GOP targets Rep. Esty, but it may miss the mark

Washington — Even before Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty completed her first 100 days in Congress, the GOP had begun a campaign to oust her from Congress.

But even the Republican Party says Esty isn’t the best target they have in this election cycle, which ends in November 2014.

Esty, who defeated Republican Andrew Roraback last year to represent Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District, isn’t at the top of the GOP hit list, said Ian Prior a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“Obviously some (Democrats) are going to be more vulnerable that others,” he said.

The most endangered House Democrats are the seven who represent districts carried by former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney last year.

Esty doesn’t fit into that category — President Obama won the 5th Congressional District with 53.5 percent of the vote in 2012.

But that doesn’t mean that Republicans are ready to give up the fight to unseat her.

The GOP has compiled a list of 45 House Democrats whose re-election isn’t completely assured.

Many, like Esty, are freshmen, because first-term lawmakers are considered the easiest to pick off.

Others represent swing districts, like the 5th District, that have a history of electing both Republicans and Democrats. Before Democrat Chris Murphy was elected to the Senate in 2012, he’d represented the 5th for six years. He won his first election in the district, however, by defeating longtime Republican Rep. Nancy L. Johnson.

Prior said Esty was put on the list because the Cook Political Report rated the 5th District “D +3,” meaning a Democrat won the seat, but by only 3 percentage points.

Republicans are hoping Democrats who won close races last year will falter next year, when President Obama won’t be on the ticket to drive Democrats to the polls.

“She’s going to be at her most vulnerable in 2014,” Prior said.

To try to make the most of any weakness, the GOP has already begun the attacks.

For weeks, in blast email press releases, the NRCC has criticized Esty for supporting, along with most House Democrats, her party’s alternative to a GOP budget.

Republicans have also tried to link Esty to Obama’s budget, which would raise taxes and cut programs, but Republicans say would increase the deficit.

The GOP also blasted Esty for appearing in a video aimed at raising money for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s PAC. In the video, Esty says the leadership PAC helped her in the closing days of her tough campaign against Roraback.

Similar attacks were also leveled at other Democrats targeted by the GOP, and their effectiveness could be argued.

Closer to the mark is the NRCC’s attack on Esty for accepting campaign donations from Northeast Utilities, an energy company that some say has too close a relationship with the lawmaker’s husband, Dan Esty, who heads Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. After it was disclosed that Dan Esty participated in a conference call with stock analysts and investors on the eve of a renewable energy vote in the state Senate, Esty returned $3,500 in campaign donations to NU executives.

But other than that, Esty has mostly ignored the attacks.

“Elizabeth is focused on serving her constituents,” said press secretary Jeb Fain. “Her priority is working to address the issues that matter to folks in central and northwest Connecticut — reducing gun violence, boosting manufacturing and small business, replacing the sequester, and immigration reform, among them.”

Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, said the Northeast Utilities flap may resonate in Esty’s district.

But he and other analysts say Esty should be able to withstand assaults from the GOP.

“I think Elizabeth will be difficult to beat,” Rose said.

One reason, he said, is that the 5th District is becoming more Democratic, and it’s also home to more independent voters every year, especially in the larger cities and towns of the district, including New Britain, Waterbury and Danbury.

Another thing in Esty’s favor is that there are few strong Republican candidates, such as Roraback, a longtime popular state senator, who attracted independent votes and even those of some Democrats.

“The bench is pretty thin for Republicans,” Rose said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, took Roraback out of the political arena by naming him as a Superior Court judge this year.

“Can we get another Roraback?” Prior said. “I can’t tell you right now.”

Litchfield businessman and real estate developer Mark Greenberg, who lost the GOP primary last year for the 5th District seat, said he’ll run again.

But Rose said Greenberg is “a Tea Party Republican” and too conservative for the district.

In addition, Esty has served her constituents well, said Ronald Schurin, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. He called the lawmaker an “appealing, articulate, representative” who, as a social issues liberal and economic moderate, fits the 5th District well.

Esty’s district includes Newtown. The shootings at an elementary school in the town occurred just weeks before Esty was sworn into office in January.

“She dealt well (with the tragedy) as a good representative of the people of Newtown,” Schurin said.

Esty was named vice chairman of a House Democratic task force on gun control and was a very visible champion of efforts to place new restrictions on gun sales.

She was not blamed for the death of the effort in the Senate, Schurin said.

But she was criticized for hosting several local meetings with city officials and others in her district to discuss the Newtown school shooting and asking the news media to consider all comments from the meetings off the record.

Esty must still raise a lot of campaign cash to fend off Greenberg and any other challenger and should not be complacent, analysts say.

To help her keep her seat, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made Esty one of 23 Democrats in its “Frontline” program. Lawmakers in the program receive help in fundraising and other matters.

Schurin said a strong GOP challenger to Malloy, who is expected to run for re-election next year, could have “coat tails” that hurt Esty.

She also has pitfalls in her path, such as Obama’s proposal to change the way federal cost-of-living increases are tabulated, called “chained CPI,” that could slow the growth of Social Security and other payments.

If Esty, as a fiscal moderate, supports chained CPI, she could alienate liberal Democrats in her district, Schurin said.

With other Democrats, Esty signed a letter to Obama objecting to his support of chained CPI and asking it not be included in a federal budget.

Rose said Esty “has a lot going for her,” including the ability to bring in popular and powerful Democrats, perhaps even Obama, to campaign for her.

But, still, Esty won’t be able to breathe easily until she’s won re-election, Rose said. That greatly increases a new member’s chances of a long congressional career.

“She does not have a safe seat yet,” he said.

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