If I’d told you before this week’s 5th-district GOP congressional debate that John Rowland, the crooked ex-governor, would not be mentioned even once and that a dead Democrat, of all things, would receive posthumous accolades for his tax policies, I’m sure you’d have called me crazy.

But that’s exactly what happened at Torrington City Hall on Monday afternoon when 150 people assembled to hear five candidates mostly stick to their talking points even in the face of a controversy surrounding Rowland’s multiple roles in the 5th-district campaign.

Businessman Mark Greenberg read from a speech President John F. Kennedy gave on cutting marginal tax rates and invoked the slain ex-president not once, but twice. Meanwhile, ex-FBI agent Mike Clark, who played a key role in sending Rowland to the pokey, never mentioned the fact that he’d filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission last week over Rowland’s involvement with Lisa Wilson-Foley’s campaign and mysterious payments steered to Rowland by a business owned by Wilson-Foley’s husband.

And in giving a backhanded compliment to an Obamacare feature that prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, former Afghanistan war veteran Justin Bernier conceded that “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” It’s not clear if the former Naval intelligence officer was paying homage to the role of nearby Winsted as Connecticut’s erstwhile clock-manufacturing capital.

Save the topics of abortion and taxes (I’ll get to them later), there were few differences among the candidates. With apologies to the digital generation, all five office seekers sounded more like a broken record than a broken clock: the economy sucks, government is too big, taxes are too high and Obamacare must be repealed.

Even when, in response to a question about solving the federal budget deficit, state Sen. Andrew Roraback said he would be willing to accept $1 or $1.50 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts — a heretical position in the national Republican Party — no one attacked him until after the event was over. That’s when Wilson-Foley’s campaign manager fired off an email blast complaining that “Sen. Roraback has sadly defaulted to a Democrat approach to solving our deficit reduction efforts.”

Lately, Roraback hadn’t exactly been a profile in courage, as when he changed his position on the state’s death penalty repeal in order to avoid the kinds of attacks he would surely face from his opponents on that stage. But this time Roraback reverted to form and essentially suggested something that should be obvious to all: there is no way Americans will tolerate the kinds of programmatic sacrifices that would be necessary through a spending-cuts-alone approach to federal deficit reduction.

On abortion, only Bernier and Greenberg professed to be pro-life. Roraback described the procedure as “personally repugnant,” did not see a role for government interference with such a personal decision. Ditto Wilson-Foley and Clark.

To the surprise of no one, all candidates disagreed with a recent op-ed in the Washington Post by a pair of think-tank scholars on opposite sides of the fence that flatly stated the Republican Party has become too extreme to play a useful role in governing. Clark called it “an outrageous statement” and Roraback invoked Lincoln.

While all played up their credentials as general election winners, Wilson-Foley was the only one to take aim at a potential opponent and preview a fall election strategy. She fired some rockets at Democrat Chris Donovan, the current speaker of the state House of Representatives:

“It’s turning out to be a classic match up between myself — a fiscal conservative, job-creating businesswoman — against my most likely opponent, Chris Donovan. He is a big-government, job-killing, union-hugging liberal. The difference could not be much more clear.”

Not to be outdone, Roraback pointed out that the Democratic State Central Committee had hired a tracker to pursue him and video his every move. “His job is to follow me,” said Roraback, adding that the attention he’s receiving from the rival party is de facto evidence of his strength as a general-election candidate.

Greenberg got the only laugh of the afternoon when he responded to a question about whether any of the candidates had ever donated to Democrats for federal office. All said no, except for Wilson-Foley, who has given money to Chris Murphy, the incumbent 5th-district congressman who is now running for the U.S. Senate.

Greenberg conceded that he gave money to the campaign of then-Democrat Joe Lieberman in his 1988 U.S. Senate run against incumbent Republican Lowell Weicker, who as governor three years later rammed through the state’s first-ever income tax. “In hindsight, I’m pretty glad I did,” Greenberg said with a smile.

Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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