The state’s 5th Congressional District race has attracted a lot of attention for many reasons. With the Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy stepping aside to run for the U.S. Senate, both parties face hotly contested nomination fights. Both sides have seen corruption charges roil the race.
Through it all, certain axioms about the race have been put forward that could determine the outcome. Unfortunately, these axioms no longer hold. Yet the state’s Democrats continue to cling to them, running the risk of losing not just a House seat, but the entire House.
The math has changed for Democrats to retake Congress. All of Connecticut’s districts happen to be Democratic. That wasn’t true before 2010, but it is now. Yet, the political class’ unwillingness to adapt to new information might mean losing the crucial 5th District seat.
Here are three things that we Democrats are told to be true, which are not.
Falsehood #1: Chris Donovan can win the general election.
I have nothing against Chris Donovan, the state speaker of the House and the convention endorsed candidate. I don’t know him personally. No issues of policy would cause me to question his candidacy. I am not sure exactly what to make of the arrest of his former finance director on the grounds that he allegedly hid the source of campaign donations in violation of law or of the recent report of Stanley Twardy commissioned by the Donovan campaign, which found “no evidence” of his involvement.
What I do know is that given the scandal, Donovan can’t possibly win the general election. A Donovan victory was a dicey proposition to begin with. Although some people tell tall tales about how Democratic the 5th district is, in reality Democrats have had many squeakers here. The district voted for John Kerry by only 1,108 votes (he won the state by 10 percent). In 2010, it went for Blumenthal by only 2,043 votes (when Blumenthal won statewide by 12 percent). Donovan positions himself to the left of those Democratic candidates. At the state level, the district clearly prefers Republicans, voting 57 percent for GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley in 2010 and being represented by a majority of Republicans in the legislature. Republican attorney general candidate Martha Dean actually carried the district in 2010. So any Democrat goes into the race, all things being equal, anticipating at best a tie. Pre-scandal Donovan bore the additional burden of having led an unpopular legislature.
If Donovan was a hard sell before the scandal, his victory now is simply impossible. You don’t have to take my word for it. Look at the numbers. The very same poll Public Policy Polling that shows him leading the Democratic pack has ominous signs for the November election. Only slightly more than half of Democratic primary voters have a favorable view of him (51 percent) while 24 percent have an unfavorable view and 25 percent are undecided. And that’s among voters who are more liberal than Democrats generally and thus more disposed to favor Donovan. And that’s before anyone has said a negative word about him in TV ads.
A 51 percent favorable rating might be enough to get him the nomination – he leads 45-26 – it guarantees defeat in the general. To be in contention a Democrat needs the support of 90 percent of all Democrats in this district. To put it in perspective, Malloy got 86 percent of Democrats statewide, while winning by a whisker. Malloy lost this district by 15 points. To win in the state’s most Republican district, a Democrat would need to surpass Malloy’s 86 percent among Democrats. Having one in four Democratic primary voters—who again tend to be more liberal and who make up less than one-third of presidential-year voting Democrats – already viewing Donovan unfavorably is an absolute disaster. If even half of that quarter defect, the game is over. The scandal has made it not just unlikely, but impossible for Donovan to win the general election.
Falsehood #2: Choosing the right primary candidate matters from a policy perspective.
The sad truth in the current Congressional climate is all that matters from a policy perspective is whether a Democrat or a Republican wins, not which Democrat or which Republican wins. Individual members have no actual ability to shape policy in Washington beyond the votes they cast, and within parties they don’t vote differently. The Congressional leadership determines the range of choices being considered, and the choices tend to be so extreme that almost no one is willing to break ranks. More importantly, they never have votes that offer a real possibility for bipartisan reflection. The votes are mostly staged. As importantly, there isn’t much of a policy gap among 5th Democratic candidates anyway. There is a bit more of a political range among the 5th’s Republican candidates, but not in a way that would matter in the House.
What matters is whom members select for leadership roles (John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi, for example) because they determine the measures that will be voted upon. Anyone who says, I have to stick with my candidate because of his or her policy positions, is deluding herself. You might prefer a particular candidate’s style. That’s fine, and you might choose to support that candidate no matter what. Just don’t pretend it’s because your candidate is more likely to enact the policies you would like to see because he or she won’t be any different than your party’s other choices. So leaders of policy-driven organizations who claim they are supporting one Democratic candidate over another because of ideology aren’t, or more accurately, shouldn’t. It isn’t fair to their members to let personal relationships drive decisions when so much is at stake.
Falsehood #3: There are moderate Republicans in Washington.
There are no moderate Republicans in Washington. This is probably the hardest truth to accept, because it is so contrary to our state’s culture. Plus, it seems mean. But it needs to be acknowledged.
On the state level, we have a lot of decent moderate Republicans who play an important role in balancing state policies. This is a particularly necessary function here because Connecticut, unlike Massachusetts and other one-party states, doesn’t have competing factions within a party to keep the controlling party in line. I think it would be great if we could replace half the federal Republican legislators with our state Republicans.
Andrew Roraback, a state senator and a candidate for the 5th Congressional seat, is one of those Connecticut Republicans. If he were to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, he would immediately be among the top 10 Republicans in that body. He might soon become the best. But it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to the country’s governance.
He would be powerless to change the direction of his party and, what is worse, he would be an important vote in keeping the House Republicans in control. That means having to treat seriously Congressmen like Allen West, who called progressive Democrats like Rosa DeLauro, communists. It means tolerating Michelle Bachmann, who wondered if her Democrat Congressional colleagues were patriotic enough. It means endless votes to ban abortion and limit contraception. These are high profile examples, but there are dozens more and there simply isn’t a way around it.
It would be nice if things were better, but they aren’t. The federal Republicans have become an exclusive club whose values are antithetical to those of this state. After 2010, their majority is built even more firmly upon Southern and conservative roots. That year we also learned that federal Republicans and Republican primary voters were willing to stop someone simply because they might be willing to compromise with Democrats.
That’s why Delaware’s Mike Castle, one of the last moderate Republicans, lost a chance at a near-certain Senate seat. The conservative primary electorate preferred Christine O’Donnell, whose infamous tv ad proclaimed she was not a witch. If you think that race was a fluke, ask Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, who considered helping Obama, voted to confirm his two Supreme Court nominees, and lost his primary by 20 percent. So it might be nice to think Connecticut 5th Congressional district can elect a Republican who will be a effective voice for moderation in Washington. It just won’t happen.
This election is crucial. Connecticut may be one of the last states without very powerful ultra-right-wing Republicans, but we can’t let the view from our island cloud our judgment. We can’t let sentiment get in the way. We can’t let wishing and hoping replace facts. We can’t pretend to ourselves that our actions don’t have consequences, or that our state has the power to change national trends. Democrats have to be prepared to offer the best possible choices, and then the state needs to elect them, not because they are perfect, but because at the federal level, the alternative is simply out of step with our state’s values.
Jason Paul is a Connecticut political operative from West Hartford and a University of Connecticut Law School student. He does not work for any of the campaigns in the 5th District.