Simmons seems aware of as much. During the closing days of the 2004 campaign, he brought in House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) to visit the facility and pledge his support for keeping it open.
State Rep. William Hamzy (R), the chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, stressed that closing the base would be a big blow to the whole state but added that “the fact that it is in Rob’s district obviously makes him sort of the focal point in this debate.”
Indeed, losing the base, said Bill Burton, communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), would sap Simmons of his main argument for staying in power — being a Republican in a Republican-controlled town.
“Why would folks from Connecticut continue to send a Republican to Congress who can’t get it to stay open?” Burton said of the naval base, which houses 18 nuclear submarines, employs 9,500 military and civilian personnel and fuels much of eastern Connecticut’s economy — boosting defense contractors such as Electric Boat and a slew of subcontractors across the state.
While being included on the list would not seal the base’s fate — an independent commission, the White House and Congress still get their say — approximately 85 percent of the bases targeted by the Defense Department are ultimately shuttered.
Closure of the naval base, which is actually in Groton, could be particularly damaging to the third-term congressman, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House. For the past two cycles, Simmons ran against Democrats who both came within eight points of beating him.
In 2006, he will probably face one of those Democrats, former state Rep. Joe Courtney. Unlike in his 2002 bid, it is doubtful Courtney will confront a protracted primary, having entered the race nine months earlier this time and secured many party leaders’ support.
In an interview yesterday, the Democrat predicted that he would raise more than the $2.2 million he brought in last time. Todd Mitchell, Simmons’s chief of staff, estimated that both sides would raise $6 million total in the 2006 cycle.
Courtney and other Connecticut Democrats said that the naval base is not a political issue. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) added that she had been meeting regularly with other members of the Connecticut delegation to protect it.
“Do I want to see the base maintained?” DeLauro said. “You bet I do.”
But Republicans insist that many Democrats secretly want to see it closed.
“There are opponents of Congressman Simmons who would love to see the base shut down,” Mitchell said. “They don’t seem to be able to win on tying Rob to the president or [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas], so they would love to see the base on the list.”
Brian Hamel, a former GOP congressional candidate in Maine who now consults for communities facing military-base closures, said that if the base is closed Democrats would definitely use that against Simmons by citing the immediate economic loss to the district.
“In the short term, there’s a devastating impact on the local economy,” he said. “You not only have all the military assignees and their dependents, but you also have the civilian work force that works on the base.” He added, “The military people … spend lots of money in the local economy.”
Democrats, for their part, wouldn’t rule out making a base closure an issue. On the question of whether the DCCC would attack Simmons in the event the base were shut down, the campaign committee’s Burton said: “We cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Leslie O’Brien, the Connecticut Democratic Party’s executive director, emphasized that Social Security, healthcare and President Bush’s tax cuts would top the list of political issues in Simmons’s 2nd District but added, “I can’t say that other issues won’t come up.”
For now, Mitchell and others said, the future of the Groton base is an open question. The Pentagon could recommend shutting down only one part of the base, or it could decide to expand the base’s operations. The facility’s fate will be unclear until Congress votes up or down on a final base-closure list in November.
Mitchell and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), another top Democratic target, said Simmons is doing everything in his power to save Groton.
But many Republicans are pessimistic, noting that the base had been targeted in the past by the Pentagon and that Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, has a vested interest in steering more submarine dollars to the naval base in Norfolk, Va.