Connecticut’s congressional primary season came to the end of its long, strange road Tuesday night with the nominations of Democrat Elizabeth Esty and Republican Andrew Roraback in the 5th Congressional District, the most competitive of the state’s five U.S. House seats.
A composed House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden, the Democratic front-runner until wounded by a fundraising scandal, was lavish in his thanks to supporters, yet conceded without publicly mentioning Esty or urging his labor allies to rally around the nominee.
Donovan was endorsed by the Working Families Party, which controls a ballot line in Connecticut, but splitting the Democratic base in the closely contested district would cede the seat to the GOP. The speaker’s labor supporters saw little chance Donovan would choose to play the spoiler.
“I can’t believe he would do that,” said John W. Olsen, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, which endorsed Donovan, one of labor’s most important allies at the General Assembly over his two-decade career. “I don’t think that’s a big worry.”
The third candidate, Dan Roberti, 30, of Kent, promised his unqualified support for Esty as she competes with Roraback, a Republican state senator. A Roraback win would put the seat back into Republican hands.
The seat is being vacated by Chris Murphy, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, who beat a Republican, Nancy Johnson, in 2006.
“I will do everything I can to elect Elizabeth Esty to the U.S. Congress,” said Roberti, who attended Esty’s celebration at the CoCo Key Water Resort in Waterbury. “We had a spirited debate, now it’s time to come together.”
Roberti’s appearances at his own headquarters and Esty’s party were his first public events since the death of his mother Saturday after a long illness. He suspended campaigning Thursday night.
Esty and Roraback each were deemed the strongest general-election candidates by their party establishments in Washington, yet each were deemed too moderate to be fully embraced by the Democratic left or the Republican right in their parties’ primaries.
Both can expect to be whipsawed: After being too moderate for the hard left, Esty now must pivot to confront a certain attack from the right; Roraback, denounced by conservatives for months, now will have to defend his left flank.
The fields of three Democrats and four Republicans spent a record $6.9 million as of July 25, with the candidates on pace to spend another $2 million by the close of voting. Three independent groups spent another $1 million.
Roraback, 52, a state senator from Goshen with 18 years in the House and Senate, won despite being significantly outspent by all three GOP opponents: Mark Greenberg, Elizabeth Wilson-Foley and Justin Bernier. He was on pace to spend about $600,000 on the primary, about one-third of the money spent by the runner up, Greenberg.
Esty, 52, a former state legislator and town council member from Cheshire, was expected to spend $2 million on the primary, including $500,000 of her personal funds. Earlier in the day, Esty said she was holding nothing in reserve for the general election.
“I made it clear from the beginning I was all-in on the primary,” Esty said.
She was the beneficiary of about $350,000 in independent expenditures by Emily’s List, which promotes Democratic women who support abortion rights. The group spent more than $260,000 on television ads and $35,000 on mail promoting Esty and about $60,000 on mail attacking Donovan.
“By nominating Elizabeth tonight, Connecticut voters showed they’re ready to send a progressive leader to Washington who will hold the right wing accountable, fight partisan gridlock, and get the results we need to move our country forward,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List.
The nominations of Esty and Roraback are likely to sideline social conservatives: Esty and Roraback each are supporters of abortion rights, and each has voted to abolish the death penalty, although Roraback opposed an abolition bill that became law in 2012.
At stake Tuesday were the Democratic and Republican nominations for the state’s only open U.S. House seat, representing a broad and diverse swath of 41 communities in western Connecticut, stretching from Danbury to the Litchfield Hills to Hartford’s western suburbs of Avon, Farmington and Simsbury.
It is a region that tilts Democratic, but only barely: Republicans carried the 5th in the 2010 gubernatorial race, and it tends to give Democratic presidential candidates their tiniest pluralities in New England.
In the Democratic primary, unofficial results had Esty with 45 percent, Donovan with 32 percent and Roberti with 23 percent. Esty dominated the suburbs and many towns in Litchfield, including Roberti’s hometown of Kent.
Roberti, the son of a Washington power broker, Vin Roberti, emptied a $900,000 trust fund for his campaign in recent weeks, as well as spending $1.2 million raised from others. A late endorsement from Bill Clinton was used in a robo-call. But he never showed signs of developing a base.
Esty won Danbury, Torrington and Waterbury, while Donovan carried Meriden and New Britain.
In the tighter GOP race, Roraback had 32 percent, Greenberg 27 percent, Wilson-Foley 21 percent and Bernier 19 percent.
There was one other congressional primary: Republicans in the 2nd District nominated Paul Formica of East Lyme over Daria Novak. He will face U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney, a three-term Democrat.
Esty: a ‘long shot candidate’
The victory for Esty is a comeback: She exited the House after a close loss in 2010 to the Republican she unseated in 2008, Al Adinolfi. She characterized herself as both the “long shot” candidate and a “feisty woman” She said those traits will help her in November.
