The Cook Political Report, an independent nonpartisan newsletter whose subscribers include lawmakers, lobbyists, trade groups, labor unions, and political action
committees, last week ranked the rematch between the three-term Republican from Stonington, Rep. Robert R. Simmons, and Vernon Democrat Joseph D. Courtney, as one that could go either way.
"Much of Simmons' future depends on the national mood," the newspaper said. "If it is anti-Republican, he will struggle to win." (Michak)
So, it is true? Is Simmons in trouble? Could his race actually go either way?
Sadly for Democrats, no. The race will be close, again, but, based on the current situation, Simmons is going to win. Here's why:
The Incumbent Rule
All things being equal, voters tend to favor the incumbent. Remember that. Things are pretty equal, right now. It's still Simmons's race to lose. It was Sam Gejedenson's race to lose in 2000--and he got careless and let Simmons steal it away. Simmons is much smarter than Sam was: Courtney will not sneak up on him.
The conventional wisdom is that this is going to be a Democratic year. For that to happen, however, Democrats need to give voters a compelling and easy-to-understand vision for what they would do if elected. This is how Republicans won in 1994: they capitalized on the fact that people were sick of the Democrats, and offered a simple, gripping alternative: less taxes, smaller government, end the welfare state. Pow!
People may vote against Republicans, but they show no signs of voting for Democrats, yet. Democrats are missing the second piece, and show no signs of developing it. Unless Democrats pick up the slack, the national swing won't be as large as they hope.
What are you for, again?
Courtney's platform is especially nebulous. His issues page has only a few hints about what he might do in Congress. Here are a few examples:
Joe Courtney will make protecting Social Security his top priority. He'll oppose any plan that jeopardizes the Social Security Trust Fund, or privatizes the system to put seniors' retirement savings into the unpredictable stock market. (Courtney)
Great, but it isn't enough to be against what the opposition is doing. Not in this close of a race. Here's another:
Joe Courtney has a consistent pro-worker record. During his tenure in the state legislature, he supported Connecticut's family and medical leave law, an increase in the minimum wage, and an increase in compensation benefits for workers who had been injured on the job. In his bid for Congress, he has already received the strong support of several labor organizations, including the Connecticut AFL-CIO, which endorsed him by a vote of 311-0.(Courtney)
That's a great statement, and labor support will help (somewhat). But so what? It's all good, down-to-earth stuff, but there's nothing that's innovative, bold or eye-catching. Granted, Simmons is exactly the same way. But, in order to win, Courtney has to clearly be the superior candidate with the superior ideas.
Simmons won because he pledged to save the sub base. The base, thanks in part to the efforts of the congressional delegation, is saved. While a lot of people may ask "What have you done for me lately?", many more will remember that up to 30,000 jobs were saved, just like Rob Simmons promised. If a Democratic year starts to tip the balance towards Courtney, the sub base swings it right back to Simmons.
It doesn't help that Courtney is from Vernon, far away from those who would be affected by the base closure.
War in the Trenches
Since the campaign isn't going to be about big ideas, it will instead devolve into a slugfest. Any campaign involving Rob Simmons is going to be amazingly dirty--indeed, 2000, 2002 and 2004 were not fun times to have an answering machine in the 2nd District. Every day in October, someone would leave a message telling me why one of the candidates was a terrible, horrible person, and why I ought to vote against them.
Simmons was much better at it. He thrives in the trenches, and never hesitates to sling mud. Courtney will try to sling mud right back, of course, but Simmons, again, has the edge.
Is Hope Lost for Courtney?
No. Not at all! It's still very close, and Courtney can make up a lot of ground later on in the year. But he can't run the race he ran in 2002. He needs to clearly define himself, if he can. He could, for example, sign on to some sort of national campaign finance reform. He could pledge to bring the reforms done in Connecticut to Washington. That would define him in a way that has yet to be done, and might compel people to vote for him instead of against Simmons.
If Democrats can better define themselves in a positive way all across the country, then Courtney's chances take a big leap forward, as well.
But, for now, Simmons still has the upper hand, if only ever so slightly.
Michak, Don. " 2nd District race seen as a toss-up." Journal-Inquirer 11 February, 2006.
Courtney for Congress: Issues. http://www.joecourtney.com/issues.php. 11 February, 2006.