Washington — The five Republicans running to replace Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy in the 5th Congressional District are competing for more than votes and campaign cash.
They are also vying to be chosen for an exclusive group of GOP candidates known as “Young Guns.” Those are the candidates the national Republican Party has determined to have the best chance of winning a congressional seat.
Every Republican who enrolls in the program is eligible for guidance from Washington. Those who reach a certain level are introduced to possible donors, and those who reach Young Gun status are considered priority candidates, opening the door to valuable endorsements and fundraising help.
Marc Dillon, spokesman for 5th District candidate Andrew Roraback, who now serves in the state Senate, said applying to the Young Guns program was a way to bolster the campaign.
‘We’re going to avail ourselves of every tool available to make sure we win the district,” Dillon said.
But not all who compete for “Young Gun” status will reach their goal, and that could be a liability for some Republicans running for the 5th District seat.
The Young Gun program was established by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and other GOP leaders trying to recruit the strongest candidates and give mentoring and money.
The strategy seemed to work in 2010, as 62 of about 90 Young Guns won their seats and the Republicans won control of the House.
The five Republican candidates, Roraback, Justin Bernier, Lisa Wilson-Foley, Mark Greenberg and Mike Clark have all won “On the Radar” status, the first step toward becoming a Young Gun.
Nat Sillin, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which runs the Young Guns program, said “there’s equal opportunity for all of the candidates” to move ahead. The next tier is “Contender” status, just a step away from “Young Gun.”
To reach “On the Radar” status, certain benchmarks had to be met, including raising $100,000 or more in campaign cash.
“You need to prove you have the ability to raise money,” Sillin said.
But to be rated a “Contender,” candidates must meet even higher benchmarks, although Sillin declined to say how much campaign money had to be raised.
Most of the Republican candidates for the 5th District seat have had no trouble raising money.
Except for Clark and Roraback, all had raised more than $400,000 at the end of last year. Greenberg and Wilson-Foley have loaned their campaigns hundreds of thousands of dollars and seem likely to continue to do so.
“He will supplement his fundraising with more than sufficient funds,” said Greenberg campaign spokesman Chris Cooper.
Clark said he raised an additional $130,000 in the first three months of this year. The fundraising prowess of the rest of the GOP candidates will be determined this weekend, when all House candidates are required to file their latest reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Other candidate requirements include having a good campaign organization and advertising tactics, a strong message and a winning strategy to move up the Young Guns ladder.
“It’s a way for us to tell the quality of a candidate,” Sillin said.
Cooper, of the Greenberg campaign, said “it would be interesting” if the National Republican Campaign Committee promotes one of the 5th District candidates before the May 18 nominating convention, which will determine the support of the candidates among state and local party leaders.
A candidate who wins at least 15 percent of the vote at the convention automatically qualifies for a place on the ballot in the Aug. 14 primary.
There’s a good chance all five GOP candidates will end up on that primary ballot.
One of them may have reached Young Gun status by then, which could be a disadvantage for the other candidates.
In the race for an open congressional seat in Arkansas, for instance, Tom Cotton, a strong fundraiser, was elevated to “Contender” status, while his GOP rival Beth Rankin, remains “On the Radar.”
The national committee will choose its list of Young Guns later this year, Sillin said.
Chris Healy, spokesman for the Wilson-Foley campaign, said climbing the Young Gun ladder “would be nice, but we’re not giving it much thought.”
“Sometimes establishment support can be a drawback,” he said.
Clark also dismissed the importance of Young Guns status.
“Benchmarks that include money as an important metric have not proven very reliable, particularly here in Connecticut,” Clark said. “The average voter in the 5th District finds measures of electability, depth of experience and trustworthiness more significant than Washington endorsements.”
Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan publication, said the mentoring and coaching provided by the Young Guns program can help strengthen a campaign.
“It’s a way for candidates to get more experience,” he said. “It’s also something they can show reporters to give them some credibility.”
But Gonzales cautioned that the Young Gun designation “can backfire, if someone is considered the candidate of the establishment.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also has a program for its hot races, but it’s structured differently. Rather than ranking the strength of a candidate, it identifies “Red to Blue” districts that merit special attention.
Democratic candidates that run in those districts will receive “financial, communications, grassroots, and strategic support,” according to a description of the Red to Blue program.
Connecticut’s 5th District is on a list of 18 races targeted by the Democratic campaign committee, but the party is assessing the strengths of the Democrats running for that seat less publicly than the Republican committee with its Young Guns program.
The one thing both parties can agree on is that the race for the 5th District seat will draw plenty of attention and support from Washington.