In Northeast, Lost in a Blue Wave

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who had been the sole Republican congressman from New England, concedes to Democrat Jim Himes.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who had been the sole Republican congressman from New England, concedes to Democrat Jim Himes. (By Bob Child -- Associated Press)
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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Among the biggest casualties from last week's election here in the Northeast may be the Republican Party itself.

A map of the states won by President-elect Barack Obama shows a northeastern wall of blue, a region now as reliably Democratic as the South was before the mid-1960s.

With the defeat here in Connecticut of 11-term Rep. Christopher Shays, Republicans lost their lone House member from New England, the region that also includes Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire lost his reelection bid, leaving the entire Northeast -- New England plus New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- with just four Republican senators: Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. (Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut is an independent).

In addition, Democrats in Connecticut tightened their grip on the state legislature, taking a veto-proof two-thirds majority in the state Senate and swelling their majority in the House to 114 of 151 members.

In New York, Democrats seized control of the state Senate for the first time since the 1960s, creating de facto one-party rule, with the party in charge of all three branches of government and all statewide elected offices. The number of New York Republicans in the U.S. Congress shrank to three out of 29.

If there was any solace for Republicans in this region, it was that they still control three governorships: Jim Douglas was just reelected in Vermont, and Govs. M. Jodi Rell in Connecticut and Donald L. Carcieri in Rhode Island were not on the ballot this year.

The plight of Northeast Republicans has raised the question: What happened to the party that produced Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and that spawned the Bush family dynasty of Connecticut?

What happened, say some current and former Republican leaders, is that the national party moved away from the issues of fiscal conservatism, small government and lower taxes. As the base of the party shifted to the South and West, social conservatives and evangelicals moved to the forefront, and issues such as abortion, school prayer and gay marriage took primacy on the national party's agenda -- in the process turning off more moderate voters in this part of the country.

"I'm a Northeasterner. I grew up in New York City," said Christopher Healy, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party. "The evangelical members of the party have their issues, and their issues are important to them." But here, he said, "the Northeastern brand of Republican philosophy . . . is based on smaller government and less taxes. We're not interested in what's going on in the bedroom."

Former senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island was the epitome of the moderate-to-liberal northeastern Republican -- strongly pro-choice on abortion, a supporter of gay marriage and stem cell research, an opponent of the war in Iraq. As a fiscal conservative, Chafee opposed President Bush's tax cuts.

In 2006, he was challenged on the right in the Republican primary, and lost his Senate seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. He left the party to become an independent and has bitter words for the more conservative elements that he said have taken over the party.

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