Depending on your point of view, the presence of independent expenditures in this year’s state legislative races is either a grave threat to our democracy or a new force to potentially balance a long-skewed advantage.
The now more than $32,000 that poured into the Oct. 2 Democratic primary in the 5th Assembly District, less than a week before the election, was a frightening reminder of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, according to Democratic legislative leaders.
House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, who is expected to take over as House Speaker in January, said the infusion of cash into that race from an out-of-state organization “that doesn’t have Connecticut’s best interest in mind should outrage everyone.”
“It’s an out-of-state group trying to influence the outcome of our local elections,” Sharkey said.
Sen. President Donald Williams said “it’s a bad thing when special interest money can come out of nowhere.”
This year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed legislation, which would have required these outside groups to disclose who gave the money.
“We need the maximum amount of transparency,” Williams said.
But Senate Republican leader John McKinney took a different view of the new money, saying it has the potential to balance out one party rule.
“Democrats have been benefiting from independent expenditures from labor for years,” McKinney said. “Now that there are other independent expenditures in play that can match or maybe exceed union expenditures, now they’re expressing concern.”
As long as voters know what groups the support is coming from, McKinney said he had faith that the they could make a decision whether or not they want to vote for a candidate who’s supported by that group.
McKinney said he was hopeful expenditures this year would balance out the advantage Democrats in the state have long held due to union support, or maybe even tip the balance in favor of Republicans.
House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero had a slightly different outlook on the impact of independent expenditures on the races than that of his Senate counterpart. While McKinney is hoping the influx money into the races will help tip the balance in favor of Republicans, Cafero said that money can swing both ways.
“The Democrats are always trying to pin independent expenditures as if it’s a Republican thing,” Cafero said, adding that groups can just as easily through their weight behind Democrats.
Cafero points to the U.S. Senate race where organizations have run attack ads against Republican candidate Linda McMahon.
Cafero and McKinney both agreed that Democrats have had the outside help of labor unions for decades.
“The advantages that the unions bring to Democrats are huge, huge, as far as feet on the ground,” he said.
Cafero said that some union members actually get paid through union dues to help Democrats get out the vote. He said it’s been a disturbing experience for some of his caucus members to be a union member but have their union dues be used to campaign against them.
“Talk about a kick in the rear,” Cafero said.
But monetary support only goes so far and parties still need to run strong candidates to win elections, McKinney said.
There are 28 open seats—four in the state Senate, and 24 in the House this year.
Sharkey attributed the large number of open seats to the economic downturn.
“The economy had a big impact on the number of lawmakers deciding not to seek re-election this year,” Sharkey said.
It’s a part-time legislature, so many lawmakers hold jobs outside of the legislature, and many of lawmakers are finding it more difficult to balance the demands of work, politics and family, he said.
“They couldn’t afford to give up their private professions,” he said.
With three long-serving senators leaving their seats, and one having lost his nomination to an inter-party challenger, McKinney said he’s hopeful Republicans will pick up some seats this year. He said the seats being vacated by Democratic Sens. Eileen Daily and Edith Prague present a good opportunity to even the balance of the senate.
McKinney said he’s confident Norwich Rep. Chris Coutu can beat out Democratic Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten for Prague’s open seat. He said Coutu has already defeated Osten once in the 2010 race for his state House seat. And Coutu doesn’t lack energy on the campaign trail, he said.
“Chris Coutu is one of the best and one the hardest campaigners I’ve ever met,” McKinney said.
But Williams believes Osten’s “local, on the ground experience” in a presidential election year will help her secure the seat.
Democratic President Barack Obama is at the top of the ticket and the latest polls have him winning the state by double digits. Democratic legislative leaders are hoping he has long coat tails even if the party lever is a thing of the past.
Art Linares, the Republican seeking to replace Daily, is another strong candidate, McKinney said. Linares started his own business in his basement at the age of 19 and his parents escaped Fidel Castro to immigrate here from Cuba, he said.
“[Linares] has got a great American story to tell,” McKinney said of the 23 year old.
State Rep. James Crawford is the Democrat in that race. He was Linares teacher.
“Jim Crawford is doing a good job and is in touch with the district,” Williams said. “I think voters like experience and wisdom.”
Senate Democrats who hold a 22-14 majority over the Republicans in the state Senate have been fighting hard to win the open seats and take back seats they lost in 2010.
McKinney admits that some sitting Republican senators are in for some tight races this year. Democrats have targeted the seats of GOP Sens. Len Suzio, Jason Welch, and John Kissel, he said. Still, McKinney said all three are hard-working, bright legislators and he’s confident Republicans will hold onto their seats.
To gain control of the Senate, Republicans would need to pick up five seats come November. McKinney acknowledged that’s a lot, but said it’s doable.
“The mood is good this year and the base is energized and enthusiastic. Unaffiliated voters get our message that one party government isn’t working,” McKinney said. “… I think we’re going to have a good night.”
House Republicans picked up 15 seats in 2010 and the special election in Feb. 2011. This year Cafero said there are more than a dozen open seats but he wasn’t making predictions Friday about whether GOP candidates would be as successful. It’s always tough for Republicans running in a presidential election year, Cafero said.
That being the case, Cafero said 2012 has been their best fundraising year yet. He credits that success in part to an experienced campaign team. Cafero also said he thinks the Republicans’ message is beginning to resonate with voters.
“I’m very optimistic. A lot of what we’ve warned against has unfortunately come true and I think people are noting that,” Cafero said.
Sharkey said the 15 freshman Republicans are more vulnerable in a presidential election year than they were in 2010 when the rest of the country saw Tea Party members take over the U.S. House.
But he admits the Democrats are defending a lot vacancies this time around.
And a lot of those vacancies are in districts that could swing either way.
Many lawmakers like the ones in New Haven where Democrats outnumber Republicans don’t have any challengers.