New Britain — U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy won an easy first-ballot Democratic convention endorsement for U.S. Senate on Saturday with 76 percent of the vote, but former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz vowed to force an Aug. 14 primary.
The only question at the anticlimactic convention had been how much of a struggle Bysiewicz would have to win 15 percent of the vote, the threshold to qualify for a primary without having to collect signatures from 2 percent of registered Democrats. She finished with 24 percent.
The final tally was 1,378 ballots for Murphy, 444 for Bysiewicz.
“We haven’t seen a convention be this lopsided in a while for a statewide office,” Murphy said. “It’s really fantastic to know that the vast majority of Democrats, by a 3-1 margin here, believe that I’m the right candidate to be the next U.S. senator.”
Bysiewicz said she was pleased that most of her supporters resisted entreaties to switch to Murphy, but she was reminded at every turn that the overwhelming majority was not with her.
“Susan, any other year,” a delegate told Bysiewicz as she looked for last-minute support before balloting began on the floor of Kaiser Hall, a field house at Central Connecticut State University. “Sorry.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy led a show of support for the 38-year-old Murphy, a three-term congressman from the 5th District endorsed as the successor to the retiring Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman by nearly every major Democratic office holder. Murphy’s campaign says the support is broader than the establishment.
“Almost 2,000 Democrats are going to choose a candidate for U.S. Senate today, and it’s going to be Chris Murphy,” said Ken Curran, his campaign manager, said Saturday morning. “We feel good about that.”
Malloy placed Murphy’s name in nomination, calling him the best bet to win the seat and fend off a Republican push to win a majority.
Two other Democrats, Lee Whitnum and Matthew Oakes, also were candidates, but their support was negligible. Oakes’ name was placed in nomination; Whitnum’s was not.
Bysiewicz, 50, who held statewide office from 1999 until 2011, made a virtue of necessity, casting herself as a political outsider, a status she reinforced by her choice of an unemployed Enfield man to nominate her.
“My people were very committed, and they didn’t cave under pressure,” Bysiewicz said afterward. “I’m very proud of my supporters.”
Bysiewicz added that “while I like and respect every delegate in this room, the conversation is now with every Democratic voter.”
Murphy had not given up on the possibility of avoiding a primary, based on the strong showing expected on his behalf at the convention.
“I think it’d be better if this party got on the same page, and we’re focusing on Linda McMahon. It’s ultimately not my decision. I hope that Susan takes a little bit of time to listen to the delegates here today.”
Malloy said Bysiewicz, whom he says once seemed certain to draw 40 percent or more of the delegate vote, needs to closely consider her next step.
“It’s the same advice I’ve given to candidate after candidate after candidate. Set goals for yourself. If you meet those goals, stay in the race. If you don’t meet those goals, get out of the race,” Malloy said.
Bysiewicz arrived at the convention with a different message: that the choice of the nominee should rest with the Democratic electorate.
“I strongly believe when more people participate, there is a better decision,” said Bysiewicz, who is the only Democrat elected to statewide office without a convention endorsment. She won a primary for secretary of the state in 1998, when the office was open.
Bysiewicz, who was losing her voice as she worked the convention floor Saturday, said, “I’ve received no direct calls” to drop out of the race. “I am not arrogant enough to believe a tiny percentage of the electorate would make a better decision than the entire Democratic Party,” she said. “We should let the 700,000 registered Democrats in this state make their choice.”
Murphy, who has made a career of winning uphill races for seats in the state House, state Senate and Congress, never has had to compete for a Democratic nomination. Smiling, he said, “I have the fortune or misfortune over the years of running for offices that no other Democrat wanted to run for.”
The eventual Democratic nominee is expected to face either McMahon, the GOP’s 2010 nominee, or former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, R-4th District, for an open Senate seat that national political handicappers say is likely to remain in Democratic hands.
Republicans have not won a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut since 1982, when Lowell P. Weicker Jr. was re-elected to his third and final term. He lost to Lieberman in 1988.
Murphy was the only candidate allowed to address the convention. Under longstanding rules, the only candidate address is the acceptance speech of the winner.
Bysiewicz tried to score points with delegates with a nominating speech by John Censki, whose unemployment benefits ran out last week.
“John is an example of someone Congressman Murphy voted against when he decided to vote to keep the hedge fund loophole open so that people like Mitt Romney could pay less in taxes than most middle class families,” Bysiewicz had said on the eve of the convention.
Bysieiwcz has repeatedly tried to tie Murphy to Wall Street, returning time and again to Murphy’s vote in May 2010 against a broad tax bill that would have ended the “carried interest” tax break on hedge funds.
It was part of her pitch to delegates Saturday, a message she has been delivering since the Democratic Senate candidates’ first debate in March.
“That was a moment when there couldn’t have been a clearer time to show: Do you stand with the middle class families who are struggling, or do you stand with Wall Street?” Bysiewicz said at their first debate. “At that moment you stood with Wall Street.”
Murphy, who says he has voted three other times to close the loophole, said he was one of 34 Democrats who voted against the bill in the House because it would have added $53 billion to the deficit.
He ignored Bysiewicz in his acceptance speech, but he told reporters he gladly would match his record against hers before Democratic voters.
“She may talk about standing up for the middle class, but the fact is, is that I’ve done it, over and over again as a member of Congress,” Murphy said.
Bysiewicz is using a variation of the Republican line of attack employed against Murphy in 2008 after the congressman voted to support the bailout of the financial markets.
Noting the financial support Murphy enjoyed from Wall Street, Republican David Cappiello ran a late ad asking, “Did Chris Murphy shake up Washington, or shake down Wall Street?”
McMahon already has outspent the Democratic field. As of late April, McMahon had spent $3.7 million, compared with $1.3 million for Murphy, $892,000 for Bysiewicz and $910,000 for state Rep. William Tong, who recently dropped out and endorsed Murphy.
Murphy had $3 milion cash on hand, compared to $1 million for Bysiewicz. Money on was Murphy’s mind even as the applause was fading at the convention.
“Unfortunately, there’s little time to rest,” he told his supporters by email at 12:38 p.m. “The convention also marks the end of another fundraising deadline for the campaign, so your contribution before midnight tonight is critical. Can I count on your $25 contribution right now?”
Republicans endorse a candidate next Friday in Hartford.