DERRY, N.H. — Rep. Charlie Bass of New Hampshire dismisses a suggestion that as one of only two House Republicans from New England, he’s an endangered species.
“That won’t happen,” Bass said of the chance that New England Republicans could again find themselves shut out of the House this November.
Chatting outside a school where Mitt Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, had just finished a rally, Bass said that GOP House candidates in New England will get a boost with the party’s presidential nominee being a “Massachusetts native, former Massachusetts governor, and native son of New Hampshire.”
But it wasn’t so long ago, as a result of the 2008 election, that not a single Republican from any of the six New England states—Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—was to be found in the House. Two years later, the return of Bass, first elected in 1994 and defeated in 2006, and the election of Frank Guinta in New Hampshire’s other district, reestablished the Yankee GOP presence in the chamber.
It certainly seems that Romney should have some coattails here, but President Obama remains popular in much of the Northeast. And like pygmy elephants—once thought to be extinct until rediscovered in Borneo—New England House Republicans could vanish again next year, perhaps this time for good.
Strategists in both parties agree that no more than five Republicans—Bass, Guinta, and three others—have chances to win this fall in New England’s House races, and that each could lose.
Of course, the GOP boasts some senators and governors in the New England states.
But the prospects for Republicans in those states seeking House seats, paltry even with the best projected outcomes on Nov. 6, are partly a reflection of how both parties have become more ideologically polarized in the past 40 years, and how voters have become more balkanized, including geographically.
The onetime moderate “gypsy moths” or “Rockefeller Republicans” (named after the former New York governor and vice president) that were dominant in the Northeast and had seemed to represent a bridge to bipartisanship have all but disappeared. Conversely, conservative Democrats have slowly vanished from the Deep South.
The two current House Republicans from the region—Bass perhaps more so than Guinta—are in tough rematches of their 2010 contests. Bass is battling Democrat Ann McLane Kuster, whom he beat by 3,550 votes in 2010. Guinta is up against former Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.
Meanwhile, polls in Massachusetts, where Obama is crushing Romney in his home state, show a close House contest between Republican Richard Tisei, an openly gay and pro-abortion-rights former state legislator, and seven-term Democratic Rep. John Tierney. The race has focused much on the conviction of Tierney’s wife last year on filing false tax returns for a brother accused of running an illegal offshore gambling ring. Tierney himself has not been accused of wrongdoing, but strategists on both sides agree that this may be the best chance for a Republican pickup in the region.
In one of Rhode Island’s two districts, another GOP challenger, Brendan Doherty, has been on the offensive against Democratic freshman Rep. David Cicilline. Doherty has been pushing an ongoing focus on the former Providence mayor’s claims that he left the city in excellent fiscal condition, only to have a $110 million budget deficit discovered later. But even Republicans say that the race is tightening after earlier polls gave Doherty a solid lead.
The last of these five contests is for an open seat from western and central Connecticut, a district now represented by Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, who is running for Senate.
Republican Andrew Roraback, an 18-year member of the Connecticut General Assembly who is running for the seat against Democrat Elizabeth Esty, seems to voice the frustration of many New England GOP House candidates. Roraback told a group of college students in Danbury last week that the GOP may never again succeed in capturing significant House seats from New England or the West Coast unless it becomes more open to moderate views on social issues, such as his own on abortion rights and same-sex marriage, in particular. “I think my party needs me,” Roraback flatly declared.
He made little effort, however, to say whether the nation needs Romney. He never brought up the GOP’s standard-bearer.
The next day in Hartford, Roraback held a news conference to deny Democratic assertions that he would support the House GOP’s controversial budgets formulated under Ryan, including plans to transform Medicare into a voucher program and cut billions of dollars from social programs. He further took exception to a TV ad saying that he would “fit right in” with Ryan, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and tea party Republicans.
Guinta and Bass, who have both served on the House Budget Committee, say they aren’t ones to generalize on what issues are most important in some other New England states. But they suggest that voters in their state—more purple, perhaps, than some others in the region—stand more unified around the need to address fiscal issues than fractured over social issues.
Unlike Roraback, Bass and Guinta cannot so easily distance themselves from Ryan’s budget. But Bass remains confident of his chances, and adds that, generally, “the political scene in the Northeast is better now than it even was two years ago, in my view. I think that this is going to be going, if not already, in the right direction for us.”
With chances of grabbing seats from Connecticut and Rhode Island—and even a potential victory in Massachusetts by an openly gay candidate, which could be depicted as evidence of a party focused more on fiscal issues than social ones—the GOP says that New England Republicans are headed for a resurgence, not extinction, in the House.
But Kuster and other Democrats suggest that such GOP happy talk is not based in reality. “They just don’t understand. It’s as if they’ve missed the last 40 years of people’s lives,” Kuster says of her belief that the GOP nationally has lost touch with most New Englanders on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and that this disconnect matters to voters.
This article appears in the Oct. 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.