There's no greater softball question in all of politics than the one reporters lob at candidates right before they go into their local polling places to vote for themselves: How do you feel? All politicians, even the ones destined for certain defeat, invariably respond with something upbeat, like Great! or Confident! But, on Tuesday morning, as the embattled Connecticut Representative Chris Shays headed into an elementary school in his Bridgeport neighborhood to pull the lever for himself, he couldn't muster anything quite that optimistic. Asked how he felt, Shays replied,"Numb."
Shays's lack of sensation was understandable. During his 19 years in the House, he had become a moderate Republican icon--bucking his party on issues like campaign finance reform, abortion, and stem-cell research. But, on Iraq, Shays had voted for the war and then stubbornly supported President Bush's "stay the course"strategy until only three months ago, when he came out in favor of a timetable for withdrawal. Shays's Democratic opponent, Diane Farrell, had repeatedly attacked him for his stance on Iraq and forhis party affiliation more generally--constantly rapping him forhis support of "the Bush agenda."
And, in this affluent, educated southern Connecticut congressional district-- whose voters are 28 percent Republican, 31 percent Democratic, and 41 percent independent (and which John Kerry carried in 2004)--it looked as if those attacks would pay off. Many Democrats and independents who had once supported Shays were poised to jump ship. "If I voted for Chris and [House Speaker Dennis Hastert] kept his seat by one vote, I couldn't live with myself,"one erstwhile Shays supporter told the Hartford Courant. Even The New York Times, which had previously endorsed Shays each time he'd faced a serious opponent, came out in favor of Farrell. Heading into Election Day, Shays could take some solace in the fact that polls showed the race too close to call. But, with a blue wave seemingly rolling across the country and particularly New England--where one moderate House Republican from Connecticut,Nancy Johnson, lost and another, Rob Simmons, now faces are count--it looked likely that he would be swept under.
So, about twelve hours after he voted--and three hours after the polls closed--when Shays strode into a packed hotel ballroom in Norwalk to declare victory, there was no one more surprised, it seemed, than he was.
How did Shays manage to win? Certainly not because of the GOP. At every turn in the campaign, he played down his party affiliation. Shays's campaign literature and ads were scrubbed clean of any trace of the dreaded R-word; instead, they hailed the candidate for his "independence." Even when Shays appeared at the Connecticut Republican Party's convention in May, he seemed to go out of his way to distance himself from the GOP, telling a reporter, "I can't say we have, as a party, earned the right to stay in the majority,but I think I've shown I can be effective."
And the Republican Party's attempts to help Shays only hurt him. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) blanketed Shays's district with fliers attacking Farrell for being soft on terrorism--Diane Farrell: coffee talk with the Taliban, read one mailing--and questioning the wisdom of some of her spendingdecisions when she served as a select woman in Westport. "They said that Chris's opponent spent 40,000 dollars on a turf field,"complained Shays's campaign manager, Michael Sohn. "This is Fairfield County, Connecticut! People spend 40,000 dollars to have their lawn done for them in the summer! ... We were fighting on the ground and there was this air war going on overhead, but the NRCC was dropping bombs on our own home."
But Shays had something to offset the disadvantage of his party affiliation: the advantage of incumbency. He constantly reminded voters of all the pork he had brought home over the years--boasting of the federal funds he secured for projects ranging from road improvements to the renovation of a dental-hygiene training clinic.He also sought to cast himself as a gracious elder statesman,largely eschewing harsh, personal attacks against Farrell. And, even when he indulged the temptation to wander into wingnut territory--strangely declaring at one point that Abu Ghraib "was not torture" but was a "sex ring"--he quickly apologized, which only served to reinforce his bland, above-the-fray campaign slogan:"Listens. Learns. Helps. Leads."
Most importantly, Shays faced Farrell's criticisms on Iraq head-on.Although he ultimately bowed to reality in Iraq and, in August,came out in favor of a timetable for withdrawal--a move Farrell blasted as a cynical election-year ploy--he did not, a la Joe Lieberman, try to avoid the issue. Indeed, just like Farrell, Shays made Iraq the cornerstone of his campaign. He repeatedly emphasized his record on the war, including the more than 15 hearings he has held on Iraq as the chairman of the National Security Subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee and the 14 trips he has taken tothe country since the start of the war--the last of which, he said,ultimately convinced him that "stay the course" was no longer a viable strategy. "I ran a race that my political advisers said I shouldn't run," Shays said the morning of the election. "I didn't run away from the war."
That attitude carried over into Shays's victory speech on Tuesday night. For three hours, hundreds of his supporters had watched on a large projection screen as the election results were posted,growing more and more excited as it became clear that their candidate was actually going to win. And, when Shays entered the low-ceilinged hotel ballroom around 11 p.m., he made his way through a gauntlet of hugs and kisses to the podium. Once there,Shays made sure to give the requisite thanks to his supporters,staff, and family, but he did not strike the typically triumphant notes of a victorious candidate.
"I don't know how you'll react to this, but I want to also say this," he said, after quieting his supporters who'd been joyously chanting, "Two more years!" He then unfolded a piece of paper and read off a list of names. "I sent them to Iraq and they came home draped in American flags," Shays continued, as the once-raucous ballroom became eerily quiet. "I think about them almost every day of my life, and, when the press talked about how tormented I must feel about losing the election, they just didn't get it. ... The only torment I feel is for those families, and I pray that we can make it right for these families and that we will find a way to have our men and women come home from success, not failure, but that we find a way to bring them home." It was a numbing sentiment indeed.