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By some political playbooks, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty appears to be acting more like a challenger than an incumbent congresswoman in her bid for re-election in Connecticut’s 5th District. Her campaign has attacked Republican opponent Mark Greenberg early and often and has been accused of gloves-off, misleading manipulation of Greenberg’s policy positions.

The tone of her campaign begs two questions:

1. Is Esty acting on fears of a Republican wave in the 5th District fueled by opposition to President Obama and Gov. Dan Malloy?

2. When will Mark Greenberg fight back?

Expect an answer very soon to the second question.

“We will be answering Esty’s lies with the truth beginning tomorrow, in mail, TV and other forums,” Greenberg campaign manager Bill Evans said Tuesday evening.

Esty’s first two TV ads highlighted the work she’s done to help veterans. Her last two have been all about Greenberg, claiming that he would end Social Security.

Her campaign has also generated a stream of press releases attempting to paint Greenberg as a far-right, “Tea Party” Republican with extreme views on social issues and mainstream government services.

Under the heading of “20 Ways in 20 Days: Why Mark Greenberg is Too Extreme for Connecticut,” the campaign has said he wants to eliminate the federal Department of Education and has quoted him saying he “doesn’t sympathize with homosexuality.”

Esty has been accused of stretching the truth in some attacks.

The Hartford Courant rated her attack ad on Social Security as simply “False,” saying her campaign engaged in “misleading editing of Greenberg’s words.”

The Courant wrote, “… all of Greenberg’s words have been presented in dramatically misleading fashion, in support of an overall claim — that Greenberg wants to ‘end Social Security’s guarantee’ — that is unsubstantiated by the facts,” the Courant wrote.

Republicans have accused the Esty campaign of repeating some of the same attack lines in a “push poll” that smeared Greenberg, a tactic universally viewed as unethical.

In an editorial board meeting with the New Haven Register on Friday, Esty denied using a push poll and said she had “suspicions” about the origins of the accusation. She said her campaign “would never” use such a tactic, and that she would “denounce” any campaign that did use push polls.

But the Esty campaign is doubling down on its message in the TV ad the Hartford Courant labeled as false.

“We completely disagree with the Courant’s conclusion,” said Laura Maloney, Esty’s spokeswoman. “The facts are very clear — Mark Greenberg called Social Security a ‘failure.’ And not only does he want to privatize it, but he fundamentally disparages those who have earned Social Security, saying seniors who have paid into the system and earned these benefits after lifetimes of hard work are ‘on the public dole.’ What Mark Greenberg clearly doesn’t get is that Social Security is a guarantee and a lifeline for seniors, keeping millions out of poverty. Instead, Mark Greenberg wants to dismantle it, and voters should know that.”

Evans countered Maloney’s assertions by offering context and highlighting the Courant’s analysis.

“Independent sources like the Hartford Courant say they’re lying,” Evans said. “Mark called Social Security a failure for younger people paying into the system … Does she think Social Security is going to be there in the future when the Social Security Administration website says it’s only going to be paying 73 cents on the dollar … if we continue to go down the same course?”

Despite the advantage of incumbency and that it’s been 10 years since a Republican has won the 5th District, Esty said she faces an uphill battle in a “swing district.” Malloy, facing a difficult re-election bid, lost the 5th District by a significant margin four years ago while squeaking into office statewide. And this year, Esty won’t benefit from the boosted Democratic turnout that came from a presidential election and Chris Murphy’s U.S. Senate bid two years ago.

Maloney said that Greenberg’s campaign was the first to go “negative,” with a steady flow of press releases attacking Esty, negative online video ads and negative mailers dating back to last year.

Esty says she’s confident voters will side with her if they know what the choice is between the two candidates. And that’s what has her launching attacks on Greenberg and following the playbook of a challenger.

“He needs to stop hiding,” Esty said. “If he wants to do this job, he needs to tell people who he is and what he would do and what he stands for.”

Esty’s campaign tried to make an issue last week of Greenberg “dropping out” of debates and avoiding a discussion of the issues. But that attack has also been challenged as misleading. A debate Esty claimed Greenberg “dropped out” of was described by a spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters in New Britain as a debate where the group was “unsuccessful in scheduling a date when both candidates could be present.”

Evans said Monday that Greenberg will “literally go anywhere” to debate and that the campaign would reschedule other events if necessary to do so.

Greenberg and Esty will meet for the first of at least two scheduled debates on Thursday night at the Portuguese Cultural Center, 65 Sand Pit Road, Danbury. It will run from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and is sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Connecticut and the News-Times of Danbury.

Matt DeRienzo is the former editor of the New Haven Register, Register Citizen, Middletown Press, Connecticut Magazine and other Digital First Media publications in Connecticut and former publisher of The Register Citizen in Torrington. Email him . Follow him on Twitter at @mattderienzo.

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