In 2011, it was clear that Republicans would need “a perfect storm of factors” to take the 5th District back: a weak Obama running against a popular GOP presidential nominee, an appealing moderate as their candidate, and an uninspiring, flawed Democrat to run against. Andrew Roraback had two out of the three, and it wasn’t enough.
Elizabeth Esty shouldn’t have won this race. Roraback seemed tailor-made for the 5th, a Republican in the mold of old-school moderates like Nancy Johnson and Stewart McKinney. He’s well-liked in his northwest corner state senate district and had emerged victorious from a bitter primary fight against several far more conservative Republicans. Esty, on the other hand, only floated to the top after the seemingly unstoppable campaign of outgoing House Speaker Christopher Donovan was severely wounded by a campaign finance scandal. Esty, a relative unknown, had only served one term in the legislature before being defeated for re-election in 2010. The Democratic Party base never warmed to her, and she had trouble generating enthusiasm for her campaign.
Fortunately for Esty, the weakness of the top of the Republican ticket, especially with women, and with a district that is increasingly difficult terrain for the GOP, combined to drag down Roraback. The map of the election, broken down by margin of victory in each town, illustrates what happened.
The map shows a district that is more Republican now than it’s been since 2004, but also a district where it was next to impossible for a Republican to have won in 2012. Strong margins for Democrats in the cities and a few larger towns like Cheshire, coupled with a weaker-than-expected performance by Roraback in both the Farmington Valley and his northwest Connecticut home region, allowed Esty to come away with a narrow but convincing win on Election Night.
The Farmington Valley went strongly for Chris Murphy in all of his elections, but reverted somewhat to its old Republican default this year. However, the swing wasn’t decisive enough to offset Democratic votes elsewhere. Roraback’s margins in the vote-rich towns of Canton and Farmington were too narrow to make up for huge Esty margins in the cities.
Esty also did better than expected in the northwest corner; Roraback only managed decisive wins in North Canaan, Goshen, and Canaan. Certainly the presidential election helped to boost Esty; large turnout in the cities of Meriden, New Britain, Waterbury and Danbury, all of which she won by thousands of votes, ultimately helped secure her victory.
Roraback certainly wasn’t helped by the candidates at the top of the GOP ticket. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came within a few hundred votes of carrying lightly-populated Litchfield County, but was far outpaced by President Barack Obama in the cities, offsetting any advantage that might have generated for Roraback. Another bumbling, overreaching campaign by Linda McMahon also hurt his chances. Women turned against McMahon in droves, much like they had during her previous candidacy in 2010.
All of this begs the question: if a moderate like Roraback can’t win here, is the 5th lost to Republicans? I doubt it. If this exact race had been run in 2010, Roraback likely would have won. GOP gubernatorial candidate Tomas C. Foley ran strongly in areas of the 5th that Roraback needed, like the Farmington Valley, and the electorate in that year was far less favorable to Democrats.
There’s nothing to suggest that the 5th won’t be competitive in 2014. Roraback hasn’t ruled out another run against Esty, and the landscape two years from now looks a lot bleaker for Democrats. Connecticut won’t have a senate or a presidential race to drive up votes, and an unpopular Democratic governor will be up for re-election. Incumbency will be a help to her, but Esty’s challenge over the next two years will be to shore up enough support among skeptical Democrats and independents in crucial regions like the Farmington Valley, the northwest corner, and the Danbury area to survive a potential Republican swamping.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.