WASHINGTON–John Olsen is having a King Solomon moment.
The Connecticut labor leader’s dilemma doesn’t involve two women and a baby. Instead, it involves two congressmen and a Senate seat.
That would be Reps. Joe Courtney and Chris Murphy, who represent Connecticut’s 2nd and 5th districts respectively.
Both men were elected in 2006, defeating Republicans in tight races that naysayers predicted they would lose. And both men have gone on to win 3rd terms, and make their respective legislative marks, in Congress.
Now, both are eying the Senate seat held by Joe Lieberman, whose 4th term is up in 2012. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent, hasn’t said whether he will run again.
Even if he does, many Democrats think he’s vulnerable to a strong challenge from the left. A challenge from someone like Murphy or Courtney.
At this point, neither Murphy nor Courtney-or any other candidates, for that matter–have made an official decision. Murphy appears to further along in the decision-making process-and he seems more likely to make the leap. But Courtney is also seriously considering his options.
Thus Olsen’s self-described “Solomon’s moment.”
“These are two guys who are very good friends of mine,” said Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “Both of them are really dynamic legislators… This is a very difficult thing.”
When it comes to the issues, Murphy and Courtney are most often on the same page.
They both voted “yes” on health care reform and the Wall Street overhaul. They both voted for the stimulus bill and climate change legislation. They’ve both been cautious on Iraq and Afghanistan, raising questions about those combat missions while supporting continued funding.
They have parted ways on a few issues.
Since winning office, Courtney has homed in on defense and education issues vital to his district. Murphy has thrown a spotlight on manufacturing and taken a centrist position on some federal spending questions.
During the 2008 economic meltdown, Murphy supported the $700 billion emergency fund to stabilize the financial markets, the program known as TARP. Courtney voted against that measure.
More recently, Courtney voted to renew all the Bush-era tax cuts, even those for the wealthy. The cuts were part of a larger package brokered by President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans. Courtney said that while he objected to some elements, the risk of a stalemate was too serious to jeopardize the entire deal with a “no” vote.
Murphy voted against the deal, which eventually became law, saying it favored tax breaks for the rich over the middle class, while adding billions of dollars to the national debt. “The good things in the package are outweighed by the fact that we are going to borrow billions of dollars from China and Social Security to pass along 20% of the money in this bill to 1% of Americans,” Murphy said.
But those were a rare moments of dissonance for two lawmakers who are reliable party-line Democrats.
“Particularly among the progressive community, it would be a difficult choice,” said John McNamara, Democratic Town Chair in New Britain. “It’s hard to make a distinction on the issues… It puts a lot of folks in Connecticut between a rock and a hard place.”
Indeed, the differences may be more in style and experience, rather than substance or abilities.
The 57-year-old Courtney is seen as more of a seasoned, serious legislator, a policy wonk who delves into the issues, whether it’s education reform or the minutia of health care. The 37-year-old Murphy is viewed as more of a hard-charging risk-taker–smart, ambitious, aggressive.
“People think more of Murphy as the rock star because he’s younger,” said Toby Moffett, a former Connecticut congressman, now lobbyist, who is close to both men. “But some of the strengths that Joe has are because he’s older–because he’s been around the track more.”
Moffett said they would each bring “different pieces of the puzzle” to a Senate contest.
Olsen noted that Courtney is probably better known, because he’s been in politics longer and has run statewide. He served in the state legislature for eight years before making an unsuccessful bid, in 1998, for lieutenant governor.
And his district-which covers the eastern half of the state-is Connecticut’s largest, geographically. It has no major city and thus doesn’t get much media attention, but it could still serve as a good political launching pad.
“He obviously has a strong base in the 2nd district,” Olsen said. “They love him.”
That love wasn’t easily secured. Courtney first ran in 2002, and lost. He tried again in 2006, beating incumbent Republican Rob Simmons by only 83 votes. He has since solidified his hold on the seat, winning 65 percent of the vote in 2008 and 58.5 percent in 2010.
Murphy, who represents the opposite side of the state, has Connecticut’s 2nd largest congressional district. And although he’s 20 years Courtney’s junior, he’s no less formidable, political observers say.
“Murphy’s exploded on to the scene and has really shown his tenacity,” said Olsen. “There’s no one who’s going to say Murphy’s not up to the fight.”
Murphy, too, took on a Republican incumbent in 2006–veteran Rep. Nancy Johnson–after serving in the state legislature for eight years.
“People thought he wouldn’t be able to make a dent in Nancy Johnson and he went on to win,” said Olsen.
In Washington, Murphy was quickly tagged as an up-and-comer. In the last election, House Democratic leaders tapped him to help other vulnerable incumbents, a task that involved mentoring and fundraising for targeted House colleagues.
But Murphy curbed those duties when he realized he would face a stiffer-than-expected challenge back home. Murphy ended up beating GOP state Sen. Sam Caligiuri by 8 percentage points, but it was a hard-fought, bitter and expensive contest.
Murphy raised more than $3 million in 2010, compared to Courtney’s $1.8 million election tab.
Democratic handicappers say either candidate would be able to raise significant campaign cash for a Senate bid, especially from liberals eager to oust Lieberman. The incumbent senator has deeply irked the left, for everything from his support for the Iraq war to his endorsement of Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
The biggest uncertainty, Connecticut Democrats say, is not how strong their party’s candidate will be, but what the rest of the political field will look like. For those waiting in the wings, the most vexing question, of course, is whether Lieberman will run for a fifth term. And if so, whether he’ll opt in as an independent, a Democrat, or even as a Republican.
Another key unknown is whether former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz will join the Democratic fray, forcing a tough primary challenge for Murphy or Courtney–or even a three-way free-for-all.
On the GOP side, Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO who spent $50 million in an unsuccessful 2010 Senate campaign, has strongly hinted that she’s interested in trying again. It’s unclear who else might jump in from the Republican bench.
“Who would be better against Linda McMahon’s $50 million? Or Joe Lieberman’s both-ends-against-the-middle strategy?” asked McNamara.
Between Courtney and Murphy, he answered, it’s too hard to say. “I think both would have similar appeal,” he said, adding, however, that he’s encouraged Murphy to run “because he’s my congressman.”
Olsen said his main concern is not who runs, but how soon the Democratic front-runner is out there, campaigning and raising money.
“I’ve spoken with the entire congressional delegation and let them know there’s a real urgency” to deciding who’s in and who’s out, Olsen said.
While Olsen said he’s not opposed to a primary fight, it would probably be better to avoid one if that’s possible.
“We need to focus pretty quickly,” he said. Of the delegation, he added, “they need to sit down pretty quickly and I would hope they… talk through it and maybe there’s s some consensus and they can get behind a candidate.”
In the midst of all the maneuvering, observers say there’s little friction between Courtney and Murphy, who by several accounts have a good relationship with minimal rivalry.
Their congressional offices work well together, and Murphy’s deputy chief of staff is even engaged to Courtney’s legislative director. (The wedding is set for September.)
Moffett, who was considering a primary run against Chris Dodd in 1980 when they were both in the House, said this political rivalry is much more civil than his and Dodd’s.
“Our staffs were not marrying each other,” he said. “They were throwing rocks at each other.”