Hartford — Republicans endorsed state Sen. Andrew Roraback of Goshen for the open 5th Congressional District seat on the third ballot Friday, but three other candidates qualified for an August primary.
Roraback beat Lisa Wilson-Foley, Justin Bernier and Mark Greenberg for the top line on the primary ballot in the district that represents the GOP’s best hopes for winning a congressional seat in Connecticut, a state where Republicans have been shut out since U.S. Rep. Chris Shays lost in the 4th in 2008.
The contested congressional convention was the opening act for the Republicans’ main event: a convention for the open U.S. Senate seat. Linda McMahon is expected to win the endorsement, but Shays appears to have the votes to comfortably qualify for a primary.
All four candidates for the 5th District seat easily cleared the 15 percent threshold to qualify for a primary on the first ballot, with Roraback and Wilson-Foley each at 30 percent and Greenberg and Bernier nearly tied at 19 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
In the other congressional districts, Republicans endorsed John Decker in the 1st, Paul Formica in the 2nd, Wayne Winsley in the 3rd and Steve Obsitnik in the 4th. It was not immediately clear how many will face primaries.
Daria Novak promised a challenge in the 2nd, and Chris Meeks said he was considering a primary in the 4th.
In the 5th, Greenberg was eliminated on the second ballot as the low vote-getter with 19 percent.
The race then quickly focused on Roraback and Wilson-Foley on the third ballot, as Roraback seemed to pick up much of Greenberg’s support. At the completion of balloting, delegates switched to Roraback before the vote was formally closed.
“We have a nominee,” the convention Chairman Joe Bannon of Waterbury, announced, setting off a surge of photographers toward Roraback, who stood with his wife. Roraback blinked back tears as delegates congratulated him.
He told the crowd that Friday represented the beginning of a process, not the end.
“The process we begin today is the process of putting the 5th District back in Republican hands,” he said.
Roraback thanked his competitors and said they’re all “focused on bringing a Republican message of victory in Connecticut.”
Exactly what sort of Republican the party should choose proved to be a key point of disagreement in the race.
Greenberg supporter Greg Dandio, the Wolcott Republican town committee chairman, told the crowd that his candidate was a real Republican, “Not a New England Republican.” Waterbury Republican Chairman Jason Van Stone touted Bernier as a conservative, pausing and repeating the word “conservative” to let it sink in with the crowd.
By contrast, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton described his pick, Wilson-Foley, as someone who could appeal to unaffiliated voters in the general election.
State Rep. Sean Williams of Watertown talked up Roraback’s credentials on fiscal issues, saying that the state senator was such a fiscal conservative, “he even voted against a playground in his own district.”
After clinching the endorsement, Roraback described his own form of Republican values: “Fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, individual liberty, limited government, lower taxes and less spending.”
“A Republican can win in the 5th District, and a Republican will win in the 5th District,” he said.
The 5th District runs from Danbury along the state’s western border with New York to its northern border with Massachusetts. It includes the old industrial centers of Waterbury, Meriden, New Britain and Torrington, plus the Litchfield Hills and Farmington Valley suburbs.
Roraback was the only Republican candidate with elective experience, representing a rural Senate district that covers an area stretching from the Litchfield Hills to the Danbury suburb of Brookfield: He’s served 18 years in the state House and state Senate, never missing a floor vote.
Wilson-Foley and Greenberg are successful business owners who have contributed heavily to their own campaigns. Of the four candidates in the 5th, only Bernier expressed uncertainty about waging a primary.
Republicans won three of the five U.S. House seats in 2002 and 2004, but Shays was the only winner in 2006. Despite that history, most political operatives see only the 5th as competitive in a presidential year, when Democratic turnout usually gets a boost.
State Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk, the House minority leader, said after the 4th District vote the candidates have a long way to go to take back some of these congressional seats.
“They have a two-to-one advantage,” he said, a reference to the number of registered Democratic voters. But Republicans control town halls in 104 of the 169 municipalities, dominating many of the state’s smaller towns.
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas also contributed to this report.