By Matt DeRienzo, firstname.lastname@example.org
When a race is as close as last night’s vote for Connecticut 5th District Congress seat, it’s easy to point back to a number of potential factors that could have swung the outcome in favor of the losing candidate.
With all but the town of Woodbury reporting, Elizabeth Esty defeated Andrew Roraback, 144,687 to 136,599, or 51.4 to 48.6 percent.
Here are five factors that contributed to Roraback’s defeat:
1. Linda McMahon. As results from the cities began to come in Tuesday night and momentum shifted in Esty’s direction, Roraback supporters gathered in Torrington started blaming the former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO’s unpopularity for “dragging down” the Republican ticket and harming Roraback’s chances.
Some would argue that McMahon has now cost Republicans at least two major down-ticket offices. Republican Tom Foley’s loss to Gov. Dannel Malloy was so razor-thin two years ago that it’s likely he would have been victorious if not for the strong anti-Linda McMahon Democratic turnout in cities.
A similar dynamic happened this year, in which Chris Murphy’s get-out-the-vote effort in Meriden, Waterbury, New Britain and Danbury almost certainly helped carry Esty to the margins she needed in those cities to offset Roraback’s strength in the suburban and rural parts of the 5th District.
A Super PAC-funded TV ad that supported McMahon and Roraback at the same time might have actually hurt Roraback by linking his candidacy to hers. She was unpopular with female voters and ultimately failed to swing independents into her column. Roraback has a long track record of supporting women’s rights, but a key part of Esty’s campaign was to paint him as “just another vote for Republican extremists.”
Roraback was asked at one point late in the campaign if he’d considered running a TV ad touting independent voters who were backing him and Murphy – a takeoff on McMahon’s now-infamous attempt to let voters know it was OK to support her and President Obama.
2. Linda McMahon. At the same time that McMahon’s public image may have dragged Roraback down, he did not seem to benefit from the $47 million she poured into a massive campaign staff and statewide field operation. Roraback lacked the campaign war-chest and organization and did not open grassroots field offices around the district like McMahon and other candidates. The result was that McMahon did 5,000 or so votes better combined than Roraback in the cities of Danbury, Waterbury, New Britain and Meriden, where he had little chance of winning as a Republican, but needed to close the margin of defeat more than he did.
3. National politics vs. Connecticut politics. If Roraback had faced Esty two years ago, without the presidential election at the top of the ticket, the outcome could have been different. Turnout would have been smaller the cities, where a lot of “straight Democrat” ballots were cast, and Roraback would have had an easier time focusing on the issues that were strongest for him. Tom Foley won the 5th District convincingly in Connecticut’s race for governor in 2010, and the Republican hope all along was that Roraback would be able to duplicate that success by capitalizing on Gov. Dannel Malloy’s unpopularity and his record of fighting Malloy and Democrats in the Connecticut General Assembly. From the very start of the general election campaign, however, Esty and surrogates hit the airwaves to tie Roraback to national Republicans and steer the debate to national issues such as Social Security. After Speaker of the House John Boehner visited Torrington to host a fundraiser for Roraback, Esty used his ties to Boehner in an ad aired thousands of times leading up to the election.
4. A late start, a bruising primary and outside money. Ultimately, Roraback’s defeat came down to the fact that he wasn’t well-known outside of his state Senate district in Northwest Connecticut, and with help and funding from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other outside groups, Esty was able to introduce him to independent voters in the rest of the district in a negative way before he was able to define himself.
Roraback was unable to emphasize his independent streak and progressive positions on abortion, gay marriage, the environment and other issues in a Republican primary against three well-funded candidates, including two millionaires, who were all running to his right and attempting to paint him as too liberal for the Republican Party. And Democrats helped by jumping in to manipulate that primary with Super PAC ads deceptively attacking him from the right.
Roraback was left on the day after the August primary with no money, and the rest of the district’s first introduction to him was negative TV ads.
Super PACs and national party operatives helped both candidates in this race, matching millions for millions, but Roraback’s help came much later in the cycle, whereas the DCCC was helping Esty right out of the gate.
5. Waterbury and Danbury.The bottom line is that Esty won this race in Waterbury. She invested a lot of time in the city, predicted that it would come down to it, and it did. Her 2 to 1, 8,000-vote margin in Waterbury was a huge improvement over Murphy’s 2,000-vote margin two years ago. The difference, in addition to Esty’s attention to the city, was that two years ago, former Waterbury city councilor and state Sen. Sam Caligiuri was the Republican nominee, and this year, the presidential election boosted turnout in the city.
Another factor was Danbury, which has a Republican mayor and where the GOP has been capable in past years of at least keeping it close. Esty won by nearly 4,000 votes there.
Both results beg the question of why local Republicans weren’t more effective in helping Roraback. Caligiuri is a former Senate colleague of Roraback’s and friend who endorsed him early in the Republican primary for the 5th District, but he was not very visible in the general election.
And the other two heavyweights in these two cities, former Gov. John “Waterbury is the Center of the Universe” Rowland and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, were heavily involved in backing scandal-plagued Roraback primary foe Lisa Wilson-Foley.
Even if it was offered, it’s unlikely that Roraback wanted Rowland’s help after he embarrassed him on his Hartford radio show during the primary without revealing that he was helping Wilson-Foley and secretly being paid by her husband’s company.
And Boughton, a potential 2014 Republican candidate for the 5th District himself, was not very visible in getting out the vote for Roraback.