“This is a purple seat… We have our work cut out for us,” she told about 200 supporters. “There is so much at stake.”
As the nominee, Esty is one-half of a power couple in Connecticut politics: She is married to Dan Esty, a noted Yale author named by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as his commissioner of energy and environmental protection.
The couple are graduates of Harvard and Yale Law School, providing a ready network of donors that Esty effectively tapped. Esty also was criticized for accepting $500 donations from four executives of Northeast Utilities, whose industry is regulated by her husband.
Esty positioned herself as a fiscal moderate in the state House, drawing withering attacks from the left during the primary. Among supporters at her victory party was Rep. Linda Schofield, a moderate who wrote a scathing review of Donovan’s tactics as the speaker of the house.
Esty said she will seek labor’s support.
“I’ve kept that door open. I am quite confident we will be able to come together,” she told reporters Tuesday night.
In a telephone interview, Olsen said Esty had been cultivating labor for months, positioning herself as the union’s second choice should Donovan falter. Matt O’Connor, the political director of 32BJ, a Service Employees International Union affiliate, who was at Donovan’s reception, predicted labor will unite behind the Democratic nominee.
Esty said the main issue she plans to campaign on for November’s election is ending the stalemate in Washington.
“Washington needs to be accountable and get things done,” she said, noting that 45 percent of the 5th District is not affiliated with any political party. “That sends a strong message.”
Roraback: Primary win just a beginning
Roraback celebrated his victory at the Backstage Restaurant in Torrington, touting the attribute Esty also claims to possess: electability.
“Voters in the 5th District today send a message that they have got that one candidate in the Republican Party who can win the race in November,” he said amid cheers and applause. “One congressperson who will serve them honorably and with integrity.”
Rep. Sean Williams, R-Watertown, said Roraback’s win against self-funders like Greenberg and Wilson-Foley was a testament to his record. “Andrew just asked for support, and he got it,” Williams said.
For 12 of his 18 years in the state legislature, Roraback represented the sprawling 30th Senate District, which stretches south from the northwest hills of Litchfield to the outskirts of Danbury, giving him regular exposure in the 5th District’s small- and midsized daily and weekly papers.
Like Esty, Roraback is a graduate of Yale, attending as an undergraduate. His law degree is from the University of Virginia.
He voted with Democrats in recent years to legalize medical marijuana, restrict junk food in schools and require hospitals to provide emergency contraceptives to rape victims. He was the only Senate Republican to vote to abolish the death penalty in 2009, though not this year, when he said he would vote for repeal only if Democrats eliminated a sentence-reduction program for inmates.
But Roraback was considered a reliable Republican vote on fiscal issues, and he was backed by Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.
In one of the stranger episodes of a strange season, Roraback was deemed the strongest of the GOP field by a pro-labor super Pac, Patriot Majority. It spent $200,000 on late television advertising aimed at convincing Republicans that Roraback was too liberal on spending.
Roraback said the primary win was a beginning.
“This campaign does not end tonight, this campaign begins tonight,” Roraback said. “The real victory for the people of the 5th District will be on November 6.”
The party favorites
The winners of both races were the candidates favored by the Democratic and GOP establishment in Washington, where Democrats feared that Donovan was too damaged by scandal and Republicans saw Roraback as their best hope in November.
The race turned upside down on May 31, when federal authorities disclosed the arrest of Donovan’s finance director, Robert Braddock Jr. Weeks later, Donovan’s former manager, Joshua Nassi, and six others were facing charges in the case.
Roraback was the only GOP candidate who has won a previous election. Esty became a favorite by default after Donovan was stung by the arrest of his first campaign manager and finance director.
While not accused of any wrongdoing, Donovan labored under a cloud since May 31, hampering his fundraising and derailing his plans to mobilize activist around a 20-year record of supporting minimum wage increases, paid sick days and universal health care.
The mood at his election-night reception at the Curtis Cultural Center in Meriden was one of resignation. There were few tears, few expressions of anger when it became evident that Donovan would lose badly to Esty.
The audience was filled with union leaders, such as Lori Pelletier, secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, and activists, many of whom wore the purple T-shirts of SEIU, one of the unions that worked to turn out a vote for Donovan.
They applauded when Donovan arrived with his wife, Elaine, and two adult children, Aaron and Sarah, after 9:30 p.m. Donovan shook hands as he made his way to the microphone.
“We’re going to keep fighting for our president and the things that matter,” Donovan told his cheering supporters. He said nothing about whether winning the 5th District seat for a Democrat were among that things that matter.
Donovan was terse when asked if he called Esty.
He said he did.
Are you supporting her?
“I told her congratulations,” Donovan replied, turning away from reporters to thank the friends and supporters who continued to work for him through primary note.
Esty downplayed any hard feelings, especially those in evidence just hours after the polls closed.
“Let’s let the dust settle,” she said. “I hope we have a unified party, I really do.”