Democratic Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty won a second term representing Connecticut’s 5th District on Tuesday, shaking off the drag of national dissatisfaction with President Obama’s administration and an unpopular Democratic governor locked in a close re-election fight. Her Republican opponent, Litchfield real estate developer Mark Greenberg, conceded the race at about 10:15 p.m.
Esty credited her nuts-and-bolts work on local issues and constituent service as contributing to her victory. She said that will continue to be her focus as she returns to a Congress where Republicans continue to control the House and appeared likely late Tuesday to gain a majority in the U.S. Senate. She hopes, for example, to secure more funding for widening and improvements to relieve congestion on I-84 through the Waterbury area to Danbury.
Early in the campaign, Esty defined Greenberg, as a far right-wing “Tea Party” supporter who wanted to privatize Social Security and take benefits away from seniors.
Greenberg fought back on Social Security, and moderated his position on gun rights, citing the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But he doubled down on Tea Party rhetoric that included harsh positions on immigrants and Islam, denying man-made climate change, and saying women should be forced to look at a sonogram of their unborn child before getting an abortion. It was a significant departure from the moderate, “New England Republican” message of Andrew Roraback, who nearly beat Esty two years ago, and Nancy Johnson, who served in Congress for 24 years before Democrats took control of the seat in 2006.
“It’s an earned support district,” Esty said, where what you do to help local first selectmen and mayors has a lot more to do with your support than what party you belong to or how many “headlines you grab.”
Asked about criticism of negative TV ads against Greenberg that the Hartford Courant called “false,” Esty said that she would have preferred more face-to-face debates with Greenberg, so voters could ““really see us unscripted, what do we believe, what do we stand for.”
“Debates are more illuminating than 30-second ads. We’ve got to have more debates,” she said.
Esty said that there were sharp differences between her and Greenberg, and some of those differences didn’t become clear to some voters until late in the process, during a handful of candidate forums.
Once again, the 5th District’s four big cities — New Britain, Meriden, Danbury, and Waterbury — provided Esty a huge margin of victory to offset Republican-leaning suburbs. Esty flipped some key towns in Litchfield County and the Farmington Valley that were won two years ago by Roraback, a popular longtime state senator with left-leaning positions on issues such as abortion, gay rights, the environment, and the death penalty.
In addition to Newtown, she won New Milford and Torrington, which Roraback had carried by more than 1,000 and 1,500 votes, respectively. She also flipped the Farmington Valley towns of Canton, Farmington and Simsbury. But across the board, the suburban towns that Greenberg won came at significantly lower margins of victory than Roraback, making it impossible to overcome Esty’s edge in the cities.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, after casting a vote Tuesday morning for Esty at the polling place they share in Cheshire, said that her margin of victory was narrow two years ago because she was fresh off a bitterly divisive Democratic primary with former House Speaker Chris Donovan that fractured the party. Since then, labor union activists and progressives have united behind Esty, and Murphy, who held the 5th District seat before Esty, said that she’s worked closely during her two years in office with local officials in Litchfield County where Roraback was popular.
Greenberg is from Litchfield County, too, but his campaign was focused mostly on national themes and criticism of President Obama’s administration. This was Greenberg’s third unsuccessful bid for 5th District Congress, and what he says is his last. He finished third in a three-way race and second in a four-way race, respectively, in 2010 and 2012 Republican primaries.
After nearly reclaiming the seat for Republicans two years ago, Roraback said he’d consider a rematch. But soon after that, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy nominated him to be a Superior Court judge.
Following Roraback’s decison to accept Malloy’s appointment to the bench, the party reportedly tried and failed to recruit Dr. William Petit and Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra as candidates for the 5th District this year. Both Petit and Llodra are Republicans who separately found themselves at the center of two of the most horrific crimes in state history. But the party could not convince either of them to run for the seat and Greenberg threw his hat in the ring again, unopposed for the nomination.
Greenberg spent more than $1 million of his own money on the race this year, and has spent more than $4 million total in his three attempts at the seat. But Esty and “outside” organizations working on her behalf, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC, still outspent him by about 3 to 1, hammering away at the Social Security message in particular.
“He brought a knife to a gun fight,” a Greenberg supporter said in lamenting the negative TV ads Esty aired against him and the perception of a delayed, inadequate response.
Edgar Auchincloss, a Greenberg supporter from Litchfield who attended his election night party at the Palace Theater in Waterbury on Tuesday, said 5th District voters cared about what Democrats have done to the economy and that “bedroom issues” such as abortion were irrelevant to 5th District voters.
“The country is tired of this liberal, give-me-a-hand-out mentality,” he said. “I think that’s an undercurrent in the whole race.”
He said that Esty’s manipulation of Greenberg’s position on Social Security, including selective editing of old video of Greenberg, “demeaned the whole process” and should be pursued by the media even after the election.
Greenberg, who said he’s been running for Congress for five years, said that he’s calling it quits and won’t be a candidate again. He noted Esty’s small margin of victory and credited supporters with overcoming long odds to get that far.
Greenberg ‘s concession speech is below: