Waterbury — Democrats endorsed House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden for Connecticut’s only open congressional seat Monday night, but former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty of Cheshire and Dan Roberti of Kent qualified for an Aug. 14 primary.
Donovan, 58, who has been organized labor’s greatest ally in the General Assembly, starts the primary campaign with important union support and $640,008 in cash, compared with $801,075 for Esty and $508,236 for Roberti.
Roberti just barely won 15 percent of the convention vote, the threshold for automatically qualifying for the primary. His campaign says he exceeded the 51 votes necessary to primary after all delegates voted, but he was in danger of falling short when delegates began switching votes.
He dropped to 50, but enough delegates switched in his favor to give him 54 votes before the tally was formally closed.
Donovan easily won with 216 votes, or 64 percent. Esty had 66 votes, or 20 percent.
The trio has been competing for the nomination to succeed U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, who is running for the U.S. Senate six years after breaking the Republican hold on the district by unseating Nancy Johnson.
Esty, 52, is a former Cheshire council member who served one term in the state House. Roberti, 30, never has held elective office.
Donovan’s convention pitch was an unabashed appeal to a left-leaning Democratic base vote: He has a 20-year record in the legislature of supporting the minimum wage, universal health care and mandatory paid sick days.
Esty and Roberti join Donovan in supporting gay marriage, abortion rights and the repeal of the death penalty, but Esty has emphasized a more centrist record on economic development issues that her supporters say will play better in November.
In the 2010 race for governor, Republican Tom Foley handily beat Democrat Dannel P. Malloy in the 5th, giving the GOP reason to hope it can recapture a seat the party held before Murphy’s win.
A packet distributed by Esty’s campaign Monday night emphasized the importance of a candidate who can appeal to unaffiliated voters.
“The issues that I care about cut across party lines. I’m talking about jobs. People want jobs. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, they want jobs,” Donovan said. “They want to be treated fairly. That’s the underlying theme here.”
Roberti said he was proud of qualifying for the primary, even if he nearly lost in last-second vote switches. He was unsure if he owed a debt to one of his opponents, or whether delegates simply decided to have everyone qualify.
“I’m not quite sure what happened right there, but what I do know is a lot of people stood up at the end and made sure we got across the threshold there.”
Roberti’s strengths have been fundraising, assisted by a father with Washington connections. But not all his cash on hand will be legally available during the primary, because some donors have given three times the maximum allowable donation: once for the convention, once for the primary and once for the general election.
Esty’s campaign estimated that only $347,000 of Roberti’s money can be used in the primary.
Esty said she expected all three candidates to qualify for the primary, just as the Republicans are likely to leave their convention next week facing a primary in the district. Esty said it is time for the broader Democratic electorate to decide who is most electable.
“Put us to the test,” she said.
The district runs from Fairfield County’s northern fringe along the New York border to Massachusetts, covering struggling industrial cities like Meriden, Waterbury and New Britain, the Litchfield Hills and Farmington Valley suburbs.
Donovan nearly swept all the larger urban areas, taking 25 of 27 votes in Danbury, winning all 28 votes in his hometown of Meriden, 34 votes in New Britain and 9 votes in Torrington. Waterbury, whose political activists seem to take a special joy in convention deals, gave Roberti a surprising 22 of its 42 votes.
When Litchfield upped Donovan’s tally on vote switching at Roberti’s expense, Waterbury switched two from Donovan’s column into Roberti’s.
Esty took all 13 votes in her hometown of Cheshire, while Roberti got both his hometown votes in Kent.
A clarification: The original version of this story reported that Roberti was short of the 51 votes needed to primary until vote switching began. His campaign says it was vote switching that initially dropped him below 51 votes. Other switches eventually left him with 54 votes.