GOP Set for Rebound in New England?

The six states of New England -- never a hotbed of conservative politics in the best of times -- have been particularly blue since the Republican bloodbaths of 2006 and 2008. The 22 House seats shared among Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts are all currently held by Democrats. Republicans hold only four of the twelve Senate seats there, including the recent upstart invasion of Scott Brown in the Bay State. But as Bob Dylan once mumbled, the times they are a changing, and this very blue region is showing signs of turning increasingly purple in 2010.

Connecticut may be leading the way in this tidal shift. In the 4th District, Democrat Jim Himes is sitting on an impressive $1.3 million war chest, but as many as five Republicans are vying for a chance to take him on, and Himes’ support may be far shakier than the raw fundraising numbers would indicate. The 5th District also has several GOP contenders, including Litchfield businessman Mark Greenberg, who has tuned into voter discontent on key issues by promising to eschew the plush congressional health care plan and refuse the government pension scheme if elected.

The Senate is another question, however. Chris Dodd is on his way out under a cloud of perceived scandals, but this has opened the door for Richard Blumenthal, who seems to enjoy popular support across the state. On the GOP side, Rob Simmons has seen his fundraising efforts cool in recent days and former WWE CEO Linda McMahon’s largely self-financed campaign has failed to generate a lot of heat.

That seat is something of a parallel to the governor’s race in neighboring New York. While Republicans have enjoyed the plunging approval numbers and scent of scandal surrounding David Paterson, his eventual exit will open the door for Andrew Cuomo. The attorney general currently rides a wave of roughly 70% popularity across the state.

Both of Rhode Island’s Democratic-held House seats appear to be teetering. In the state’s 1st District, Patrick Kennedy has already announced his retirement under the weight of sagging approval numbers, and retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Loughlin is showing serious signs of life as a Republican challenger.  On the other side of the state, it would be surprising if Mark Zaccaria were able to unseat incumbent Democrat Jim Langevin, but Langevin is facing a surprisingly well-financed primary challenge from Elizabeth Dennigan, and if that battle turns bloody enough, Zaccaria’s fortunes may begin to rise.

Meanwhile, in the always independent-minded New Hampshire, the GOP feels confident about their chances to hold on to Judd Gregg’s Senate seat after his retirement. The Granite State’s 1st District is already in turmoil for the Democrats. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter has seen her approval ratings sink to 35% and she trails in the polls to all perspective Republican challengers. Leading the pack is Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta, who whips her outside the margins with a ten-point lead. The 2nd District isn’t looking much better for Team Donkey. Charlie Bass leads both of the likely Democratic hopefuls in recent polling.

Even though Scott Brown sucked all the air out of the media room in Massachusetts last month, Republicans shouldn’t take that as a sign that the entire state is turning bright red. There are several districts, including the strongholds around Boston and Cambridge, where no amount of political dynamite is going to blow the Democrats out of their seats. But as a recent report indicates, of the ten House seats there, viable Republican candidates are coming forward in at least seven of them. There are even GOP primary battles in the offing, a thing unheard of in most election cycles. Even a handful of Bay State seats shifting to Republican hands would be big news in that part of the country, and it’s looking more and more likely as the next election cycle rolls onward.

Vermont and Maine may not shift very much this year, but Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins could have more company at their lonely, New England Senate GOP lunch table than just Scott Brown come next January. And while we’re on the subject of the Maine sisters, this is a good time to consider the nature of the new Northeastern delegation hopefuls.

Regional politics vary wildly across the country, and nowhere is that more true than in New England. As the previously mentioned report indicates, some districts such as Rhode Island’s second still maintain a Democratic registration advantage as high as four to one over Republicans. But as daunting as those numbers may sound, they pale in comparison to the 48% of the voters who register as independents. These are not battles which are won by the base, but by carrying the middle.

Demographically the region shows a history of looking kindly upon fiscal conservatives, particularly in trying economic times. But they still skew decidedly liberal (or at least libertarian) on many social issues. There are hard fights ahead for many of these Republican candidates, particularly in terms of fundraising in the face of long-entrenched, well-financed Democratic machines. They will need strong grassroots support from across the nation, such as Scott Brown enjoyed, including places where many of them would probably be indistinguishable from Democrats.

The Cook Political Report is showing many Democrat-held House races as being in play, with as many as fifty or even sixty seats up for grabs. The Republicans are facing a game-changing moment of opportunity. But to turn that into a reality, some sectors of the base will need to let go of the “purge the RINOs” mentality which has been running rampant of late and realize that retaking a significant portion of the lost ground in New England will be a key component of success. If that means opening up the tent a bit, it still seems far more appealing than fighting from the cheap seats for two more years.