Old-School Moderate Connecticut Republican Shays Goes Down in Defeat

Democrat Jim Himes pulled out a victory in a traditionally left-leaning state.

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With incumbent Christopher Shays conceding tonight in favor of Democrat Jim Himes, the last Republican congressman in New England—and a Connecticut institution in his own right—has left the building.

Shays has always been something of an anomaly in Connecticut, a true-blue state that voted for John Kerry by 6 percentage points more than George W. Bush in 2004. First elected to the U.S. House in a 1987 special election, he won every re-election since. His margins didn't significantly narrow until 2004 and 2006, both squeakers past Democrat Diane Farrell.

It took this round—and a political climate more anti-Republican and anti-incumbent than ever—to finally knock out the 63-year-old representative from the southwestern district that encompasses Stamford and Bridgeport.

The victor is Himes, 42, former vice president of Goldman Sachs. Himes, who has styled himself as bringing "a real-world perspective to Washington," targeted Shays as a party-line candidate out of touch with voters. That stung the candidate, who built his career on his ideological independence. Called by the New York Times which endorsed him—a "rare champion these days of Republican moderation," Shays advocated increasing the minimum wage, expanding children's healthcare, and reforming campaign finance. In fact, says Michael Sohn, his six-time campaign manager, it's Himes who doesn't think independently. "All he does is read off the talking points of the DCCC," he says.

But in this political climate, not even Shays's reputation could hold. The economy didn't help. Himes, who works for an affordable housing nonprofit, accused Shays of failing to provide proper oversight while serving on the Financial Services Committee. The Shays campaign retorted that he had warned about the meltdown since 2002.

But when Shays repeated John McCain's mistake of saying, "Our economy is fundamentally strong," the gaffe gave Himes an opening. "That statement encapsulates what we think the race is about," says Michael Sachse, Himes's press secretary. "Chris Shays really just doesn't get it when it comes to our economy, and Jim does."

It also tied Shays closer to McCain, whom he first endorsed back in February 2007. In a state slated to go for Barack Obama by a margin of 25 percentage points, his alliance with McCain was risky—and, as the election neared, perhaps too risky. In the past week, Shays, who headed McCain's Connecticut campaign, told the Yale Daily News that McCain "has lost his brand as a maverick" and that he didn't foresee a Republican victory.

But even that distancing, it seems, couldn't save Shays.

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