Elizabeth Esty’s path to Congress went through one of the nastiest and most expensive Democratic primaries Connecticut has ever seen. Two years later, as she seeks a second term representing the state’s 5th District, supporters say she’s made significant progress in unifying party activists behind her.
On Sunday, Dan Roberti, one of her opponents in that 2012 primary, will hold a fundraiser for Esty at his home in Kent. It wasn’t all that long ago that Roberti was running attack ads saying Esty “took money from polluters her husband regulates,” while Esty was telling voters that “Washington’s a mess and Dan Roberti would make it worse.”
“Day one, not even day one, the evening, the moment the election was over, I was more than happy to support her,” Roberti said. “Over the last two years, I’ve gotten to know her even better and see the great job she’s doing . . . I’ve been in contact with her since, nonstop.”
The support from Roberti and others who opposed Esty in the primary two years ago comes even as she’s solidified the sometimes-conservative departures she takes from the Democratic Party establishment. She is involved in “No Labels,” a coalition of moderate politicians from both parties. She sided with right-wing Congressional Republicans in voting to modify some aspects of Obamacare, and sided with them again in supporting an investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s alleged targeting of conservative nonprofit organizations.
While Esty’s other opponent in the 2012 primary, former Connecticut House Speaker Chris Donovan, has not been as visible in supporting her, many of the people in his progressive wing of state politics have gotten behind her. Esty easily picked up the endorsement of the Working Families Party this cycle, for example, after speculation two years ago that it might back the defeated Donovan, if he was willing, as a third-party general election candidate.
“It was a very, ugly, terrible primary she found herself in two years ago,” said Audrey Blondin, a Litchfield attorney and Democratic State Committee member. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Blondin said that she considered running in the 2012 primary herself, but passed when she realized how strong Donovan’s support was among activists even in her home base in Litchfield County. “I looked at it and walked away,” she said.
Esty entered the race without Donovan’s connections, her only experience being a term as a state representative and a local official in Cheshire.
“That’s a big leap,” Blondin said. “It was 100 percent uphill.”
She said Esty has won over local Democrats in part by learning how to be a politician, “in the good sense of the word,” helping constituents with problems and advocating for very specific local projects and initiatives.
“I think she’s connecting a lot more with the district . . . She’s kind of weathered it all,” Blondin said.
One reason cited by Democrats who were wary of Esty two years ago is the sharp difference on social issues between her and her opponent this year, Litchfield businessman Mark Greenberg. The Republican 2012 nominee, former state Sen. Andrew Roraback, favored abortion rights and gay marriage and took moderate positions on issues such as gun control. Greenberg is “unapologetically pro-life,” against gay marriage, and has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.
“Newtown is too close. It’s too painful. You can’t have this stand of 100 percent don’t take my guns,” Blondin said. “Do you really need 30 rounds of assault bullets, this crazy stuff that these people advocate?”
Greenberg’s supporters have said that providing voters in the 5th District with a “clearer choice” is better than a 2012 Esty-Roraback matchup in which the two candidates agreed on a number of issues.
“The difference this time is you can tell them apart clearly,” said Ken Nowell, a Torrington accountant and longtime Greenberg supporter. “It’s a clear opportunity for the state to decide what direction it wants to go in.”
Roberti, who at one point led in the polls despite being only 29 years old and having no political background, was extremely successful in fundraising during the 2012 primary. That was in large part due to the connections of his father, former Connecticut legislator-turned-Washington lobbyist Vin Roberti.
He’s been wanting to do a fundraiser for Esty in part based on concerns about the personal resources that Greenberg, who has spent several million dollars of his own money on past campaigns, is able to put into the race.
“We need to make sure she’s got both the on-the-ground support and the financial support to compete with a self-funder,” Roberti said.