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BANTAM, Conn. — During the 2006 midterm elections, Connecticut was one of the most fiercely contested states in the battle for the House, with three of its five seats in the Democratic cross hairs. But now — 16 months after Democrats Joe Courtney and Christopher Murphy ousted then-GOP Reps. Rob Simmons and Nancy Johnson and GOP Rep. Christopher Shays held off a stiff challenge for the second consecutive cycle — the Nutmeg State has lost much of its luster as a campaign hot spot for 2008.

The biggest target remains Shays, who faces a new challenger, Jim Himes — an investment banker, leader of an affordable-housing nonprofit and Greenwich Democratic Town Committee chairman. Himes has racked up an impressive fundraising record, even outraising Shays for one quarter last year.

However, the two seats that Republicans lost now look more like stretches for the GOP. Two former state legislators are vying for the right to take on Murphy, but he’s easily outraised them, and the prospect of a September GOP primary undercuts the party’s chances of scoring an upset. And while Courtney ousted Simmons by a mere 82 votes — the nation’s closest House race in 2006 — even Republicans acknowledge that challenger Sean Sullivan has not lived up to their initial hopes and is currently a dark horse.

Sullivan brought a sterling résumé to the race once it became clear that Simmons had decided against a rematch (Simmons took a job in the administration of GOP Gov. Jodi Rell.) Sullivan is the former commander of the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, a major employer in the blue-collar district. But his candidacy “is still waiting to get traction,” acknowledged one Connecticut Republican. Other national and local GOP sources echoed this assessment.

Through December, Sullivan had raised just $162,000 — far behind Courtney’s $1,267,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. Sources said that is far too little to mount a credible campaign in the district.

As a result, Courtney, despite his tiny winning margin in 2006, now looks like “a shoo-in,” said Kevin Reynolds, the legal counsel to the state Democratic Party. His view was seconded by other Connecticut Democrats.

As for Murphy — who ousted Johnson, a senior lawmaker, with 54 percent of the vote in 2006 — he too seems to be solidifying his hold on the district, according to sources in both parties. He’s considered “omnipresent” back home, one Democratic strategist said.

“He works really hard at his job and is good at it,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic consultant based in Connecticut. Occhiogrosso noted that Murphy cut his political teeth as the young campaign manager for Charlotte Koskoff, a Democrat who nearly knocked off Johnson in 1996 despite overwhelming odds.

“He never underestimates anyone,” Occhiogrosso said.

The GOP has been hitting Murphy on missing key votes, including one to reform the Federal Housing Administration and another on lobbying ethics reform, even though the latter came just days after he had helped lead a news conference on the topic. Whether the GOP will get a clear shot at him, however, remains to be seen.

Republicans have been banking on a strong challenge from GOP state Sen. David Cappiello, who they pitch as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate — a politician in the mold of Johnson, who held the district for almost a quarter-century. And his fundraising was robust enough to earn him a spot in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Challengers Helping Obtain the Majority Program, or CHOMP, program.

But his money haul suffered a dip later in 2007, a change that Cappiello attributed to the birth of his child. Through December, Murphy had raised $1,419,000 compared to Cappiello’s $400,000. Republicans say they expect Cappiello’s fundraising haul to rise in the next quarterly disclosure report.

Another distraction came in October, when Danbury garbage company executive James Galante was charged with making illegal campaign contributions in 2002 and 2003 to political action committees connected to Cappiello and two other Connecticut politicians.

Democrats quickly used the charges to attack Cappiello’s candidacy. Cappiello pleaded ignorance, and Republicans quickly closed ranks to support him. State GOP Chairman Chris Healy told the Hartford Courant’s Web site last October that “it’s not [Cappiello’s] fault that someone else has been arrested for a crime.”

The media focus on the Galante-Cappiello connection has waned since then, but with Galante’s trial expected later this year, observers say that the allegations could return to the headlines periodically throughout the campaign.

Meanwhile, late last year another GOP candidate emerged: businessman and former state Rep. Tony Nania. The prospect of a Republican primary — one that won’t be held until September — threatens to make the GOP’s chances of regaining the seat even longer.

The one Connecticut contest that does look like a barnburner this cycle is the Shays-Himes race. In 2004 and 2006, Westport First Selectwoman Diane Farrell (D) challenged Shays — one of the GOP’s most moderate House Members, and a politician who’s generally well-liked in the district — in well-funded marquee contests. But each time she fell short, even during the 2006 Democratic wave.

Democrats privately say that having a new candidate helps them in 2008, and Himes’ fundraising totals have been impressive. While the incumbent raised $1,168,000 through December, Himes was not far behind at $951,000 and ended 2007 with slightly more money in the bank than the incumbent.

Democrats here say that Himes is focusing intensively on assembling the kind of get-out-the-vote efforts that could have put Farrell over the top. They also say that Shays’ continued support for the Iraq War keeps him out of sync with the district.

“Voters in that district have finally reached a tipping point,” argues Occhiogrosso, the Democratic consultant.

Democrats say that in this generally Democratic state, the fact that it’s a presidential year should produce conditions similar to the 2006 midterm wave. The district includes wealthy areas that have been trending Democratic as well as more urban areas with a strong Democratic lean.

“If you look at the numbers, twice as many Democrats voted in the district as Republicans, and that was before [Arizona Sen. John McCain] was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. In a blue district, Chris Shays will have a hard time getting re-elected with a strong Democratic candidate and an enthusiastic base,” said Carrie James, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republicans, while girding for a nip-and-tuck race, say they fully expect Shays to survive. After winning another term despite the 2006 GOP wipeout, “Shays will get re-elected” in 2008 as well, said George Gallo, a former GOP state chairman who now serves as chief of staff to the state House Republican leadership.

NRCC spokesman Ken Spain added, “I think both [Farrell and Himes] don’t seem to get the fact that Chris Shays transcends partisan lines.”

There’s also another possibility — that Shays doesn’t make it to the finish line. He told national and local media outlets that he would not seek another term if he fails to secure the ranking member spot on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. If that happens, and if Shays keeps his word about leaving, then the Democrats would be strongly favored to flip the seat — and the Connecticut House race landscape would become even less of a national crucible than it has already become this year.

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