A political wunderkind now second-guessed

An element of Chris Murphy’s personal narrative is that he would be the poorest member of the U.S. Senate if elected, a young father who still owes student loans, giving him common ground with struggling middle-class families.

It is a biography that could have accommodated a chapter about getting sued after missing rent and mortgage payments, especially when his opponent, Linda McMahon, a Republican, is a Greenwich millionaire who once filed for bankruptcy.

So, why didn’t the Murphy campaign follow a cardinal rule of politics that it is always better for a candidate to break bad news in a time and manner of his choosing, rather than wait for an opponent or the media to do so?

The question is one the Murphy campaign declines to address a week after disclosures about the candidate’s past financial problems, opting instead to brush aside the query with a retreat to campaign talking points.

Nor will the campaign say why Murphy is refusing to release loan documents that could rebut McMahon’s innuendo that he and his wife couldn’t have subsequently obtained a $43,000 line of home-equity credit without political favoritism.

“This campaign is about who is best for Connecticut jobs,” said Ben Marter, the campaign spokesman. “Chris’ record is fighting for Connecticut jobs. McMahon’s record is shipping them overseas.”

In other words, the campaign is trying to move on.

It is a calculated risk in the minds of some Democrats, who did not want to be quoted by name for fear of undermining Murphy, who already was slightly trailing McMahon in public polls.

Murphy, 39, who was widely praised for his political skills after winning difficult races for the state House in 1998, state Senate in 2002 and Congress in 2006, now is facing significant second-guessing, with state Democrats saying that Washington is exerting more control over his campaign.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is airing television ads against McMahon, and Murphy recently fired his advertising agency and hired a replacement with ties to the DSCC.

McMahon’s campaign has not been without upheaval. Her campaign is on its third communications director, but campaigns that are gaining in the polls do not get the same scrutiny when personnel is changed, even as late as August.

McMahon is on the attack. Murphy is on defense, though he began counterpunching this week with ads questioning McMahon’s ethical treatment of employees at World Wrestling Entertainment and her support of some restrictions of abortion rights.

Less than two months before the election, with one-third of the electorate unfamiliar with the congressman, the independently wealthy McMahon is spending heavily to define Murphy as a coddled politician, a man who plays by his own rules.

A major element of that story line is Murphy’s ability to obtain the $43,000 line of home-equity credit from Webster Financial in the summer of 2008, just 14 months after Chase Home Finance began a foreclosure action.

She released a new television commercial Friday that begins with these words on screen: “Despite not paying his bills, Chris Murphy gets another loan. Would you?”

Webster has forcefully defended the loan with the release of data that indicate Murphy did pay a price for the blemishes on his credit history: His loan was a full percentage point higher than the bank’s best advertised rate and 1.5 points higher than the rate extended to its most credit-worthy customers.

Without releasing the Murphys’ credit scores, the bank also said that its underwriting standards in 2007 dictated that a couple applying for a credit line would be judged on the higher of their two scores.

(Webster is not the only bank to judge the Murphys credit-worthy, despite the congressman’s missed payments. The Murphys obtained a $382,000 mortgage in March 2010 from USAA Federal Savings on a new home in Cheshire.)

The financial story broke 10 days ago, when The Hartford Courant disclosed over two days that Murphy was sued by his landlord in 2003 for nonpayment of rent on an apartment in Southington and by Chase Financial in 2007 in a foreclosure on his house in Cheshire. Both actions were quickly withdrawn after Murphy paid his bills.

If Webster has refuted or least cast significant doubt on McMahon’s claim of a sweetheart deal, Murphy’s refusal to release documents such as his loan application or details about his delinquency invites continued speculation about his finances and why he has not produced relevant documents.

McMahon’s campaign is happy to fill in the blanks.

“Congressman Murphy and his campaign are in cover-up mode,” said Corry Bliss, McMahon’s campaign manager.

The episode is discomfiting to Connecticut Democrats, who watched Sen. Chris Dodd sink in the polls after Portfolio magazine reported in June 2008 that he and his wife received improper VIP treatment from Countrywide Financial. The Dodd case is different in major respects, including evidence that Countrywide singled out Dodd’s loans for special handling.

The Dodds waited until February 2009 to release loan documents showing they had high credit scores qualifying them for the loans and that the Dodds had to meet standard requirements, such as submitting proof of income, length of employment and the disclosure of existing debt.

But Dodd ultimately decided to retire. McMahon sought his seat in 2010, closing to within 3 percentage points in one late poll before losing by 12 points to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who, after 20 years as attorney general, was one of Connecticut’s most popular and best-known politicians.

As a young congressman running statewide for the first time, Murphy has been easier for McMahon to define than Blumenthal.

Murphy has met once with reporters to talk about his financial issues — in an impromptu press conference Sept. 7 after an appearance at the Crocodile Club at Lake Compounce, where politicians gently roast themselves and each other in a day of light speeches.

But he offered only vague answers to some questions, such as how many payments did he miss before he was hit with a foreclosure action?

“It was a handful of payments,” Murphy said. “I don’t know exactly.”

Murphy blamed the missed payments on the consolidation of his finances with those of his wife, saying each thought the other had paid the mortgage.

Didn’t he receive dunning notices or phone calls from Chase before the bank sued?

Murphy hasn’t said.

Last week, Murphy also was vague when pressed on whether his campaign was aware of the two lawsuits.

“I don’t know if we discussed it with all the current campaign staff,” Murphy said, avoiding saying if he had discussed it with any of the campaign staff.

Marter said Friday that senior campaign staff was aware of the suits filed against Murphy in 2003 and 2007.

If so, the question Democrats are asking is:

Why wasn’t the campaign better prepared to respond, knowing that its Republican opponent can spend more on opposition research and television advertising than anyone in the history of Connecticut politics?