- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

And then there was none.

In a small room on the first floor of the Capitol last week, members of the Connecticut congressional delegation gathered to welcome Jim Himes into their seven-person fold. For about an hour, Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joe Lieberman, along with the Constitution State’s four returning representatives, sang each other’s praises as well as those of Mr. Himes, a former Goldman Sachs vice president who ousted 21-year, 11-term incumbent Rep. Christopher Shays.

At no point was there mention that Mr. Himes’ victory over Mr. Shays marks the departure of the House’s last Republican from New England.

“I don’t think of it in those terms,” said the incoming freshman lawmaker, citing instead an opportunity to advance his views on topics such as the economy and the war in Iraq.

The symbolism is not lost, however, on political scientists and even Republican members themselves, whose dwindling presence on the national stage has caused many to ask: Whither the New England Republican?

For much of the party’s 154-year history, Republicans flourished in the Northeast. The roll call included Maine’s Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, and Sen. Margaret Chase Smith; Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, father and grandfather of future Republican presidents; and Massachusetts’ Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and Gov. (later President) Calvin Coolidge. In Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s landslide 1936 race, the only two states he failed to carry were Maine and Vermont.

A little more than a decade ago, New Hampshire’s governor and entire congressional delegation were Republicans. With this month’s defeat of Sen. John E. Sununu, Sen. Judd Gregg - who was not up for re-election - is the Granite State’s lone Republican in Congress. Mr. Gregg and Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine are the last New England Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Regional experts say it was the party, not the voters, who changed.

“It was a very different kind of Republican Party, which had a Yankee frugality,” said David King, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The party’s hallmarks included a belief in small government and the conservation of resources, fiscal restraint and a liberal view on race issues, he said.

The late Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee, who spent 20 years in the chamber after serving as governor, is considered a classic example of a pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-trade New England Republican. He was succeeded by his son Lincoln Chafee, who carried on his father’s Yankee Republican tradition - much to the chagrin of the party’s conservative wing - but ended up leaving the party to become an independent after his loss in 2006.

Mr. King said the nomination of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 was “the shot across the bow,” marking the decline of liberal “Rockefeller Republicans” and the party’s growing alignment with the South and West - a trend he said continued in 1976 with former California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s near victory over incumbent President Gerald R. Ford.

Some Republicans prefer to see the fall of their New England stronghold as part of a larger historical cycle.

“Keep in mind we’ve got 150 years of various waxing and waning in various regions,” said Michael Zak, author of “Back to Basics for the Republican Party,” which traces the Republican Party back to its founding. “Extinction implies forever. It’s definitely not going to be forever.”

New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen admitted the party has reached “a milestone of sorts.” Nevertheless, he cited current Republican governors in Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut as proof that the party is still competitive at the state level, a phenomenon experts credit to the lack of association with Capitol Hill or the White House.

Mr. Cullen said state parties in New England have been hurt by Republicans’ “national brand problems.”

“If the Republican Party is going to be defined by big spenders in Washington, then that’s a huge problem for us,” he said.

He said he worries about the political health of having the region dominated by Democratic lawmakers.

“When there’s not a contrasting voice, you really get worse public policy, you get worse public officials,” he said. “The concern I have as a Republican is national Republicans might say we can win without the Northeast and they would write us off.”

Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy rejected the notion that the national party is not diverse enough for more moderate New England Republicans.

“When you lose a national election, everyone starts chopping away at the coalition that’s served us well,” he said. “We allow for debate on many of these social issues in our party. People who support choice have the same access, the same ability to speak their mind within our party as people who are pro-life.”

Jennifer Donahue, political director of the New Hampshire Institute for Politics at Saint Anselm College, likened the dearth of Republicans in Red Sox Nation to an economic cycle.

“It’s myopic to interpret the results as being some kind of seismic shift in New England,” she said. “It wasn’t based on a values shift in the demographics, … it was based on the individual players and then [President] Bush dragging down Republicans as a whole.”

Yet both political analysts and Republican activists agree that any resurgence on Capitol Hill requires success in races for town councils and statehouses - where Democrats control both chambers in all six New England states. Harvard’s Mr. King said the first step should be to adopt a more libertarian tone of frugality and “watching the public purse.”

“Once you have the right ideological frame like that, then you really need to invest in the local infrastructure of the party” and contest as many races as possible, he said. “It’s not clear how the ideological opposition of the U.S. vis-a-vis the Russians is relevant to local land-use policy.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide