GOP hopes surge in New England

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New England Republicans, dismissed as a vanishing breed after a string of congressional losses, are now thinking comeback.

Tapping a deep vein of voter discontent over the economy, jobs and President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, the GOP has a reasonable shot at capturing a handful of House races in the six-state region.

“I think people are feeling this sense of desperation and this sense of fixing the country and stopping spending,” said Kate Benway, 30, a Republican from Concord, N.H., who works in marketing. “I don’t think those are necessarily new messages, but somehow we’re at this psychological breaking point.”

Scott Brown’s stunning claim on the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat in liberal Massachusetts earlier this year was a jolt of energy for the GOP. The little-known Brown’s success in one of the bluest states set off Democratic alarm bells — and sent Republican hopes soaring that the party can reverse its long slide in New England in this fall’s midterm elections.

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Republicans need to retake 40 seats in November to regain control of the House. Success in a Democratic stronghold like New England could significantly improve GOP efforts nationally.

“The public really wants to see balance in Washington and has become extremely wary of one-party control of both houses and the administration,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a prominent Republican moderate who has bucked the trend. “That general feeling and some of the excesses of the Obama administration and the increase in spending have set the stage for a Republican comeback.”

Democrats still enjoy a strong hold on New England, where Obama easily swept the six states in 2008. And with six months until November, the party hopes the signs of economic revival continue and voter disenchantment fades. In the coming weeks, congressional Democrats hope to gain an edge as they push a new crackdown on Wall Street abuses.

“I am significantly upbeat, certainly here in New England,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said. “With the economy turning around, we’ll be in good shape in November. … A Republican winning up here is more of an anomaly than a regular current anymore.”

Still, Republican prospects are looking up in:

—New Hampshire, where polling shows the GOP favored to win back the two House seats the party lost in the 2006 Democratic tide. Two-term Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter appears vulnerable, and a second seat is open because Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes is running for the Senate. Republican Sen. Judd Gregg decided not to seek re-election. Former Rep. Charlie Bass, a centrist ousted four years ago, is embracing the agenda of conservatives and tea party activists who played a key role in Brown’s victory. GOP candidates are pushing strong anti-government themes in crowded primaries in both districts. “Republicans will do well,” said former Sen. John E. Sununu, who was toppled by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen two years ago.

—Rhode Island, where there are echoes of Brown’s insurgency in Republican John Loughlin’s bid for retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s seat. Members of Brown’s political team are working for Loughlin. Like Brown, Loughlin is a state legislator who has served in the National Guard and opposed the new health care law. Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are backing Loughlin. Loughlin needs to score big in Providence and Woonsocket, Democratic strongholds.

—Massachusetts, where a hard-fought race is on tap for retiring Democratic Rep. William Delahunt’s seat, which stretches from Boston’s South Shore to Cape Cod and includes the Kennedy family’s Hyannis Port home. Brown won 60 percent of the vote in the district against Democrat Martha Coakley in the special Senate election, a surprising sign of GOP strength. The top Republicans are former state treasurer Joe Malone and Jeffrey Perry, a conservative state representative who has won Brown’s endorsement and is aggressively courting tea party activists.

“This is a good year for Republicans to be running,” Perry said. “The people that I am talking to, they’re not happy. The approval ratings for the people in Congress are going down, down, down and our problems are getting larger.”

A generation ago, New England was bedrock GOP turf. But the bloodlines have thinned since the 1960s, when social conservatives from the South and West began eclipsing the national party’s more moderate Eastern establishment.

The GOP suffered key House losses in Connecticut and New Hampshire as surging Democrats took control of Congress four years ago. Republicans were stung again in 2008 when a Democratic tide claimed Connecticut’s Christopher Shays, the last GOP House member from New England still standing.

That left a solid block of 22 Democrats representing the region’s six states in the House.

“People just wanted a change,” Bass said. “Now that the change has occurred, I think there’s a bit of buyer’s remorse going on.”

New England Republicans are borrowing from Brown’s winning formula, preaching jobs and fiscal conservatism and hammering away at Obama’s health care law, deriding it as a job-killing government takeover. They’re not saying much about social issues like abortion rights and gay marriage.

Democrats counter that an improving economy coupled with a fuller understanding of the benefits of the health care law will boost their prospects.

“I think the health care bill will be seen as a huge help for the middle class,” Shea-Porter said.

Polling this year shows slumping job performance ratings for Obama and Democrats. Republicans, who are largely unified in their opposition to Obama’s agenda, hope to have the same energy and strong voter turnout that carried Democrats in the past two elections.

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Miga reported from Washington.

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