CHESHIRE — U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th, District opened his campaign for U.S. Senate on Thursday with a conference call with reporters, an online video addressed to voters and a hastily-arranged kickoff party at a tavern here in his hometown.
Murphy arrived at the Waverly Tavern after 5 p.m. with his wife, Cathy, and son, Owen, and thanked supporters, including Attorney General George Jepsen, for coming on what he sheepishly acknowledged was short notice. His audience laughed.
The 37-year-old two-term congressman had scrambled since learning that U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman was announcing he would not seek re-election in 2012, leaving an open race for a Senate seat in Connecticut for the second time in two years.
“I’m not a big believer in political theater,” Murphy said. “If I decide to do something, then I don’t see the use in playing possum. So, I decided to put the growing speculation aside and make it clear what my intentions are.”
His intentions are to run, as he made clear in a video posted on a new campaign web site.
“Hi, I’m Chris Murphy, and I’m running for the United States Senate,” he says in the video, pretending to address someone who just opened their door. “Connecticut deserves a new progressive voice in the Senate who listens to us.”
Murphy rolled out his campaign with a conference call with reporters and the kickoff in Cheshire.
The video was provided to reporters in an email sent this morning, while Murphy still was in Washington D.C., waiting to vote in the House.
Murphy is the second Democrat to announce this week, the first since Lieberman announced Wednesday he would not seek a fifth term in 2012. Susan Bysiewicz, the former secretary of the state, got into the race Tuesday.
His allies say Murphy scrambled to prepare an announcement. He said today he saw no reason to delay.
“Today is the first day this is an open seat,” Murphy said. “I saw no reason to waste any time with the seat becoming open.”
Murphy told reporters that he expected the race to cost $10 million, which is one of the reasons to launch his candidacy so early. Asked when he plans to begin fundraising, he replied, “Immediately.”
“I don’t have personal or family wealth,” said Murphy, who added that he did not think money would determine the race, noting that he was outspent 2-1 when he unseated Republican Nancy Johnson in 2006.
Murphy is trying to follow John G. Rowland, who represented the 5th District, as the last congressman from Connecticut to win a statewide race. Rowland was elected govenor in 1994.
“In some ways, the 5th District is a microcosm of the state. The 5th District has urban centers, traditional suburban neighborhoods and rural areas,” Murphy said. “So I think the 5th District is a pretty good proving ground for a statewide run.”
Murphy said creating jobs, expanding health care, and ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would be focal points of his campaign. He also cited reforming the Senate, to make it more difficult to block bills and nominees.
“The Senate has become a barrier to positive change in this country,” Murphy said, arguing that the filibuster has been abused to stall and kill legislation.
Murphy also said he would not give up his House seat while mounting a statewide race, a juggling act that other Connecticut House members have performed.
“Many others have shown you can vocally and actively represent your district… That will continue to dominate my time and my schedule,” Murphy said. “It’s a relatively small state, so to the extent I’m doing some travel, I’ll never be far away.”
Murphy said he decided weeks ago to challenge for Lieberman’s seat, and he recorded the video this past weekend.
It opens with him kissing his wife and high-fiving his son.
“Wish me luck,” he says.
Then he leaves to shovel his walk and begin some virtual door-knock campaigning. A door opens and Murphy is standing outside, waiting to make his pitch as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
He mentions his upset win four years ago over Johnson, then the senior member of the House delegation from Connecticut,
“I did it by knocking on doors, and I never stopped,” Murhpy says, looking into the camera. “Think of this as me knocking on your door.”
Behind the video and a new campaign web site was what several Democratic sources described as a chaotic scramble, as Murphy sought to respond to this week’s events — first Bysiewicz’s announcement, then Lieberman’s.
Murphy had initially talked to supporters about unveiling his bid next Monday. But he then decided to move it up, perhaps to scare off other potential rivals and get himself in the fundraising game quickly.
“He said ‘I need to get out there on Thursday’,” recounted one Murphy ally. “He said, “You don’t know who is going to come out of the woodwork’.”
Murphy skipped a House Democratic retreat that kicks off Thursday in Maryland, instead zipping back to Connecticut after a mid-morning House vote to launch his Senate campaign from Connecticut.
Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, was moving more cautiously as he, too, weighed the possibility of a Senate bid.
“The one thing that’s obvious is this is a wide open race,” Courtney said. “You can’t wait forever. But on the other hand, it’s not going to be decided in the 48 hours after Jan. 19, 2011.”
“I think I’ve got a strong record in terms of job creation in the district, with the defense industry,” Courtney added. “And I’m trying to figure out whether going to the Senate is a way to build on that.”
The biggest concern about waiting, he said, is fundraising. He noted that when he first ran, unsuccessfully, for the House in 2002, he didn’t announce until September 2001. Losing a year of fundraising time was crippling.
“The war chest haunted me at the end of the day,” Courtney said, joking that this time he wouldn’t wait until September. “I’ve learned that lesson.”
Courtney said Murphy apprised him of his announcement plans during a 15-minute huddle on the House floor Tuesday night, as the House prepared to debate health reform repeal.
“We talked about the Senate race, and what we had heard about Joe and how things we’re moving fast,” Courtney said.
He said that despite the political maneuvering, there’s been no tension or hard feelings. “I think both of us are respectful of the fact that we have legitimate arguments to make for this nomination,” he said.
Asked what role, if any, others in the delegation are playing to shape the Democratic field, he said none. “I don’t think anyone’s trying to be a kingmaker at this point,” Courtney said.
Indeed, Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said he trying to stay out of the way as his Democratic colleagues considered their options. Asked whether he was going to get involved in pushing them to avoid a primary fight, he said no.
But Larson signaled that he might endorse at some point.
“Obviously I have a strong proclivity for my two members,” Larson said, referring to Courtney and Murphy. “I don’t know who else is going to get in, but my inclination would be to support one of them.”
“But it’s very early for the race,” Larson added. “I think this is just something that has to play itself out.”
He said he and others in the delegation are “still recovering from the shock that we’ve lost two senior senators and more than 50 years of seniority and networking here,” with retirement of Sen. Chris Dodd and the impending departure of Lieberman.
“That’s what’s weighing very heavily on my mind,” Larson said.