The road to a Republican congressional majority may not run through New England, but GOP officials expect to make at least a few inroads this fall in a region where they suffered heavy losses in recent election cycles.
Republican strategists say they are not counting on a major reversal of fortunes in what has been the party’s weakest region nationwide, despite Scott Brown’s galvanizing election victory in Massachusetts in January, when the GOP picked up the seat to replace Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
“We’re positioned to do well in a handful of seats in New England,” said Tory Mazzola, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman. “And New Hampshire is a top priority.”
In what was once a GOP stronghold, Democrats completed a remarkable sweep in the six New England states in 2008. With the ouster of Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate Connecticut Republican, Democrats for the first time controlled all 22 House seats in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island.
The picture in the Senate and statehouses is slightly more balanced. Republicans hold four of the 12 Senate seats and the governorships in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, although Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, is set to retire.
But with GOP officials and private pollsters predicting major Republican gains in the midterm elections across the country, Democratic dominance in the Northeast is unlikely to be seriously challenged. The Cook Political Reports projects the House races in New Hampshire as the only two in which Republicans have a chance of winning, and the party may have trouble retaining Mr. Gregg’s Senate seat. Some Republicans already are bemoaning what they say is shaping up to be a lost opportunity.
The NRCC has particularly targeted two-term Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, New Hampshire Democrat.
“Her voting record is a rubber stamp straight down the Democratic list,” said the NRCC’s Mr. Mazzola.
Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta is a GOP favorite and the leading candidate in the state’s Sept. 14 primary.
During his two terms as mayor, Mr. Guinta significantly reduced violent crime and lowered taxes, and he has criticized Ms. Shea-Porter’s support of President Obama’s health care law and the $862 billion economic stimulus.
“If you’re a spender, you’re out,” Mr. Guinta has said.
Ms. Shea-Porter’s office did not reply to requests to comment for this article.
Other top candidates in that primary include Republican National Committee member Sean Mahoney and defense contractor Rich Ashooh.
Last month, Mr. Mazzola downplayed the fact that Ms. Shea-Porter was not listed among the vulnerable candidates for whom the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reserved TV ad time this fall.
“Take it to the bank that [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi will do all she can to defend Carol Shea-Porter, one of her most loyal supporters,” he said.
Days later, news reports said that the DCCC was including both New Hampshire races and a Massachusetts race in a $49 million plan to reserve TV ad time in the final weeks of the campaign season.
In the other New Hampshire race for the House, Republicans are optimistic that former Rep. Charlie Bass has a good shot to win the open seat of Rep. Paul W. Hodes, a Democrat who is running for Senate.
They point to Mr. Bass’ strong name recognition as well as his support for lower taxes and a balanced federal budget. In addition, Democrats are worried that the increasingly negative tone of the primary battle between Ann Kuster and Katrina Swett may hurt their chances to unify by November.
The New England states were GOP strongholds for generations. Maine and Vermont were the only holdouts in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election landslide. But the transformation began in the late 1960s with the growth of colleges and universities across the region that produced a liberal class of lawyers, professors, bankers and other professionals, while the center of power within the GOP shifted to Southern and Western states.
“You began to see the dominance of the university world,” said Dennis Hale, a Boston College associate professor of political science. “More and more voters became Democrats.”
New England Republicans say it will take a few election cycles to build up a bench of candidates who can raise the funds and assemble the staffs to make credible runs for higher office.
“I wish we did have a strong farm team way back when to prepare people, Massachusetts GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Nassour recently told the Boston Globe. “In another two, four, six years, you will see strong candidates ready to run for higher office.
Still, Mr. Hale and Mr. Mazzola see a sign of hope in Mr. Brown’s improbable win against the heavily favored Democratic candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
“Voters didn’t believe they could make change,” Mr. Mazzola said. “Scott Brown proved that wrong.”
Indeed, Mr. Bass is appealing to conservatives and “tea party” activists who were key to Mr. Browns victory.
Mr. Bass and Mr. Guinta are among nine Republicans whom the NRCC has brought into its “Young Guns” program, which gives advice and other support to candidates considered to have strong shots at victory. Four are from Connecticut and three are from Massachusetts, including state lawmaker Jeffrey Perry and former state Treasurer Joe Malone. Both are running in the 10th Congressional District, which includes the Cape Cod family estate where Kennedy lived and where Mr. Brown won 60 percent of the vote in the special election.
Mr. Perry, who also is courting tea party activists, was recently elevated to the Young Guns’ second tier, but none of the nine has reached the top tier. Mr. Mazzola said that situation is largely because of the late primaries. The Massachusetts primary, like New Hampshire’s, is Sept. 14.
Beyond New Hampshire, the Massachusetts 10th District is the only one in which Republicans even have a long shot, according the Cook Report. Seven-term Rep. Bill Delahunt is retiring, and forecasters say Democrats are favored to hold the seat.
New England’s other open House seat is that of retiring Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island Democrat, where the likely GOP candidate will be John Loughlin.
Like Mr. Brown, Mr. Loughlin is a state lawmaker and National Guard member who opposed Mr. Obama’s health care reform. He is working with the Shawmut Group, the political strategists behind Mr. Brown’s upset win, and has the backing of influential Republicans such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Republicans need the help of independent voters to pull off any upsets.
“It’s no secret that independent voters ultimately determine the winners and losers in New England,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Parish Braden. “And with independents increasingly frustrated with the Democrats’ economic policies, incumbent Democrats across the country have become more vulnerable.”
Mr. Perry, the Republican candidate for the Cape Cod seat, said his message to independent voters, who make up roughly 50 percent of the district, is not limited to one party or to a partisan label.
“It’s a message of more limited and effective government,” he said. “Voters are not happy with the health care reform, immigration reform and debt being left to future generations.”