The promise and pitfalls of being the ‘inevitable’ nominee

The word never will pass Chris Murphy’s lips, at least not in public. But the congressman is doing everything he can to create the impression that his winning the Democratic nomination for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman’s seat is, well, inevitable.

He is steadily rolling out endorsements, and his campaign bank account dwarfs those of his two best-known Democratic rivals, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and state Rep. William Tong.

Murphy’s cash on hand grew by $457,305 to about $2.5 million in his most recent filing on Jan. 31, nearly 10 times the $46,252 net gain reported by Bysiewicz, who has $889,805 in her account.

WFP endorsement

Murphy accepting the Working Families Party endorsement.

Tong is spending more than he is taking in. After raising an impressive $565,572 in his first weeks as a candidate, his cash on hand shrunk from $527,011 in July to $362,844 in October to $279,445 in January.

“Right now, it seems inevitable that Murphy is going to be the candidate,” said John F. Droney Jr., a former Democratic state chairman, one of the Democrats lining up behind the 38-year-old three-term congressman.


Inevitability has had a couple of bad election cycles.

Hillary Clinton’s nomination was inevitable until Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008. Inevitability was Mitt Romney’s friend this year, until it started mocking him.

A headline in the Huffington Post on Jan. 17: “Mitt Romney’s nomination looks inevitable.” Five days later, Huff Po proclaimed, “Mitt Romney no longer inevitable.” This week, the site called him both “inevitable and unelectable.”

“The last thing you want is what Romney’s going through,” said a prominent Republican operative, who did not want to be quoted by name because of his association with a GOP candidate.

Without the caucuses, primaries and debates that give the GOP presidential race the back-and-forth of ping-pong, the dynamic of a Senate race is more deliberate, less volatile. A new phase begins Thursday, with the first of a series of campaign forums featuring all three Democrats.

Inevitability is fueled by quarterly financial reports, limited public polling and the careful doling out of endorsements, a game played by Murphy and Linda McMahon, the 2010 Republican nominee trying again in 2012. Former Rep. Chris Shays, R-4th District, is also seeking the Republican nomination.

McMahon’s campaign announced four rounds of endorsements in the past two weeks, the most recent from five Republican State Central Committee members Wednesday.

Not long after beginning his campaign, Murphy was endorsed by Connecticut’s other four members of the U.S. House delegation. A few days later, he was endorsed by Attorney General George Jepsen, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and Comptroller Kevin Lembo.

In December, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, seemed to signal national Democratic donors that Murphy was the anointed one.

“When we go out and talk to people in states, we look at who is the strongest candidate, who can win, who has the kind of support,” Murray said. “And in that state, Chris Murphy is a just a great candidate, and I expect him to win.”

Shays and McMahon are Murphy’s allies, in an odd way, in their treatment of him as the inevitable nominee. The two Republicans have largely ignored Tong and Bysiewicz, focusing their jabs at Murphy.

“I think the only brand we’re looking for is a grass-roots campaign that is designed to win,” said Ken Curran, Murphy’s campaign manager. “That’s what Chris did in his past elections, and that’s what he’s doing now.”

Curran said Murphy has no choice but to focus on McMahon now, even as he competes with Bysiewicz and Tong for the nomination. Given her independent wealth — McMahon spent $50 million of her own money on her campaign in 2010 — Murphy has to shape his general election message.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that it also adds to the sense he is the inevitable nominee.

“It helps him, if he can build the case. It helps him raise money and get endorsements and support,” former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District, said of Murphy. “At this stage in the game, I don’t see anybody else in the race who is presenting a reasonable alternative to Chris Murphy.”

Simmons knows firsthand the challenge of facing a candidate deemed inevitable. He was the front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2010, but McMahon’s money eventually made her seem unbeatable in a Republican primary.

Shays acknowledges that one of his challenges is to overcome the air of inevitability that some GOP activists see around McMahon’s nomination.

His refrain when seeking support is to convince Republicans that he is intent on a primary.

“The primary is on Tuesday, Aug. 14, and there will be a primary,” Shays said. “Whoever wins the convention, there will be a primary. The decision is not going to be made by party officials.”

George Gallo, strategist for the state House Republican caucus, campaign consultant and former GOP state chairman, said every candidate tries to establish “an air of inevitability, the air of confidence, the air of we are on the winning team.”

It can carry a risk.

“The negative side is it’s usually at the expense of the grass roots,” Gallo said. “You run the risk of being the establishment candidate. And being the establishment candidate in this day and age is not the good housekeeping seal of approval.”

And that is exactly the card the Bysiewicz campaign is playing.

“I definitely think he is setting himself up as the establishment figure,” Jonathan Ducote, her campaign manager, said of Murphy.

“Inevitability? Maybe, but it’s not something a lot of these Democratic Town Committees are pushing back on,” said Marc Bradley, the campaign manager for Tong. “Every time we go to these town committees, people are tired of the Wasington deal. This is a guy who has been down there for six years and hasn’t passed a bill.”

But Gallo said Murphy, who has a reputation as a grass-roots organizer, seems somewhat inoculated against the establishment rap, even though he has held elective office since he was 27, winning two terms in the state House, two in the state Senate and three in Congress.

“Murphy, he came up by being a grass-roots guy,” Gallo said. “He in many respects created two stories, two personal campaign stories, the insider and the hardworking grass-roots guy. Essentially, you’ve got two mints in one, and you hope voters buy both.”

Droney said Murphy seems well aware of the pitfalls of being seen as the inevitable nominee.

“You’ve got be inevitable without being obvious, inevitable without being arrogant, inevitable without being lazy, inevitable without being uninterested in other points of view,” Droney said. “There’s a whole list of dos and don’ts if you are going to play the inevitable card.”

Bysiewicz is clinging to her singular status in Connecticut politics: She is the only convention runner-up to win a statewide primary and then go on to be elected. In 1998, she lost the nomination for secretary of the state at the convention, then won a primary and the general election.

Curran said if others see Murphy as inevitable, it is a compliment: “If people are drawn to us as the strongest Democratic candidate, then we’re doing our job right.”

With Lieberman not seeking re-election, Bradley said, “The only thing that is inevitable in this race is that the people of Connecticut are going to have a new U.S. senator in November.”