During his three terms in Congress, Rob Simmons often referred to himself as a "Connecticut Republican." The stress was always on the first word.
If Connecticut Republican is a species, then its genus is the oft-mentioned and oft-misrepresented New England Republican. Conventional wisdom holds that these are fiscally conservative, socially liberal GOPers representative of the region's wealth and tolerance. They're for balanced budgets without the Bible Belt.
Simmons is in the midst of a heated Republican primary against challengers Linda McMahon and Peter Schiff to replace liberal Connecticut icon Chris Dodd in the Senate. A former congressman from eastern Connecticut, Simmons had eagerly jumped in to challenge Dodd, assuming he'd coast to victory. Now Dodd has bowed out to be replaced by popular Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and McMahon has caught up with Simmons, according to a Quinnipiac poll.
If New England Republicans were really fiscal conservatives, then one would be desperately needed in Connecticut, which has a projected budget deficit of $3 billion by 2012. As the state's fiscal chickens come home to roost, there's a rare anti-government sentiment in the Nutmeg State that the candidates are trying to tap into. Schiff, an articulate economist, constantly rages against all forms of government. McMahon, a former president of popular wrestling franchise WWE, touts her experience as a businesswoman and promises to "lay the smackdown" on Washington.
Simmons' strategy has been to embody the popular perception of the New England Republican. As he declared at a recent debate, he's fiscally conservative "because it's your money" and socially moderate "because it's your life." This has always been his philosophy, he promises. Trust him.
If that were true, New England would be in the midst of a decades-long libertarian renaissance and Logan Airport would have been renamed after Ayn Rand.
The reality is that New England Republicans like Simmons are usually politicians who want to enact the Democratic agenda at a slightly slower pace than Democrats. They aren't driven by a Lockean philosophy, a Hayekian philosophy, or really any philosophy at all. They view themselves as reasonable because they work with Democrats and loudly reject conservative excesses. Hailing from the bluest region of the country, they're constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure they're not about to face political extinction for voting the wrong way. The quintessential New England Republican is former Congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut. Shays played the game perfectly for 22 years, voting for both conservative and liberal causes, making a public display of anguish during the Clinton impeachment, before the Democrat steamroller finally caught up with him in 2008.
There are certainly exceptions -- New Hampshire's Judd Gregg comes to mind -- but pre-2009, it was very hard to find a Republican in New England who wasn't a moderate milquetoast.
Now, for the first time in years, the definition of a New England Republican is changing. New Englanders are growing tired of struggling under massive tax rates. The state governments are collapsing under red ink. Scott Brown charged into Massachusetts, the heart of New England liberalism, and took the fort by flying the colors of an unabashed and lively fiscal conservative.
Like most savvy GOP candidates right now, Rob Simmons is posturing as a fiscal conservative in his Senate campaign, hoping to play off Brown's success. But searching for fiscal conservatism in Simmons' record is like trying to find a cowboy rodeo in Hartford. Simmons was a co-sponsor of cap-and-trade and card check legislation in Congress, both of which would cripple businesses. He proudly introduced himself to constituents as a "Big Labor Republican" and was endorsed repeatedly by the AFL-CIO. He voted against drilling in ANWR. The League of Conservation Voters endorsed him, as did Friends of the Earth which called him "an up-and-coming environmental champion." Simmons calls himself a proud member of the Sierra Club.
If anything, Simmons is fiscally liberal and socially deplorable. He voted against a ban on barbaric partial-birth abortions and against a law that would make it a crime to harm a fetus while committing another crime. That's some strong medicine even in Connecticut.
And if that isn't egregious enough, Simmons wrote a letter to Jimmy Carter in 2005 dripping with effusive praise after the former president opposed the shuttering of a submarine base in Simmons' district. "And when we think back to Admiral Hyman Rickover's question to you, 'Why not the best,' we all answer with enthusiasm and conviction, 'Jimmy Carter is the best,'" Simmons wrote. At the time, Carter was hopscotching the world denouncing America's policies in Iraq and meeting with foreign dictators.
In other words, Simmons is an old guard New England Republican.
Up until recently, he proudly flaunted his progressivism. Simmons' district consists of the eastern third of Connecticut, a Democratic stronghold inside a Democratic stronghold, which sent him packing in 2006 in favor of a doctrinaire Democrat named Joe Courtney. Now Simmons carries a copy of the Constitution in his pocket and chats with protesters waving "Don't Tread on Me" flags. In televised debates, he rails against Obamacare and declares his support of cap-and-trade to have been a mistake. A skilled politician, his populist outrage is pitch-perfect.
But it's also fraudulent, and Connecticut conservatives need to remember that. Right now, fiscal discipline and constitutionalism are under assault by the same unions and greenies whose endorsements Simmons accepted, clamoring for the same policies Simmons co-sponsored. The debate over health care reform drew the battle lines very clearly. Voting for someone who used to fight for the other side just doesn't make sense right now.
McMahon and Schiff could both replicate Scott Brown's success in Connecticut. Schiff is a skilled economist and debater, but has little chance of winning. McMahon started off slow, but is increasingly impressive. She also has that hallmark of all successful political candidates: gobs of money. She's pledged to spend $50 million to win her campaign, and has already blitzed the state with TV spots.
Richard Blumenthal is beatable, long shot though it may be. Blumenthal is a tedious and unattractive candidate -- he performed disastrously during a grilling on Glenn Beck's show. He also has a history of wasting state money on crusading lawsuits that boost his own public image, which led the Competitive Enterprise Institute to name him the worst attorney general in America. His profligacy could be an Achilles' heel in the current political climate.
So it'll be a race to replace a white-haired liberal lion from a deep-blue New England state in which the Democrat is an uncharismatic but wildly popular attorney general. Last time that happened, it worked out pretty well.
Conservatives can win in Connecticut and for the first time in decades they can do it without plugging their nose before they support a candidate. It's time to abandon the New England Republicans of the past like Rob Simmons and embrace real Yankee conservatism.
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