New England Realignment?

If you’re sick of the endless comparisons between 2006 and 1994, read no further. But one underlooked aspect of the ’94 GOP revolution may be playing out this year too: Regional realignment.

Yes, Bill Clinton’s unpopularity – Time once used its cover to label him “The Incredible Shrinking President”, in case you forgot – was the main catalyst for the Republicans’ 52-seat pick-up in the House twelve years ago. But those gains in many cases were decades in the making, conservative-leaning Southern districts that had long ago abandoned the national Democratic Party but that had remained loyal to their local congressmen. ’94 simply marked the belated realization of Lyndon Johnson’s supposed comment when he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act: “There goes the South for a generation.”

Like Clinton, George W. Bush seems to be triggering another belated regional realignment, this time in the Northeast. Just consider the six New England states, home to a combined 22 House seat. 17 of them are now occupied by Democrats (counting Vermont’s Bernie Sanders). The five remaining Republicans are avowed moderates, relics in many ways of the days when Rockefeller Republicanism ruled the East Coast. By this time tomorrow, all five could be politically extinct, giving New England an all-Democratic House delegation. And, as with the once-Democratic seats in the South, once these seats leave the GOP column, they’re probably gone for good.

Here’s a quick look at the prospects of New England’s five remaining House Republicans, ranked (subjectively) in order of their vulnerability tomorrow:

1) Christopher Shays (CT-4): Locked in a Gold Coast rematch with Diane Farrell, the ’04 opponent he bested by just four points, Shays is now clearly the underdog. His credentials are sufficiently moderate and maverick in nature for what is an increasingly Democratic district, but he picked the wrong issue to show loyalty to the White House: Iraq. The ads Mike Bloomberg cut for him are a nice touch, but probably don’t mean much to the Greenwich and Westport commuters. Zogby has Farrell ahead by seven points - a good place for any candidate to be, but particularly a challenger. Shays’ campaign says their polls have him ahead considerably. But it was a wise politico who once advised us to ignore internal polls – “But,” he added, “if you’re going to listen to them, shave 8 points off whatever they say.” In other words, Shays probably needs the luck of the Washington Redskins to survive now.

2) Nancy Johnson (CT-5): Her youthful opponent, state Senator Chris Murphy, is sharp, well-pedigreed, quite personable and very ambitious – someone who was almost certainly honing a future State of the Union address in the bathroom mirror at age nine. Originally, this wasn’t supposed to be Murphy’s year, since the Johnson, a 71-year-old pro-choice Unitarian, is so closely identified with the state’s moderate political traditions. Murphy would put a scare into her, fall short, and then wait for her to retire in another term or two, the thinking went. That was earlier this year. Now, Murphy has pulled ahead, with momentum and the anti-Bush national climate at his back. The district itself is an odd mix of Democratic and Republican areas – the result of a 2002 redistricting map that pitted Johnson and then-Democratic Rep. Jim Maloney against one another. It leans Democratic, but President Bush made a strong play for the 5th in 2004, as his terrorism credentials resonated with the Reagan Democrats of the Naugatuck Valley. Johnson has tried to push those same buttons, but it’s starting to look like the 5th District’s voters have decided not to let the 12-term incumbent pick her own retirement date.

3) Charlie Bass (NH-2): This was not supposed to be much of a race, and the fact that it is spells potentially lethal trouble for the national GOP. Bass, son of a New Hampshire congressman and grandson of a governor, has represented the western half of New Hampshire (read: Nashua, Concord, Keene and the area around Dartmouth College) since 1994, when he unseated the unfortunately-named Dick Swett, who remains the last Democrat elected to Congress from New Hampshire. Bass, a mild-mannered pro-choice moderate with a respectable environmental voting record, is in many ways a good ideological fit for his district, which has swung decisively to the Democrats at the presidential level, a response to the national GOP’s emphasis on conservative social stances. Bass has never broken 60 percent in any of his campaigns, but no challenger has come closer than eight points, either – even Swett’s wife, who outspent Bass two-to-one in 2002. But now Bass has fallen behind Paul Hodes, the same Democratic lawyer he defeated by 20 points just two years ago. It has long been assumed that New Hampshire’s 2nd District would one day fall into Democratic hands – but with Bass, Republicans believed they could prolong the inevitable for another decade or two. It would now be a shock if he hangs on.

4) Rob Simmons (CT-2): Simmons was seen as the most vulnerable Connecticut Republican at the start of this cycle. Actually, of all the Republican incumbents in the country, he represents the most Democratic district– the Eastern Connecticut-based First gave John Kerry a ten-point win two years ago. That explains why there was chatter this summer that national Republicans would seek to entice Simmons to abandon his re-election bid and instead take Alan Schlesinger’s place as the party’s Senate nominee – potentially giving the GOP a shot at an otherwise unwinnable seat. Nothing came of it, of course, Schlesinger’s refusal to budge being only one of the reasons. That said, Simmons has surprised this fall in a rematch with his 2002 opponent, former state Representative Joe Courtney. Elected in 2000, Simmons has never broken 54 percent in a general election, but he’s battled back gamely from some damning poll numbers earlier this year. Zogby now has him ahead by five points, while Research 2000 has the race dead even. Having an “R” after his name in 2006 may yet keep Simmons from clearing 50 percent, but somewhat amazingly he actually has a shot. This race will be an excellent barometer of the size of the Democratic wave tomorrow.

5) Jeb Bradley (NH-1): The second-term incumbent from the Lake Winnipesaukee area may well be the last New England House Republican left standing after tomorrow – and he’ll a stroke of luck to thank for it. In September, 1st District Democrats defiantly thumbed their noses at Washington, handing their nomination to a former social worker named Carol Shea-Porter and snubbing Jim Craig, the state House minority leader who had been championed by the DCCC. On the stump, Shea-Porter is inarguably a better candidate than Craig, explaining her chocking win in what was a historically low-turnout primary. But her rancorous relationship with the DCCC has kept them from flooding the 1st District the way they have the 2nd District. On top of that, Bradley is fortified by a slight GOP advantage in the district, which favored Bush by three points over Kerry (thus making New Hampshire’s 1st District the most Republican district in New England). For all that, though, Shea-Porter is not far off Bradley’s pace. If independent voters are even angrier with the GOP than conventional wisdom tells us – and if the GOP base is as torpid as many claim it is – a win by Shea-Porter, who does not even crack national observers’ lists of the top 60 House challengers in the country, is not impossible. And if she does win, it will be mean nothing short of a national catastrophe for Republicans.

The only remotely-conceivable Republican pick-up in New England would be Vermont’s open at-large seat. But the national climate makes it highly improbable that the GOP nominee, Adjutant General Martha Rainville, will suddenly overcome what has been a stubbornly persistent deficit in the polls.

The GOP bloodletting in New England probably won’t stop with the House, either. If, as expected, Lincoln Chafee loses his Rhode Island Senate seat and Democrat Deval Patrick prevails in the Massachusetts governor’s race, about all the GOP will have left in New England will be the governorships of Connecticut and Rhode Island and Maine’s two Senate seats. For national Republicans, though, the end of their competitive days in the region comes with a silver lining: With each new census, the Northeast continues to shrink in population and, thus, political clout. The South, meanwhile, is only growing stronger.