Democratic Primary Spices Up Connecticut Race

Posted July 7, 2008 at 6:32pm

It’s unclear whether a primary is a good or bad thing for Greenwich Democratic Town Committee Chairman Jim Himes, who is the chosen candidate of party leaders this year to face Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.).

For Democrats, Shays is the Republican who keeps coming back. When every other Republican House Member in New England lost in 2006, Shays held on in a southern Connecticut district that Democrats carried in the past three presidential contests.

Yet when Democrats tapped Himes early on in 2007 to challenge Shays, they likely did not anticipate a candidate like attorney Lee Whitnum (D) getting into the race. But so far, the first primary in a decade for the 4th district is not necessarily a bad thing for Democrats.

“It is often said that, you know, a primary is good because it allows the candidates that are in the primary the opportunity to get press that they might not have gotten if there wasn’t a primary,” state Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said. “However, I do think that Jim has been out there already, issuing press releases and campaigning and running against Shays for over a year now. Then again, he might be getting more press than he would have gotten if there weren’t a primary.”

Whitnum also surfaced as a candidate in 2007, but she kept a low profile and did not file any financial reports with the Federal Election Commission until late April of this year, leaving Democratic officials confused about whether she was actually running.

Himes received a unanimous endorsement by his fellow Democrats at their state meeting recently, but Whitnum is forcing a primary with the required 3,000 signatures to get on the Aug. 12 ballot. As a result, DiNardo said that she has taken a step back from the race to ensure that she remains neutral between the two candidates.

Whitnum has attracted attention because of her colorful past. She has penned a risqué novel and reportedly dated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) more than 15 years ago — and published an online scrapbook about their relationship in 2004.

More recently, Democratic officials say, Whitnum has harassed them on the phone and in person at their homes at all hours of the day and night in an attempt to discuss the race.

Whitnum did not return a phone call request for an interview.

But despite all of this, DiNardo is not alone in welcoming a primary. Himes said he’s “delighted” to see democracy at work.

“It’s an opportunity to tell my story in what might be an interesting context, so I’m delighted,” he said.

Himes declined to discuss Whitnum’s viability as a candidate, though most Democrats believe her candidacy will barely register among voters.

However, Shays’ campaign manager, Michael Sohn, warned that Whitnum should be taken seriously.

“I’ve been through enough races in this district and in this state now, being in this business for 12 years, that you shouldn’t be so dismissive of any opponent,” Sohn said.

But the determining factor in this race likely will not have much to do with Shays, Himes or even Whitnum. The effects of presidential-year turnout could be the biggest factor in the 4th district. That’s why Democrats are looking to urban areas in the district such as Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford to turn out big for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in November.

“I think we’ll see particularly high turnout into our city, and getting that turnout has always been a challenge in this district,” Himes said.

Almost twice as many Democrats as Republicans voted in the Feb. 5 presidential primary in the 4th district.

Sohn chalks that up to excitement surrounding the Democratic nominating contest and maintains that presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), one of Shays’ closest allies in Congress, will do well in the state.

“I think there was more excitement on the Democrats’ side between the two candidates than there were between the Republicans on the two sides,” he said. “Connecticut is a very strong state for Sen. McCain.”

The 4th district race could be one of the most expensive in the country because it constitutes part of the New York City media market. While the National Republican Congressional Committee helped out in 2006, it’s unclear whether the cash-strapped committee can do the same in 2008.

“I’m sure they’ll help in some way. I’m sure they’ll be helpful,” Sohn said. “Chris is the only Republican incumbent left in New England, but I think they also have a lot of good, quality challenger candidates. … But they’ll be there. They’ll be supportive of Chris.”

Adam Wood, campaign manager for Diane Farrell, the Democratic nominee who fell just short in 2004 and 2006, said the cash difference between the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the NRCC will be the key factor in the 2008 race. At the end of May, the DCCC had $47.2 million in the bank compared with the NRCC’s $6.7 million.

“I think the biggest key difference is that the NRCC has no money compared to the DCCC,” Wood said. “That’s a huge competitive advantage for the Democratic candidate in this district because it is the most expensive media market in the country.”

NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley expressed confidence that Shays can continue to hold onto his seat against all odds.

“After many cycles of beating back tough opponents and winning in tough environments, this year will be no different for Chris Shays,” Shutley said. “Jim Himes is doing a lot of talking about what he may or may not do, but Chris Shays has actually been doing, accomplishing and delivering for the people of the 4th district. There is just no comparison between their records for Connecticut.”

However, a spokeswoman for the DCCC pointed to Shays’ ever-lengthening record as the reason voters will finally kick him out of office this cycle.

“Chris Shays’ record is going to catch up with him this year,” DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James said. “Connecticut families are tired of Chris Shays’ support for increased taxes and high gas prices — Jim Himes offers an alternative to Shays’ status quo approach to governing. In a change election year, the only thing Chris Shays is trying to change is his image.”