For all of the talk about “deep blue” Connecticut and what a lock Democrats have on its entire congressional delegation, the Republican party seemed to go out of its way this year to concede a 5th District race it could have and probably should have won.
Elizabeth Esty was one of the most vulnerable U.S. House incumbents in the country after squeaking past former state Sen. Andrew Roraback by less than 3 percent in 2012.
That coincided with a presidential election in which internal polling showed 5th District voters favoring a generic Democrat by 10 points. Esty won re-election Tuesday night in the midst of a sweeping national voter backlash against the Obama administration and after the same type of polling in the district favored a generic Republican by 7 points.
Republicans have to be asking how they put up a candidate and ran a campaign that fared worse than literal “generic Republicans” that were on the ballot in the 5th. For example, their nominee for 5th District Congress, Mark Greenberg , fared worse in most communities than Sharon McLaughlin, a Republican candidate for state comptroller who had close to zero name recognition or campaign funds.
Two years ago, Roraback beat Esty by 18,000 votes in the “rest” of the 5th District, but lost the four big cities — Danbury, Meriden, New Britain and Waterbury — by more than 26,000 votes.
Without presidential election turnout, or the competitive U.S. Senate race two years ago in which former 5th District Congressman Chris Murphy was getting out the vote in his home district, Esty’s margin in the cities this time was less than 16,000 votes, but she beat Greenberg by more than 13,000 overall.
Greenberg lost nearly 10,000 votes from Roraback’s margin in Litchfield County. He narrowly lost the Farmington Valley, which Roraback had won by more than 5,000. And Newtown, a traditionally Republican town that was rocked by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting only a month after the 2012 election, flipped from a loss of more than 1,000 votes for Esty in 2012 to a narrow victory.
Esty even beat Greenberg by 36 votes in his hometown of Litchfield, which Roraback represented in the state Senate and he won by more than 1,500.
As a freshman minority member of a Congress that wasn’t doing a whole lot over the past two years anyway, Esty focused on constituent service and working with local first selectmen and mayors to navigate federal red tape and funding opportunities. It’s clear that some of that helped her regain the support that Murphy had built up with similar work over his six years representing the district.
Greenberg’s background in business, and not government service, combined with a campaign that focused on national issues instead of surfacing any compelling positions unique to 5th District concerns, left him without a grassroots constituency. He improved on Roraback’s margin in only 7 of the 41 towns in the 5th District based on lower turnout in the four big cities of Danbury, Meriden, New Britain and Waterbury, plus the suburbs of Cheshire, Plainville and Plymouth. He lost 12 suburban and rural towns that Roraback won in 2012.
So Elizabeth Esty owes Gov. Dannel P. Malloy bigtime for appointing Roraback to a Superior Court judge position after the 2012 election, before he could decide whether to seek a rematch in the 5th District.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton should be kicking himself for running for governor instead of the 5th District, because he’d be looking for apartments in Washington right now if he had. His base in one of the four cities key to Esty’s victory would have leveled the playing field before the race began.
Boughton is one of the Connecticut GOP’s most talented politicians, at ease schmoozing with voters and popular with the news media. Greenberg, a real estate developer, was awkward in stumping for votes even after three runs for the Congress. And his campaign distrusted the media and attempted to keep him away from reporters.
Boughton also would have taken the gloves off against Esty far earlier and more effectively than Greenberg, whose supporters complained that he waited too long in responding to her negative attack ads, and then played defense for most of the campaign.
But in hindsight, Republicans might have defeated Esty with any candidate who didn’t deny the existence of man-made climate change or call for women to be forced to look at sonograms of their unborn children before getting an abortion.
While it’s unclear how much the Tea Party rhetoric hurt Greenberg in comparison with Esty’s attacks regarding his previous statements about Social Security or the nuts and bolts of the respective campaign operations, one wonders how far the Republicans could have gone on Tuesday if they’d nominated a baggage-free moderate from Litchfield County such as Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, or former Torrington Mayor Ryan Bingham.
Republican State Party Chairman Jerry Labriola, though, should be begging Boughton to challenge Esty in 2016.
One could say that of course Greenberg fared worse than an unknown “generic Republican” option such as McLoughlin in the comptroller’s race. She didn’t have several million dollars worth of negative TV ads aired against her.
That would be true, but Greenberg had millions at his disposal to drive up Esty’s negatives and defend himself, and he used too little and acted too late.
Greenberg has estimated his personal net worth at between $20 million and $60 million, and he’s spent more than $4 million of his own money in his unsuccessful Republican primary bids in 2010 and 2012 and his general election campaign this year.
The state Republican Party, perhaps distracted by a competitive and realistically winnable campaign for governor, did little on Greenberg’s behalf, and didn’t even really talk about the race.
National Republican campaign committees, and even outside PACs with “Tea Party” affiliations, stayed away even though it was consistently ranked among the top 50 or so most competitive House races in the country. National Republican groups spent millions on Roraback’s behalf in the race for an open seat two years ago.
Maybe the difference this time is because they assumed Greenberg could and would spend as much of his own money as it would take, or because the candidate truly was a political outsider, even within his own party.
But in the end, Esty and outside groups working on her behalf, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC, outspent Greenberg 3 to 1.
He never hired a full-time press spokesman, and Esty defined him early as a right-wing, Tea Party extremist. She was the first candidate to go on TV with negative attack ads, which claimed Greenberg wanted to privatize Social Security and take benefits away from seniors.
The Hartford Courant labeled that message as blatantly “false,” but it took Greenberg days to defend himself on TV and weeks to go on the offensive. But instead of focusing on issues at the top of voters minds in the 5th District, his focus was national, attempting to tie her to President Obama and attacking her tepid response to the Ebola outbreak, which never seriously threatened Connecticut.