Next time, candidates could be hard to find

Rep. Christopher Coutu did not seem all that excited this past week for someone who had just won re-election to a second term and whose Republican Party had spectacular success nationally. In this region, Coutu remains a lonely Republican.

The representative from the 47th House District - Sprague, Canterbury, Scotland and the northern section of Norwich - is the only Republican state legislator with a district entirely in southeastern Connecticut. Republican Rep. Marilyn Giuliano, also re-elected, represents Lyme and Old Lyme, but her 23rd District spills across the Connecticut River into Old Saybrook and Westbrook.

In between those border districts, there is not a Republican state lawmaker to be found in New London County.

Coutu, 34, had worked particularly hard to change that. He and other Republican leaders in the region sought top-notch candidates to challenge Democratic incumbents. The effort was largely successful. Many incumbents who in the past had faced no candidate or a weak one, this time found themselves in competitive races.

But on the election night the results were the same, incumbent victories.

That outcome had to leave Republicans in the region asking, "If not now, when?" State Senate and House Democrats never appeared more vulnerable. With veto-proof majorities in both chambers, the Democrats, facing a budget crisis as tax revenues dropped and obligations grew, approved widely criticized budgets that relied heavily on tax hikes, borrowing and one-time revenues for ongoing expenses. As a result, Connecticut faces a projected $3.3 billion shortfall before discussions on the next budget even begin.

In debates, meetings, commentaries and mailings, the GOP challengers tried to make the case that voters should send new lawmakers to Hartford, people serious about balancing the budget. It didn't work. While some contests were closer than in the past, the results were the same.

The state Republican Party did not do the local crop of candidates much good. The party's decision to rally behind Linda McMahon for senator because of her deep pockets, and unceremoniously dump former congressman Rob Simmons of Stonington at the state convention last spring, sapped energy from the local Republican Party. Selecting a weak candidate, Janet Peckinpaugh, to challenge incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney in the 2nd District did not help either.

There is also the familiarity factor than makes it difficult to knock off an incumbent state legislator. Unlike those running for national office, where a no vote is nothing personal, the local state senator or representative shows up at the Scout meeting to hand out an award, drops in at the senior center or directs his office to help you through that governmental red tape.

They might be doing a lousy job up there in Hartford, but that local rep, he seems like a nice, hard-working guy.

Having invested so much time and effort in a losing cause, in a year when winning never seemed so within reach, one has to wonder how many of the Republican challengers will be willing to give it another try in 2012 or, if they don't, whether other good candidates can be found.

A person has to be highly motivated to run for the state legislature. It means raising funds, long days campaigning, speaking and attending forums and debates. The prize if a person wins is a $28,000 base salary and almost daily trips to Hartford through the winter and well into the spring, longer if a budget deal alludes the legislature. Community leaders also expect lawmakers to attend meetings and many local events, often on weekends. Since the pay is part time, legislators have to figure how to work their real jobs around the legislative duties.

Coutu said persistence can pay off. It can take two or three attempts to dislodge an entrenched incumbent, he said. Whether the same challengers will return in 2012, or good replacements found, will depend in large part on what happens the next two years, Coutu said. If the Democratic majority gets serious about controlling spending, consolidating agencies and avoids major tax increases, incumbents will be far less vulnerable, Coutu said.

But if it is more of the same, if Hartford makes no serious attempt to trim government growth and passes a big tax increase, many of the challengers will be back, he predicted. And next time, voters will be ready to make a change, Coutu said.

While that sounds a bit like Linus' annual prediction that the Great Pumpkin will arrive, you have to admire the persistence of this Republican in a Democrat land.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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