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GOP Faces a Northeast Chill

Times Staff Writer

The political equivalent of a nor’easter is bearing down on Republicans from New England through Pennsylvania.

With President Bush’s approval ratings collapsing across the Northeast, the region presents Democrats an unusually rich concentration of opportunities to capture Republican-held House and Senate seats in the November elections.

In this tempest, Democrats are pressing GOP Sens. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and mounting fierce challenges to pick up about 10 Republican-held House seats in several states. Half a dozen other House Republicans also could be swept away.

The campaign’s atmospherics give Democrats the chance to establish in the region an equivalent to what Republicans have built in the South: an overwhelming regional advantage that anchors their bids for House and Senate majorities. Indeed, if Democrats win most of the House races in play in the Northeast, they will be virtually assured of the net gain of 15 seats nationwide that they need to control the chamber.

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On the plus side for the GOP, many of the targeted Republicans are strong candidates.

Rep. Rob Simmons, who represents a sprawling district in eastern Connecticut centered around Groton, is an example. He prepared for heavy political weather by diligently promoting local interests, taking generally moderate positions on social issues and seizing chances to show independence from Bush. Simmons and many of the other at-risk Republicans also are fiercely attacking their Democratic opponents.

Still, analysts in both parties agree that even with these efforts, Republicans in the Northeast’s Democratic-leaning states remain especially vulnerable because of pervasive voter dissatisfaction with Bush, the Iraq war and scandals in Washington.

The endangered Republicans usually benefit from “some natural insulation because they happen to be fairly good fits for their districts,” said Saul Shorr, a Democratic consultant based in Philadelphia. “But when there is a wave ... places that weren’t on the map [as competitive races] just get sucked in.”

For decades, Northeast Republicans have experienced a decline that represents the flip-side of the GOP advances in the South. While the party’s national identification with a conservative agenda, especially on social issues, has keyed its gains in Dixie, those issues have weakened it in the region that once produced such icons of political moderation as former Sens. Jacob K. Javits of New York and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut.

This year, the climate for further Democratic gains could hardly be more favorable. In an ABC/Washington Post survey this week, Bush’s approval rating in the East stood at 27%, much lower than in any other region.

Joe Courtney, the Democrat running against Simmons, feels that wind at his back. He lost to the incumbent, 54% to 46%, in 2002 when Bush was still riding a wave of public support after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Running in the wake of 9/11 before the invasion of Iraq was a very tough environment as a challenger with a message of change,” Courtney said. “Nothing could be more different than today. People have gotten a very good look at [the GOP] agenda ... and I think in a district like this people have really crossed the line as far as wanting out.”

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That discontent, echoed across the region, has created strong Democratic opportunities in two Senate races. In Pennsylvania, polls have shown Santorum consistently trailing Democrat Bob Casey Jr. In Rhode Island, Chafee is facing a smaller and less settled deficit against Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.

Democratic pickups in these two states, however, could be undercut in New Jersey. There, Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat appointed to the seat earlier this year, is locked in a tight contest with Republican Tom Kean Jr.

In the House, top Democratic targets include four GOP-held districts in Pennsylvania, an open seat in central New York being vacated by Republican Sherwood Boehlert and a Buffalo-area district where Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds is vulnerable, in part because of the sex scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

At the apex of the Democratic target list are Simmons and two other House Republicans in Connecticut -- Reps. Nancy L. Johnson and Christopher Shays.

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Across the region, most Democrats want to nationalize their contests, making them a referendum on the direction Bush and the GOP-led Congress have set for the country. The Republicans want to localize the races, making them a referendum on their personal service to the district -- and the personal shortcomings of their opponent.

Courtney, for instance, last week accused Simmons of failing to hold the administration accountable for reversals in Iraq and denounced him for supporting Bush-backed energy and Medicare prescription drug bills. Courtney characterized those measures as giveaways to the oil and drug industries.

Slight in build and contained in manner, Courtney is hardly a dynamic presence as a candidate. But he is firm in labeling Simmons, at every opportunity, “the president’s No. 1 supporter in Connecticut.”

Simmons, a hyper-kinetic campaigner, is airing ads pounding Courtney for supporting tax increases during his tenure as a state legislator.

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Above all, Simmons focuses on his role in the state’s offensive to prevent the closing of the Groton naval base and his efforts to generate contracts for the nearby General Dynamics’ Electric Boat submarine shipyard. His campaign website, meanwhile, contains an interactive map that lists, town by town, the federal money he has steered into the district.

“Joe Courtney doesn’t know anybody in Washington D.C.; he doesn’t have any clout; he doesn’t have any experience,” Simmons said this week at a fundraiser. Later, he whipped out his cellphone and brandished it before reporters, saying, “He doesn’t have [former Veterans Affairs Secretary] Tony Principi’s cellphone number. OK?”

With rare exceptions, Republicans across the region are claiming independence from Bush and spotlighting their commitment to working across party lines.

In his latest ad, Shays says, “I’ve gone against the president and the Republican leadership when I think they’re wrong.” Democrats counter that even Republicans with moderate voting records bolster Bush and the GOP by providing another vote for the party’s congressional majority. In Rhode Island, Whitehouse recently unveiled an ad saying, “Bush needs Chafee to keep Republican control of the Senate. That’s how Bush keeps his agenda alive.”

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When Courtney visited a senior center in Hebron, Conn., Jean Lyman, a retired secretary, said she had voted for Simmons before but would not this year because “he’s just too tied to Bush and all his plans and programs.”

By contrast, Del Knight, a medical researcher and political independent from Ledyard, Conn., who voted against Bush in 2004, still turned out for a Simmons fundraiser this week. The incumbent, Knight said, is “a good guy, and I think he has gone his own way.”

Voters such as Knight have been the life raft for many Northeast Republicans as the region has turned away from the GOP. This year’s results will measure whether these Republicans can still find enough support from such voters even as the intensely polarizing disputes of the Bush era have widened the distance between the two parties.

ronald.brownstein@

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