just have a lot of good, talented people — I just think we are going to be successful in ’08.”[IMGCAP(1)]

Healey sounds pretty optimistic for a man who saw his party lose two House seats and every statewide office below lieutenant governor. But he points to the municipal level when explaining why the GOP is not dead in Connecticut.

“We have about a dozen elected officials who are in great position to move into other offices in the future,” Healey said. “We have [Republican] mayors in good-sized cities where there hadn’t been in a long time.”

Mark Boughton, mayor of Danbury, is exhibit A for Healey. The city in the southwestern corner of the 5th district has a population of just under 80,000.

The 5th was represented by former Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) from 1983 until this January. She was defeated by now-Rep. Christopher Murphy (D) in November’s Democratic wave.

Boughton, who first won election in 2001, is up for re-election this year. Healey says he could see the former state Representative running for statewide or federal office some day.

New Britain, population 76,000, is another GOP bright spot, Healey said. Democrats outnumber Republicans 8-1, according to Healey, but Tim Stewart (R) was elected mayor in 2005. Also in 2005, Sebastian Giuliano (R) ousted eight-year incumbent Domenique Thornton (D) in reliably Democratic Middletown by just 807 votes.

Finally, Healey sees big things for Torrington’s young mayor, Ryan Bingham.

First elected in 2005 at the age of 22, Bingham has energized Republicans in the city of 35,000. Torrington straddles the 5th and 1st districts, while Middletown is in Rep. John Larson’s (D) 1st district.

State Rep. Anthony D’Amelio (R) has a real shot at winning the mayoralty of one of the state’s biggest cities, according to Healey.

Mike Jarjura (D) has led Waterbury, population 107,000, since 2001, but Healey thinks D’Amelio can make a race of things.

Healey said this year’s municipal elections could be crucial.

“If you have a friendly mayor in those towns, it helps,” he said.

Waterbury also is in the 5th district.

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said 2006 proved that the Constitution State is firmly in the Democrats’ column.

“I disagree with my counterpart as far as Republicans having a deep bench,” she said. “We’ve seen over and over again that they don’t have a very deep bench.”

In addition to picking off Johnson and former Rep. Rob Simmons (R), Democrats won supermajorities in the both the state House and Senate.

Healey said the GOP will field a full complement of federal candidates in 2008.

Larson faced no serious challenge last year. He won with 74 percent of the vote against a Republican opponent who did not raise any money.

Healey said that will not happen next year but was not prepared to say what viable candidate he has on the line.

In the 2nd, two impressive GOPers want a shot at freshman Rep. Joe Courtney (D), who unseated Simmons by less than 100 votes.

Sean Sullivan of Norwich is putting together a campaign. A graduate of the Naval Academy, Sullivan was base commander of the Groton Naval Base, among other assignments, before retiring from the Navy in 2006.

Dan Craig, who served at the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2001 to 2005, also is mulling a bid. Currently a lawyer in private practice with a Washington, D.C.-based firm, he lives in Deep River, in Middlesex County.

Republicans would love to win back the 2nd, but Simmons has ruled out a rematch — at least for this cycle.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) has no trouble winning re-election in the New Haven-based 3rd district, but Healey said she will not get a pass.

Republicans feel Shays could be “bullet-proof” now, given that he still is standing after all the ammunition Democrats threw at him in the previous two cycles.

Nonetheless, he remains a top Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee target.

Two Democrats are seriously eyeing his 4th district seat: state Rep. Jim Shapiro and Jim Himes, a leader in the Greenwich Democratic Party. State Sen. Bob Duff also has begun taking a look at Shays, who beat Democrat Diane Farrell 51 percent to 48 percent last year. Farrell also captured 48 percent of the vote against Shays in 2004.

Many Democrats think Shays benefited from the unusual situation that saw Ned Lamont snatch the Democratic Senate nomination from Sen. Joe Lieberman. Lieberman then chose to seek re-election as an Independent. His candidacy ended up drawing more Republicans out in some places, according to local Democrats.

“The Lamont-Lieberman primary certainly did cause some problems in some cities and towns, but everybody is recognizing that that election is over and we need to move forward [as] Democrats, both in the upcoming [local] elections and the Congressional and presidential races in 2008,” DiNardo said.

Just as the DCCC is eager to finally defeat Shays, the National Republican Congressional Committee would like to reclaim the 2nd and the more Republican-friendly 5th district.

Murphy won a decisive 56 percent to 44 percent victory over Johnson, but that has not stopped Republicans from talking big about unseating the young lawyer.

State Sens. David Cappiello of Danbury and Sam Caligiuri of Waterbury are eyeing Murphy. Cappiello previously served in the state House, while Caligiuri was a Waterbury alderman and acting mayor.

Healey is upbeat because of the state’s new campaign finance law.

Any legislative candidate who chooses to participate and raises the minimum amount required — $5,000 for the state House, $15,000 for the Senate — will get matching funds.

“Republicans now will be able to be competitive in any state legislative seat we choose, and that will help our Congressional races as well,” he said.

DiNardo said the law will not hurt Democrats.

“We recognize the campaign finance law is going to afford more people the opportunity to run, but it will also allow Democrats to run in areas that might not have run before,” she said. “I don’t think [the law] favors one side or the other.”

Democrats, rightfully so, feel as if they are on offense.

“It was an exciting election last year, and we have built up the momentum that we anticipate will definitely carry us through the ’07 and ’08 elections,” DiNardo said.

DiNardo says her bench runs several rows deep for each House and Senate seat.

While no Democratic incumbent is expected to retire, people always are waiting in the wings.

In the 1st district, state Sen. Paul Doyle and state Rep. Antonio Guerrera are seen as up-and-comers.

State House Speaker James Amann, House Minority Leader Christopher Donovan, state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney and state Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams Jr. could all seek statewide office or run for Congress down the road, DiNardo said.

Williams lives in the 2nd, but with Courtney just getting settled in, ambitious Democrats know they could be in for a long wait.

The 3rd boasts Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, who lost to Rell 61 percent to 31 percent last year.

Besides the Democrats who have already expressed interest in taking on Shays, state Sen. Andrew McDonald and state Rep. William Tong both have what it takes to run for Congress, DiNardo said.

Murphy is new, too, but down the road state Rep. Demetrios Giannaros and Jarjura, the Waterbury mayor, could step up if need be in the 5th.