Republicans see streaks of red in Connecticut’s blue regions

For Republicans, Sen. Chris Dodd isn’t the only vulnerable Democrat in Connecticut.

They see potential in several congressional districts despite the Democrats holding all five House seats and the state turning a darker shade of blue in the last two cycles.

“From a big-picture perspective,” said Chris Healy, the chairman of the Connecticut GOP, “the legislative actions by this Congress in concert with the Obama administration are causing many people to express serious doubts about what they voted for in the last election.”

The GOP already has two House candidates lined up and a top contender in state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney. McKinney is considering a run against Rep. Jim Himes (D). His father, Stewart, held Himes’s seat for 17 years until he died in 1987.

To win, these challengers are counting on Connecticut voters’ independent streak as well 2010 being a referendum on President Obama and congressional Democrats’ economic policies.

Justin Bernier, the former director of Connecticut’s Office of Military Affairs, is challenging Rep. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyConnecticut senators call for Subway to ban open carry of firearms Democrats optimistic about chances of winning Senate Gridlock mires chances of police reform deal MORE (D). He said that voters in the 5th district are not ideologically driven.

“We have more independents than we do Democrats or Republicans,” Bernier said of the district. “These are issue voters. They look at the policies they support and pick the candidate that supports those policies. That’s why we’ve seen big swings in this district.”

Bernier said that Murphy benefited from the Iraq war’s unpopularity when he was first elected in 2006. Bernier believes he will benefit in 2010 from how the Democrats are handling the recession.

Republican hopes in Connecticut appear to defy recent electoral trends in the state. In the past two election cycles, Republicans have lost three of the state’s five congressional districts — seats now held by Rep. Joe Courtney (D), Himes and Murphy. Courtney and Murphy, who won in 2006, extended their margins of victory in 2008. And national Democrats have been impressed by Himes’s early fundraising and outreach efforts to his district.

Connecticut as a whole has turned bluer. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryWesley Clark says Trump not serving in Vietnam 'might have been for the best' in light of Russian bounty reports Juan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden The Memo: Trump's 2020 path gets steeper MORE won the state with 54 percent and, last November, President Obama carried it with 61 percent.

 Nancy DiNardo, the chairwoman of the Connecticut Democrats, said she understands challengers must start early but added that she doesn’t think Democrats will be vulnerable.

“Our congressional people are in the districts all the time, working and meeting with people, and they are formidable,” she said. “They have all shown that they know how to run good, issue-oriented campaigns, so I really don’t expect that the Democrats will have any problem retaining their seats.”

National Republicans are also hoping to capitalize on Dodd’s perceived vulnerability. Dodd has seen his poll numbers plummet following allegations that he received preferential mortgage rates from Countrywide Financial and played a role in authoring a provision that allowed the American International Group to pay out millions in bonuses with taxpayer-funded bailout funds. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has already issued one statement criticizing Himes for not condemning Dodd’s role in the bonuses and plans to issue similar releases targeting the other members of Connecticut’s House delegation.

“Connecticut is always traditionally challenging terrain for Republicans, but Chris Dodd’s sinking ratings will undoubtedly have a toxic effect on his House colleagues,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the NRCC.

Matthew Daly (R), a former board of finance member in Hebron who is challenging Courtney, said he expects Dodd to influence down-ballot races. Daly plans to focus on economic issues in his campaign but is also planning on coordinating with former Rep. Rob Simmons’s (R) campaign against Dodd.

“Simmons is going to endorse my candidacy,” Daly said. “And I think it’s a fair challenge to make with Sen. Dodd. What kind of representation are we getting these days?”

Another state party insider put it this way: “Will there be coordination where there can be? Absolutely.”

Daris Novak, a local businesswoman; Sean Sullivan, the 2008 GOP candidate; and former state Rep. Andrew Norton are other Republicans who have been floated as possible Courtney challengers.

Vin Moscardelli, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, said that the Republican Party is not dead in Connecticut and Dodd’s approval ratings have probably enticed down-ballot candidates.

“If Republicans are seeing an opportunity in Connecticut in 2010, they are certainly bucking a historical trend,” he said. “But when a politician like Dodd starts to show some vulnerability, it probably gets other potential challengers thinking about running.”

But not all Connecticut Republicans see the connection. State Sen. Sam Caligiuri (R), who announced Tuesday he’ll challenge Dodd in 2010, said he doesn’t see think the Senate race will influence House contests.

“I don’t think you can link the Senate and the House races,” he said. “I really don’t think folks here on the ground view the House seats as be more vulnerable because of Dodd’s.”

And Democrats, both in Washington and in Connecticut, say the controversy over Dodd is overblown. It is too early in the cycle, they say, to paint Dodd — or any of the House delegation, for that matter — as vulnerable.

“I am sure that’s what the Republicans would like to think,” DiNardo said of Dodd’s potentially influencing House races. “I don’t see it happening. Once the campaign starts, the senator’s numbers will continue to climb ... [And] our congressional delegation has done a great job in serving the people in their districts and the voters know it.”