Torrington — The five Republicans vying for Connecticut’s only open congressional seat closed ranks around tax policy and the viability of the GOP brand in a debate Monday, saving their harshest comments for the post-debate spin.
No one offered a criticism of any candidate in the room during the debate, and the only notable controversy of the campaign — the role of a disgraced former governor, John G. Rowland — went without mention.
Instead, the five candidates for the Republican nomination in the 5th Congressional District, the only district strongly carried by the GOP in the 2010 governor’s race, focused on personal biography and electability during a 90-minute exchange at Torrington City Hall.
Voters shopping for a candidate most likely would have left relying on their sense of who the candidates were, not what issues divided them. The exception was abortion.
A voter for whom abortion is key could winnow the field to two or three: Mike Clark, state Sen. Andrew Roraback and Lisa Wilson-Foley described themselves as pro-choice; Justin Bernier and Mark Greenberg described themselves as pro-life.
All five opposed raising taxes to balance the federal budget, with one deviation: Roraback expressed a willingness to consider a budget-balancing that relied on a 10:1 ratio of spending cuts to new taxes.
Roraback’s statement went unremarked upon during the debate, but it sparked an exchange of emailed statements by the Roraback and Wilson-Foley campaigns post-debate.
“Sen. Roraback has sadly defaulted to a Democrat approach to solving our deficit reduction efforts,” said Chris Syrek, the campaign manager for Wilson-Foley. “We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. The people of Connecticut and the people of this country are already taxed enough.”
Roraback cried foul: “I am disappointed to see that my opponent would blatantly misrepresent my views. All of us suffer when statements are twisted and facts distorted for political expediency.”
The candidates debated before an audience of more than 125, including Republican State Chairman Jerry Labriola, who said he appreciated the candidates keeping their messages positive, at least during the event.
The field is composed of two business executives who campaigned unsuccessfully in 2010 and are substantially self-funding their present campaigns: Wilson-Foley, a health-care entrepreneur, and Greenberg, a real-estate developer.
Roraback, a member of the state House and Senate for 18 years, is the only candidate who has held state office. Bernier, a Navy veteran, is a former staffer in Congress and during the administration of Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Clark emphasizes his half-dozen years on the town council in Farmington, ignoring the most intriguing aspect of his resume: his 22 years as an FBI agent, topped by the successful prosecution of Rowland, a former GOP congressman in the district.
Other than a reference to the oath of integrity he took as an FBI agent — “There is no expiration date on that oath” — Clark said nothing about his career as a supervisiory agent, not did he mention Rowland.
Rowland is an old friend of Wilson-Foley’s who has promoted her candidacy. The exact nature of his role in her campaign — he is described as a volunteer — became an issue with the disclosure that her husband, Brian Foley, paid Rowland $30,000 under a six-month business consulting contract that ended in March.
Greenberg added to the questions about Rowland by confirming that Rowland had proposed a campaign consulting arrangement with him in 2010, whose nature would have been hidden by funneling payments through a nonprofit foundation Greenberg runs. Greenberg said he declined.
In a brief interview Monday, Greenberg said he has documentation of the offer, including an exchange of emails, but he was uncertain about releasing them. “It’s not my issue,” he said.
Clark said he had no intention of mentioning Rowland in his opening or closing remarks, but he was surprised the topic did not come up in questions.
The debate was sponsored by the Register Citizen and the Litchfield County Times, with questions chosen from those submitted by voters.
A final question based on an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein sparked the most passion. It was entitled, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”
Incorporated into the question was this passage: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
“When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”
The candidates were asked if they agreed.
“That’s an outrageous statement,” Clark said.
“The Republican message, our Republican principles are extremely positive,” Bernier said. “It’s about individual rights. It’s about opportunity. It’s about smaller government and a bigger slice of the pie for everyone. So I don’t take any stock in that article.”
“I totally do not agree,” Wilson-Foley said. “The Republican Party believes in opportunity, in freedom, believes in the Constitution.”
Greenberg acknowledged a few doubts in the party during the second term of George W. Bush.
“It was actually during the Bush second term that I started to get a little angry with the Republicans, because we had the presidency, the Congress and the Senate, and we started this system of borrowing money, borrowing money, borrowing money,” Greenberg said.
But he added he still believes the GOP is the party of opportunity and limited government.
“We’re the party of Lincoln,” Roraback said. He added that the opinion expressed in the article was that of the “media elite.”
If they offered no sharp differences on issues, most of the candidates eventually circled around to the issue of electability of a Republican in a presidential year, when the Democratic turnout is higher.
“I believe we Republicans have a once in a lifetime opportunity to win this seat,” Wilson-Foley said. “And it is turning out to be a classic matchup between myself — a fiscal conservative, job-creating businesswoman — against my most likely opponent, Chris Donovan. He is a big government, job-killing, union-hugging liberal.”
Donovan, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, is the best-known candidate in the Democratic field.
“Make no mistake about it, to win this race, we have to carry the Republican Party message and reach across to a significant number of independent voters,” Clark said. “So when you look at the candidates, drill down on our resumes. Look hard at our life experience and determine who is the person who is going to be able to carry that ball across the goal line. This is a winnable race.”
Roraback offered a novel argument for why he is the strongest general-election candidate. He pointed to a bearded young man in the back with a video camera whom he says is employed by the Democratic State Central Committee as a tracker, someone who follows opposing candidates.
“His job is to follow me,” Roraback said. “When I say that I think I have the skill set to win this election, don’t take my word for it, take the word of the Democratic State Central Committee.”