Gizzi on Politics Aug. 10 2009

Opportunity on ‘Gold Coast’

 When I met Rob Merkle a few weeks ago, my feelings about the Westport, Conn., businessman and conservative U.S. House hopeful were much like those of anyone who knows something about the Connecticut Republican Party: That the onetime Notre Dame football player was a young (40) owner of a personnel firm was impressive as was his solid cultural and economic conservatism , although history has shown a moderate-to-liberal GOPer favored as the party’s nominee in Connecticut’s 4th District (Fairfield County).

 The part of the Nutmeg State frequently described as “the Gold Coast” and “Madison Avenue’s bedroom” has been represented in Congress by an entire generation of Republicans who were anything but conservative: Abner Sibal (1960-64), Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. (1968-70), Stewart B. McKinney, Jr. (1970-87) and, until last year, Christopher Shays (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 48%). The combination of Shays’ support for the Bush Administration on Iraq and the overall Democratic tidal wave in Connecticut led to the 22-year lawmaker’s defeat at the hands of liberal Democrat Jim Himes.  

 In seeking the nomination to oppose Haim next year, Merkle faced a seemingly herculean obstacle in the candidacy of State Senate GOP Leader John McKinney, a liberal GOPer and son of the still-loved Stew McKinney. But last week, Republican politics in the 4th District were turned upside down when McKinney made the startling announcement that he would not run after all. At this point, in a situation Connecticut conservatives only dream about, the only active candidate for nomination against Himes is Rob Merkle.  

 “Sure, I know about the political history here,” Merkle told me when we met. “But I also know that times are different and, with all of the tax dollars spent on bailouts and stimulus packages, and the government’s takeover of private industry, voters will respond to a businessman who has been hurt by the recession and doesn’t think their money should be wasted.” Merkle also made it clear he was “pro-life, across-the-board”—a rare position in a state where virtually all elected Republicans express some degree of support for abortion and several formerly pro-life officials have changed their views to pro-abortion.  

 No one believes for a minute that the U.S. House nomination will be left to first-time candidate Merkle without a fight. Will Gregory, a former staffer on the Bush ’04 and McCain presidential campaigns, officially filed his candidacy last week. Already there is talk that two-term State Sen. Dan DeBicella of Shelton and former State Sen. Rob Russo of the Trumbull-Bridgeport area will run for the nod. Both are considered moderates and Russo (who won his seat in a special election but lost it in three successive races) works in the office of moderate-to-liberal Republican Gov. Jodi Rell.  

 Under state election laws, if no candidate gets 50% of the vote from delegates to a districtwide convention next summer, there is no endorsement of a candidate. Contenders who receive 15% of the convention are then eligible to compete in a primary in August. There is also a provision for getting on the primary ballot by submitting petitions with signatures from 2% of registered Republicans (or about 2500 Republicans in the 4th), but this has never been done in state history. Connecticut also has a “closed primary,” meaning only registered Republicans may vote in it.  

 Merkle and I also discussed his late father: onetime U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle, the “Rudy Giuliani of Florida” who waged war against lawbreakers ranging from mobsters in Tampa to onetime Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. (Merkle’s pursuit of Noriega earned him a profile on CBS-TV’s “Sixty Minutes.”) Young Merkle recalled how his father, with almost no money, challenged then-Rep. and fellow conservative Connie Mack for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 1988 and got 42% of the vote.  

 “Dad had the odds against him and, while he didn’t win, he did better than expected,” said Merkle, adding with confidence: “I’ll get that 15% I need to take my case to primary voters.”   

 Recalling a Character In New Hampshire Politics

 Ryan Williams, spokesman for the New Hampshire Republican Party, was telling me last week how former state House Speaker Marshall Cobleigh used to bring to the party headquarters tapes of his debating liberal Democrat (and present U.S. Sen.) Jeanne Shaheen on WMUR-TV’s popular “Close-Up” program in the late 1980s.  

 “There was no question she was a liberal—big time,” Williams told me. When I inquired about Cobleigh—whom I knew from his race for Congress in 1980 and his years as top aide to Rep. (1990-96) Bill Zeliff (R.-N.H.), I was shocked to learn that the Manchester conservative had died in January of congestive heart failure.  

 Portly, verbose, and always quick with a comeback, Cobleigh was one of the true characters of Granite State politics. It was no surprise that his anecdote-packed autobiography was titled We Ain’t Making Sausages Here!

 A U.S. Navy veteran who served on President Harry Truman’s yacht, Cobleigh also coached a women’s basketball team during his time in uniform. In 1957, he graduated from Boston University and five years later, was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives.  

 Cobleigh became majority leader of the house in 1966 and speaker two years later. His assumption of the gavel coincided with the election to the governorship of a fellow Republican who was far more moderate: Walter Peterson, with whom Speaker Cobleigh often butted heads.  

 In 1972, Cobleigh sought the Republican nomination for U.S. senator but, in a four-candidate primary, lost to former Gov. (1958-62) Wesley Powell (who went on to lose in November to Democratic Sen. Thomas McIntyre). That same year, Peterson lost renomination to conservative Mel Thomson, who went on to win the governorship in November. Thompson named Cobleigh his top point man with the legislature.  

 Cobleigh defeated four other Republicans (including Sen.-to-be Bob Smith) for the Republican nomination for Congress in the Manchester-based 1st District in 1980. Although he raised little money against three-term Democratic Rep. Norm D’Amours, Cobleigh got much publicity by appearing at every campaign stop with a pound of meat. The meat, Cobleigh told voters, represented the double-digit inflation affecting food prices that he said D’Amours and congressional Democrats were responsible for.  

 A devoted campaign volunteer to the end, Cobleigh helped old friend Zeliff win and hold onto his House seat and helped elect another old friend, John Sununu, governor in 1988. He also had great political stories to tell until his death at age 78.  

 Short Takes

 Voting Booth in Delaware Senate: For the first time in more than two decades, Delaware’s 19th senatorial district (Western and Central Sussex Counties) will be sending a Republican to the state senate. In a special election last week, GOP State Rep. Joe Booth rolled up a whopping 63% of the vote to win the seat of the late Democratic State Sen. Thurman Adams. In a result unnerving national Democrats, Booth defeated Democratic nominee Polly Adams Mervine, daughter of the late senator, and two conservative-leaning independent candidates.  

 Voters Pan Reeves: Of 167 candidates for City Council, eighteen won the right to compete in a fall race for nine councilman seats. Three incumbents didn’t run—Sheila Cockrel (wife of City Council President George Cockrel), Barbara-Rose Collins (a former Democratic congresswoman), and Monica Conyers, wife of House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D.-Mich.), whose campaign was forced to end after she pleaded guilty to bribery. There was only one surprise.

 The lone incumbent eliminated was perhaps the best-known Detroit council member: Martha Reeves, famed as the lead singer in the Vandellas, whose hits include “Dancing in the Streets,” and “Heat Wave.” Earlier this year, following the removal of Mayor Kwame Kirkpatrick on corruption charges, onetime Detroit Piston basketball great Dave Bing won City Hall on a reform ticket.