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Defending Sarah

It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon in October, and, as Republican Representative Chris Shays drives between churches in his affluent Connecticut district, he is talking about the possibility of being knifed. "Rahm Emanuel--if I got a knife, it would be in my belly," he says, referring to the combative head of the Democratic Caucus. "With Nancy," he continues, alluding to the House speaker, "it would be in my back." He then goes on to tell a story about an encounter that took place two years ago at the House gym. At the time, Emanuel was head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which was targeting Shays--a Rockefeller Republican who represents a Democratic district--for defeat. In the gym's locker room, Shays approached Emanuel and said he was "really disappointed" that, with so many races to choose from, the DCCC had chosen to target him. Emanuel, Shays recalls, "put his hands on both shoulders, looked at me square in the eyes, and said, 'Look, with all due respect, from one friend to another, we're going to spend a fucking three million dollars to defeat you.' That was his words. Verbatim."

Shays--a trim 63-year-old who's driving himself and wearing a light-green sweater plus a Peace Corps alumni baseball cap--describes the encounter as friendly and says both men laughed as they traded barbs. But the fact that he is still dwelling on the incident two years later suggests that maybe, just maybe, both Emanuel and the DCCC have gotten inside his head. If so, it would be easy to understand why. Thanks to the 2006 Democratic wave that Emanuel helped engineer, Shays is now the only Republican House member in New England. And, having barely held onto his seat in Connecticut's fourth district in 2004 and 2006, he is once again embroiled in a close race, this time against Democrat Jim Himes, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker from Greenwich. (Connecticut's fourth may be the only district in the country where it is still acceptable for a politician to have Goldman Sachs on his resumé.) The latest poll from SurveyUSA shows Himes leading by three points. Meanwhile, The Cook Report has described the race as "a toss-up," and both campaigns say it is likely to be a squeaker.

More than anything else, what has protected Shays all these years is his image as a maverick. Sure, he may be a Republican, but on issue after issue--abortion, gay rights, gun control, the environment--he has repeatedly proven willing to buck his own party. He was the first GOP representative to call for Tom DeLay to step down when the majority leader was accused of ethics violations. And, in 2006, he suspended his campaign for three days after the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) sent out a flier declaring that his opponent, Dianne Farrell, wanted to have "coffee talk with the Taliban" (a footnote indicated that it was actually the leader of an organization that endorsed Farrell who had suggested that the United States sit down with the Afghan Islamists). "After the election," Shays says, "I took a bundle of [ads] down to Washington and said, 'I want to see the idiot who thought this was helping me.'"

This year, Shays boasts that he hasn't allowed the NRCC to run any commercials for his campaign. He's also refused to so much as mention Himes in his ads, staying true to his long-standing distaste for negative campaigning of any kind. And he never hesitates to proclaim his credentials as an iconoclast. "I'm one of the few politicians that isn't captured by the extremes of either party," he told me.

Clearly, his maverick spirit remains as strong as ever. And yet that, in an odd reversal from past election cycles, may now be part of Chris Shays's problem.

In recent years, Shays has kept his distance from presidential races. Not this time around. McCain and Shays have been allies for a long time, most famously on their pet issue of campaign finance reform. The two men don't just share the same causes, though; they also share a temperamental affinity--a certain pride in their mutual penchant for disloyalty to the political party they call home. In short, they have a lot in common. It's no surprise, then, that Shays is serving as co-chair of McCain's campaign committee in Connecticut, has stumped for the Republican candidate in New Hampshire, and, during the Republican convention, described Obama as having "no record, none, zero, zip." In the last few weeks, even as a number of local GOP candidates across the country have sought to distance themselves from their party's floundering nominee, Shays's enthusiasm for McCain--whom he endorsed all the way back in February 2007--has not waned. He recently told National Journal that, when it came to Congress, he thought a President McCain would "shake things up in a very constructive way."

Moderate voters might have forgiven Shays if he had confined himself to cheering McCain or even to criticizing Obama. But Shays has gone a step further, coming out swinging in defense of the most polarizing figure in national politics: Sarah Palin. Despite originally planning to stay home from the Republican convention to focus on his own race (and perhaps to avoid the taint of his party), Shays flew out to Minneapolis at the last minute to support Palin, whom he believed was being unfairly assailed by the press. "I saw all these attacks--they didn't say the same things to Barack Obama. They didn't question his record. They didn't talk about what he's done," Shays told MSNBC. When asked how Palin's anti-choice stance might play among the women in his district, Shays (who is himself pro-choice) responded, "You know, not all women are pro-choice. ... It's a woman that should be selected, not a particular kind of woman."

How could a liberal Republican who faults the religious right for "weeding out centrists" express so much enthusiasm for a vice-presidential pick made largely to appease religious conservatives? How could someone who seems to compulsively disdain partisanship of all kinds become so enamored with Palin, given her ultra-partisan attacking style? What, exactly, is Shays thinking?

I asked Shays how he could reconcile his support of Palin with his worldview. "If people want to say she has views about government that I disagree with--what she has and what I like about her is what I like about John McCain," he responded, adding, "I really believe she is one gutsy person that is willing to shake things up in her state in a way that few men have." In other words, Shays supports Palin because he sees her as a fellow maverick.

But that stance could cost him in a district where Obama currently leads by ten points. At a town fair in working-class Shelton, I met Linda Robak, a 54-year-old who had long counted herself a Shays fan but is now working for the Himes campaign. "It all changed when he endorsed Sarah Palin and called her a qualified candidate for v.p.," Robak told me. "Three weeks ago, I sent him a letter. I always respected him, but he threw away his credibility." Democrats, meanwhile, have been doing their best to make hay of Shays's unexpected proximity to his party's presidential ticket. One DCCC commercial links him directly to McCain--citing remarks in which he echoes McCain's line that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong"--and Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro has denounced Shays's defense of Palin as "demeaning to women." When I asked Himes about his opponent's support for the Alaska governor, he didn't hesitate to pile on, citing a comment that Shays made in a television interview: "He claims to support reproductive rights; she opposes abortion. Then he calls her 'awesome.' How could he?"

And so it is that the one thing which has long protected Shays--his maverick sensibility--could now help end his political career. In that sense, he is very much like McCain himself. The Arizona senator, after all, has been well served by his maverick instincts for much of his political life. But, at the most important moment of his career, those instincts led him in disastrous directions--causing him to gamble with his vice-presidential pick, provoking him to suspend his campaign in the midst of the financial crisis, and generally making him appear erratic and unpresidential.

Of course, Shays has survived for a long time under precarious conditions, and perhaps--despite the considerable risk he took in lining up so closely behind fellow mavericks McCain and Palin--he will hold on for yet another victory. And if not? It won't necessarily have been Rahm Emanuel or Nancy Pelosi who did him in. Arguably, Chris Shays will have knifed himself.

Suzy Khimm is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.