Lost amidst the excitement surrounding the upcoming race for retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman’s seat is the another open seat race in Connecticut in 2012: the 5th Congressional District. Connecticut’s congressional districts don’t come open often; this will be the first race with no incumbent for a seat in the House of Representatives since Barbara Kennelly left her secure 1st district perch to launch an ill-fated campaign for governor in 1998. That year, John Larson defeated Republican Kevin O’Connor by the traditional wide margin, following his narrow win in a hotly-contested Democratic primary.

The current 5th district was created following the 2000 census, when Connecticut lost one of its seats in the House. The 6th district, then held by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-New Britain), was divided up between the 1st, 2nd and 5th districts, with the 5th absorbing most of it while losing some of its own mass to the expanded 4th district. The combined district set up a 2002 match between two incumbents, Johnson and Rep. Jim Maloney (D), which Johnson won. She held on to the district for four more years until losing it to Democrat Chris Murphy in 2006. Murphy has announced his intention to run for Lieberman’s seat, leaving the 5th open.

This district has shifted from what appeared to be a Republican stronghold in 2002 and 2004 (Litchfield County, which is mostly within the borders of the 5th, was the only Connecticut county to vote for George W. Bush over John Kerry) to a battleground in 2006 and a relatively secure Democratic district in 2008 and 2010.

Moderate voters in the 5th swung to Murphy, a moderate-to-liberal Democrat, from moderate Republican Johnson largely due to continuing outrage over the Iraq War and the larger War on Terror, which Johnson supported. Murphy was a big winner during the Democratic wave of 2008, and held on to win by his smallest margin, a very respectable 18,000 votes (8 percent) during the Republican wave of 2010.

The maps included here are illustrative of how Connecticut has changed politically since 2000. Until 2006, Republicans had a lock on three of the five congressional seats. By 2010, even with national winds at their backs, they were unable to win a single one of them back, and failed to hold the governorship. Instead, parts of the state that are absolutely crucial for Republican congressional candidates to win, like the Farmington Valley, were swept by Murphy. The Republican heartland in the west-central part of the state delivered more votes for Sam Caligiuri in 2010 than it had for Johnson in 2006 or David Cappiello in 2008, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Murphy’s lead elsewhere.

What does this mean for 2012? Should Republicans give up now? Obviously not. The 5th may be the most winnable district for a strong Republican candidate, though a presidential election year will present plenty of challenges. The 5th, like the rest of Connecticut, went for Obama in 2008, though less strongly than other parts of the state, so there’s a chance that a close election will keep the district within reach for a Republican. Also, candidates like Tom Foley and Linda McMahon did well here, so clearly voters in the 5th are more than willing to vote for a moderate Republican.

That leaves the question: who is that Republican? Does he or she exist? Is Justin Bernier, who lost a primary race to Caligiuri in 2010, up to the task? What about State Sen. Andrew Roraback (R-Goshen)? Both are relatively moderate Republicans who could potentially do well in this district. They may also get lucky and find themselves facing Rep. Chris Donovan (D-Meriden), whose record as Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives is lackluster at best. There are plenty of other Democrats who may jump into this race, though, and the odds are definitely in their favor for 2012. Republicans would likely need a perfect storm of factors to take this district back: a weak Obama and a popular GOP presidential nominee, as well as an appealing moderate as their candidate in the 5th and an uninspiring, flawed Democrat to run against. Otherwise it will be a very difficult fight.

Another variable in this race will be redistricting, which while it won’t be as dramatic as the redrawn boundaries of 2002 may lead to small but significant changes in how this district votes. Unfortunately for candidates, the final shape of Connecticut’s congressional districts for the 2012 election probably won’t be known until the end of this year.

So, while the U.S. Senate race is likely to suck all the air out of the room for the time being, the 5th district could wind up being the best chance Republicans have for taking back a spot in Connecticut’s congressional delegation. For that reason, it’s definitely a race to watch.

Susan Bigelow is the former owner/author of CTLocalPolitics.com. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.