WASHINGTON – He's a congressional Republican who wants to increase protections on whistleblowers at the National Security Agency, has pushed for stronger lobbying reform legislation and called for the resignation of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
But Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays may find it won't be easy to escape his party label in what many say is a pretty dark period for the House GOP.
"He's very vulnerable, that's the short answer," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which has the race between Shays and Democratic opponent Diane Farrell — who lost to Shays by four points in 2004 — in the "pure toss up" category.
"This is a much better environment for [Farrell] than 2004," Gonzales said. "Chris Shays has been pretty steadfast in his mind about being independent and trying to emphasize his profile as an independent, but on Election Day how far does that take him when he still has an 'R' behind his name?"
But others say Shays, who represents the Nutmeg State's 4th Congressional District, won't be taken unawares in the November poll. Campaign manager Michael Sohn said Shays is amassing a rare, bountiful campaign war chest — over $1.7 million as of the latest Federal Election Commission filing — and has been stumping non-stop.
Shays and his supporters are hammering home the message that the 10-term representative is not a tool of the Republican power structure back in Washington, D.C., and reminding voters that he has been toiling in government reform since before it was fashionable.
"He's a fighter with a fierce independent streak which resonates remarkably well in an electorate like the one he represents," said Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
As if to punctuate that point, Sohn provided a list of heavy hitters coming to campaign for Shays in the near future, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Neither is much of a conservative lightning rod.
Connecticut's 4th District is comprised of the working-class city of Bridgeport; the Gold Coast towns of Westport, Stamford and Fairfield; and the affluent New York suburbs of Redding, Darien, Ridgefield and Monroe. Its constituents are mostly Democrat and liberal. They are, according to both Democrats and Republicans in the district, unhappy with the war in Iraq and expect to make it a major issue on Election Day.
"It's the war, the war, the war," said Gary Rose, professor of government at Sacred Heart University in Stamford. "This was a concern two years ago and it has become accentuated."
Unlike many of his past positions, Shays is in lockstep with President Bush on the war in Iraq. He has been to that country 12 times and has made recommendations on the things he said need improvement, but he has largely attempted to convey that progress is continuing.
"Whether or not you believe we should have gone to Iraq, we are there now," Shays said in his acceptance speech for his party's nomination May 15. "And no doubt Al Qaeda is there now as well … They believe they will win because they listen to the debate here at home and doubt our resolve."
Americans have resolve but have lost faith in the administration's ability to execute the war and get American forces home soon and safely, Farrell argues. She said voters feel they have been lied to about the reasons for the war in Iraq and Congress has been woefully inadequate in its oversight.
"[Shays] will continue to position himself as an independent … but he freely aligns himself with the president on the war," said the former Westport First Selectwoman, who so far has raised more than $1.1 million for her campaign.
She said Republicans have no real plans for Iraq other than to stay the course, adding that a vote for Shays is a vote for the "status quo."
"It's an extraordinary quagmire," she added.
Farrell said that she believes 2006 should be a "year of transition," in which American forces begin to draw down and redeploy to the borders of Iraq while continuing to help the Iraqis achieve full independence.
"Her message comes right out of Washington, there's no doubt about it," said Pete Wogast, chairman of the Westport Republican Town Committee and a big supporter of Shays. "Two years ago, [Farrell] ran against Tom DeLay, now she's running against President Bush."
"She manages to attach [Shays] to the sentiment against the Bush administration," Tom Henry, editor of the Westport Minuteman newspaper in the district, said of Farrell. "But if anyone can steer clear of that it's him. ... He's managed to be re-elected for 18 years in this strange district."
However, Henry added, "Who knows how people are going to be feeling in November?"
Shay's campaign manager said the congressman is not afraid to defend his Iraq policy to his constituents.
"We know it's an issue. He's not running away from the issue," said Sohn. "We are dealing with it head-on."
In March, in a rare move and effort to prove his support for the objectives in Iraq, Shays endorsed Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman for re-election, primarily because of the Connecticut senator's strong support for the administration's war policy.
But Lieberman has his own share of problems as a result of his views on the war, and he is facing his first serious primary challenger in recent memory.
"I think Joe Lieberman is in the same boat [Shays] is in … he doesn't want to admit he made a mistake" on the war, said Beatrice Steeneck of Fairfield, who recently served as a member of the Democratic State Central Committee.
She said the political atmosphere, largely against Republican incumbents in Washington has resulted in a "real outpouring" for Farrell.
Like the national party, members of Shays' campaign say they do not believe the race will be decided on the single issue of Iraq, and Shays isn't considered one of the big boosters for the GOP leadership back in Washington anyway. Still, Democrats say a vote for him is a vote to keep the current Republican leadership in control.
"I think people are very concerned about the direction the country is headed and simply by that alone, Chris is implicated," said Mitchell Fuchs, chairman of the Fairfield Democratic Town Committee. "Despite the fact that they want to blame [Democrats] for all the troubles in the country, the Republicans have the power and they haven't been doing their job."