Donovan’s woes drop 5th District race from ‘leaning’ Dem to competitive for GOP

The congressional campaign of Connecticut House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan was hit Friday with a new attack ad and more bad news following the indictment of his former campaign manager. A prominent national political handicapper has reassessed the district race as more competitive for Republicans.

The Rothenberg Political Report dropped its rating for the 5th Congressional District race from “Leans Democrat” to “Toss-Up/Tilts Democrat,” meaning that Donovan’s troubles make the district more likely than before to be won by the Republican party.

Donovan, from Meriden, is currently the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

The downgraded status of the Democrat’s campaign comes in the wake of additional arrests Thursday in the finance scandal that has rocked Donovan’s campaign. The arrest of seven more people, including Joshua Nassi, his former manager, was front-page news throughout the district.

But even before the new arrests, Donovan’s two rivals for the nomination, former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti, were working to publicize the scandal — Esty with a mailing that went out earlier this week, and Roberti with a just-completed attack ad.

“We do feel the voters have a right to know about the ongoing investigation into the speaker’s campaign,” said Jeb Fain, a spokesman for Esty.

Roberti, meanwhile, was ready with a TV ad featuring a Donovan look-alike pocketing money from interests that backed the legalization of ultimate fighting, a measure that didn’t pass.

“Any surprise the FBI just busted his campaign for taking $27,000 to kill a roll your own tobacco bill?” asks the narrator, as the camera shows Roberti reading a newspaper story about the scandal.

Roberti says, “I’m Dan Roberti, and I approve this message, because this stuff has got to stop.”

Roberti’s campaign manager, Erik Williams, said the ad was not taped with the expectation of another development in the FBI investigation, such as the indictment unsealed Thursday.

“Frankly, we didn’t think it was necessary for another shoe to drop,” Williams said.

The ad ends with slap at Esty, noting some of her campaign donations come from industries regulated by her husband, Dan Esty, the state’s commissioner of energy and environmental protection.

Fundraising is a potential vulnerability for Roberti as well, though for different reasons. His campaign fund has been greatly assisted by his father, Vincent Roberti, a Washington lobbyist.

Donovan has not been charged, nor have federal authorities accused him of direct knowledge or involvement in what they say was a conspiracy by smoke shop owners to hide campaign donations intended to kill legislation imposing taxes or fees on the roll-your-own cigarette trade.

Tom Swan, who took over management of Donovan’s campaign after Nassi was fired in late May, said the attacks by Esty and Roberti reflect a vulnerability in their campaigns, not Donovan’s.

“My sense is they’re both getting desperate,” Swan said.

With the Democratic primary little more than two weeks away, Donovan still enjoys a strong labor and grass-roots base that is attributable to 20 years of progressive, activist politics, Swan said.

Currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy, who is running for the U.S. Senate, losing the 5th District race was not a concern for national Democrats before the campaign-finance scandal broke.

But the party may now have to spend time and money defending the seat.

The analysis released Friday by Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report says not only have Democrats’ chances of keeping the 5th District seat dimmed, but Donovan’s chances to win an Aug. 14 primary are also slipping.

“Even though Donovan has most of the traditional establishment support that is important in Democratic primaries, the federal investigation has put his nomination in jeopardy,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said organized labor, which backs Donovan, “will likely refrain from any extra activity (to help Donovan get elected) because of the investigation.” That assessment is disputed by union activists in Connecticut.

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, said his group will continue to keep the 5th District race rated “Likely Democratic” until the results of the primary are known.

If Donovan wins the primary and becomes the Democratic candidate in the general election, Wasserman said there would be a re-evaluation of the race, “to probably much more competitive.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has refused to comment on any of the turmoil in the race, continued to offer a “no comment” on the new Rothenberg Political Report ranking.