Connecticut’s under-the-radar fifth district is creating a buzz and will prove interesting this fall.
Obscurely small towns like Goshen and Cornwall—towns you would be hard pressed to find on a wall-sized map of thumb-sized Connecticut—are gearing up to elect a new governor in 2006 along with a U.S. Senate Race overshadowing all. But, locally centered around them is one of the most highly financed congressional campaigns in American history between 23-year incumbent Republican Nancy Johnson and 32-year-old Democratic State Senator Chris Murphy.
With Democrats challenging Republicans for majority control of Congress, all eyes are on states like Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, where Republican incumbents are seeking reelection in traditionally liberal states.
“If we win this one, we win the house,” said Sarah Merriam, campaign manager for Murphy.
Johnson’s challengers have not fared well in the past. In 2004, when Johnson sealed victory with 60 percent of the vote, she raised nearly $2.3 million compared to challenger Theresa Gerrantana’s $130,000. In 2002, Connecticut’s 5th and 6th districts were combined. Johnson defeated incumbent 6th district Democrat, Jim Maloney, by 11 percent. Although Maloney spent over $2 million, Johnson won the fundraising battle with nearly $4 million spent in the war of incumbents.
This year, Johnson is again ahead in terms of financing. She has $2.5 million in her war chest to weigh against Murphy’s $785,000. For his efforts, Murphy has already raised more money than any other Johnson opponent except Maloney.
Interestingly, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan, non-profit research group based in Washington Murphy has actually received more money from in-state donors than Johnson has. Connecticut donors account for $400,000 of Johnson’s total funding. Murphy is reporting $416,000 from Connecticut contributors.
Merriam claimed the Murphy camp received contributions from 1,750 individuals compared to 1,000 for Johnson. Dave Boomer, Johnson’s campaign manager, disputed the numbers.
“When (a donation) is under $250 it does not have to be itemized,” Boomer said. “They would need to make public the names of all the people that gave. Our point is that there’s no evidence.” Boomer also points out that Murphy has raised the least amount of money of the three Democratic challengers to Republican representatives in Connecticut. “We’re on track to raise the most money ever in a congressional race,” he said.
Democrats claim the Connecticut donation patterns show Johnson to be detached from her home district and too focused on Washington special interest groups.
“Johnson has a blank check from D.C. interests,” said Merriam.
The Johnson campaign pointed to her record of service and contacts fostered over the last 23 years.
“Nancy Johnson is a senior member of the house,” said Boomer. “She has the network not only in the state but around the country of people that support her.” Boomer also dismissed any notion of Johnson being a Washington insider. “(Johnson) has major leadership positions in Washington,” he said. “She is down there to make all of her meetings and attend to house business. When house adjourns, she comes right back to the district.”
Statistics from the Center for Responsive Politics show Johnson receiving large contributions from the insurance and healthcare sectors in 2005, when she co-authored the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit legislation.
In 2005, a non-election year, the legislation included language to provide for penalties for people who miss enrollment deadlines for the prescription drug program. The penalties drew criticism and gave Murphy, who chairs the Public Health Committee of the Conn. General Assembly, a chance to sound off on the campaign trail.
“Congress needs to act now to stop this unfair double-taxation of seniors,” said Murphy in a March 15 statement, 60 days before the enrollment deadline. Johnson, who heads the House Subcommittee on Health, was quoted by the Associated Press May 15 saying she planned to introduce legislation waiving the penalty. The Murphy camp fired back May 19 with a press release accusing Johnson of breaking a promise to oppose cuts to education, health care, and veterans’ services when she voted to approve a budget resolution with cuts to what Murphy called “vital programs.”
Murphy will, in all likelihood, be subject to similar financial criticism at the hands of the Republicans.
On May 6, the New Haven Register reported that the Connecticut 5th Congressional District was not “in play” compared to other races in the state. I would disagree. The race has gotten closer in recent weeks. According to the Cook Report, a respected political newsletter that analyzes elections recently downgraded the 5th district from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican,” meaning the competition in that district has risen. Merriam was not surprised.
“Folks here in Connecticut have known for months that this seat is up for grabs,” she said. “The Republicans know it too. That’s why they have already spent $300,000 on misleading, nasty television ads.”
Both sides have stepped up the ads against their opponent, showing the energy and resources both parties are expending on this race.
“She has a good record which will carry her to a pretty substantial victory this November,” said Boomer.”
“She’s scared, and she’s got good reason to be,” said Merriam.
Game on. One thing is for sure, this district is in play.