Poll indicates signs of a GOP resurgence in some N.E. districts

February 14, 2010

It was another week, another telltale of the turbulence besetting New England Democrats.

One of the party’s biggest names, US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, announced he will not seek reelection, 37 days after Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut did the same. In between, a little-known Republican, Scott Brown, knocked Washington off-kilter by winning the Massachusetts Senate seat of Kennedy’s late father, Edward M. Kennedy.

In some of the most reliably Democratic states in the nation, well-known Democrats are suddenly vulnerable. And the GOP, counted out in the region not long ago, is eyeing a resurgence.

Since the 2008 election, no Republicans represent the six New England states in the US House of Representatives. But a recent WMUR Granite State poll indicates that if the election were held now, the New Hampshire GOP would probably recapture both congressional seats lost to the Democrats four years ago and retain the Senate seat Judd Gregg is relinquishing.

In the First Congressional District in the eastern part of the state, the more conservative of the state’s two congressional districts, two-term Democratic in cumbent Carol Shea-Porter, whose favorability ratings have plunged since last fall, appears to be in the most peril.

Democrats and Republicans enjoy roughly equal party registration in New Hampshire, but independents are a plurality that holds the balance of political power in the state. Shea-Porter fares poorly with self-identified independents in the WMUR poll.

“It’s the same sort of thing you saw in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey,’’ Andrew E. Smith, who conducted the poll, said, referring to the Brown election and the GOP taking away governorships in the other states last fall. “The bad economy is being seen as the responsibility or fault of the Democrats, and when the economy is this bad it pushes everything else off the political map.’’

Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, also polls for the Globe.

State Representative James R. Splaine, Democrat of Portsmouth, is a 30-year veteran of the Legislature and has a track record of accurately predicting New Hampshire election results. He sees 2010 as the inverse of 2006, when Granite State Democrats swept major offices and gained control of the Legislature.

“This time, I think the perfect storm is blowing in our face,’’ he said.

In Rhode Island, Kennedy’s decision to bow out could actually improve Democrats’ chances of holding the district, one analyst said.

“Now, you’ll see a lot of heavy-hitters, Democrats, get into this primary race,’’ said Maureen Moakley, professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. “I don’t think it’ll be an easy walk for the Republican.’’

Though he cited personal reasons for dropping out, Kennedy’s poll numbers have been dismal, and state Representative John J. Loughlin II, Republican of Tiverton, is an Ocean State version of Scott Brown – retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, business owner, espousing conservative positions on fiscal issues and health care. His chief strategists helped guide Brown to his stunning victory.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 1 in Rhode Island, but independents account for 48 percent of registered voters. Kennedy’s First District, the more liberal of the two in the state, includes lopsidedly Democratic Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and about 40 percent of Providence.

Kennedy’s popularity in the Ocean State has been sagging for some time. A January WPRI-TV poll found that 56 percent of voters surveyed in his congressional district rated him unfavorably. In semiannual surveys done for Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy, Kennedy’s job rating has not been in positive territory since September 2007.

Rhode Island’s other US representative, James Langevin, has consistently logged better poll numbers. But Marion Orr, director of the Taubman Center, said the political environment in the state is treacherous for incumbents.

“There are real concerns about the economy in Rhode Island, with a high percentage of unemployed and issues about the state budget and local taxes,’’ Orr said. “The extent to which that spills over into a race could put any incumbent in jeopardy.’’

Brown’s win in Massachusetts has ramped up enthusiasm among potential Republican challengers to the state’s all-Democratic House delegation in Washington. If all the would-be GOP candidates obtain sufficient signatures, nine of the 10 incumbents will face at least one challenger, according to Jennifer Nassour, state Republican Party chairwoman. There also could be that rarity in Massachusetts politics: GOP primaries in two or more congressional districts.

“There is huge momentum,’’ she said.

The exception at this point is the Eighth District, which includes Cambridge and much of Boston and is by far the most overwhelmingly Democratic in the state. No Republican has stepped forward to challenge incumbent Michael E. Capuano.

The Republican energy is in stark contrast to past elections. In 2008, six Bay State congressional Democrats were unopposed, and in the past three cycles, Republicans have fielded challengers in only 40 percent of the contests. All were underfunded and provided light opposition.

William D. Delahunt in the 10th Congressional District, which stretches from Quincy to Cape Cod and the Islands, appears to be drawing the most interest. Three Republicans, including state Representative Jeffrey D. Perry of Sandwich, have declared their intent to challenge him if he runs for reelection, and former state treasurer Joseph Malone is considering whether to join the race. Brown won 60 percent of the vote against Democrat Martha Coakley in the special Senate election in Delahunt’s district.

Across the state, few of the potential challengers are politically experienced or well known, however, and it remains to be seen if they can raise enough money against entrenched Democrats, most of whom have well-stocked war chests. Brown was boosted by millions of late dollars flowing into his campaign from out-of-state donors eager to try to influence the only election in the country at the time. But Democratic Massachusetts rarely sees much national GOP money, and this fall, there will be dozens of competitive congressional races competing for dollars.

In Connecticut, there are five announced Republican candidates each in the primary fields for the formerly Republican-held congressional districts, the fourth and fifth, along the New York border. The fourth, which includes the affluent New York bedroom communities of Fairfield County, was the last GOP holdout in New England until moderate 10-year incumbent Christopher Shays was ousted in 2008.

As with Kennedy’s decision not to seek reelection, Dodd’s announcement in Connecticut actually strengthened Democratic chances to hold a seat, allowing popular Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to leap in. Republicans, meanwhile, feature an increasingly rugged primary contest in the Senate race between former US representative Rob Simmons, who was defeated in 2006, and Linda McMahon, the wealthy former CEO ofWorld Wrestling Entertainment.

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