National parties begin attacks in 5th District race, but will they work?

Washington -- The national Republican Party is calling Connecticut's 5th Congressional District race its "best pickup opportunity in New England."

And a national political report has moved the race from "leaning Democrat" to pure "toss up."

And so the name-calling has begun, with each party testing for vulnerabilities in the opposing candidates.

The national Republican Party is calling Democrat Elizabeth Esty a lightweight, while national Democrats are trying to label Republican Andrew Roraback a radical in attacks that may fizzle, or just change, as the battle for the seat deepens.

University of Connecticut political science professor Vin Moscardelli said the national parties are "trying to throw a lot of things against the wall to see what will stick."

The 5th District seat is an open seat that will be vacated by Rep. Chris Murphy who is running for U.S. Senate, and races for open seats are usually the most competitive.

But this one has special significance to the national political parties.

The winner of the seat will either keep Connecticut's entire House delegation in the Democratic column or give Connecticut Republicans a coveted seat in Congress that would help them grow their party, which has lost political clout in recent years.

A Roraback win would also make it harder for Democrats to pick up the additional 25 seats they need to win back the House.

With so much at stake, the national parties have plunged into the 5th District race, and their PACs (with their money) are expected to follow.

The Republican line of attack is that Esty, a one-term member of the state House, is a "second-tier candidate" and "transparent partisan politician who was voted out after one term in the state assembly," said Nat Sillin, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee

Republicans will contrast Esty's record with that of Roraback, who has served 12 years in the state Senate.

That may not be the strongest of political assaults, but Connecticut House Speaker Chris Donovan's loss in Tuesday's primary deprived the NRCC of a bigger target as Donovan's campaign was marred by scandal.

"Not getting Donovan was good news for Democrats, but facing Roraback is the bad news," said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Faced with a strong GOP candidate, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is portraying Roraback as a conservative extremist. It's trying to tie him to the controversial budget proposed by Mitt Romney's vice presidential nominee Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, that would transform the Medicare program into a voucher system.

"Andrew Roraback now joins Washington Republicans and Paul Ryan's ticket to end Medicare and force seniors to pay more for their health care while giving tax breaks to millionaires," a DCCC statement said.

Democrats have a few other plays that tie the popular, pro-choice Roraback to the national GOP, which is far more conservative than Connecticut's Republican voters, especially on social issues like abortion, Moscardelli said.

Meanwhile, the GOP has to make the race "all about Esty" because attacking the Democratic Party and its stand on issues would backfire in a "blue" district that's trending bluer every day, Moscardelli said.

Yet the slams on each of the candidates are hard to support.

Far from being a lightweight, Esty has a degree from Yale Law School, and attended Harvard as an undergraduate. She lost her seat in the state's General Assembly in large part because she stuck to her opposition to the death penalty after the horrific Petit home invasion case in Cheshire. The state has repealed the death penalty since her defeat.

"Esty's loss in the 2010 GOP wave doesn't diminish the formidability of her candidacy this year," said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

Meanwhile, the affable Roraback was the most moderate candidate in the GOP primary, although he tacked to the right a bit in debates with his Republican rivals. The DCCC is using clips from those debates in an attack video that calls Roraback a tea party extremist.

Not true, said Gonzales, who called Roraback a moderate who is "well-regarded by Democrats and Republicans in Connecticut." Gonzales said Roraback has to keep his distance from the national GOP to maintain his popularity.

"Roraback will need to upgrade his campaign and fundraising and will have to run well-ahead of Mitt Romney and Senate nominee Linda McMahon, but he looks like the type of New England Republican who can make this a real race," Gonzales said.

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