While U.S. Senate candidates Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy grab most of the headlines, there is more at stake in this year’s state legislative races than Connecticut has seen in a decade.

Though Democrats hold comfortable margins in both chambers, an unusually large number of open seats, a sluggish economy and the specter of right-wing super PAC funds have left the majority wary.

“I’m telling our people, if you have an opponent with a pulse, you need to run as if your political life depended on it,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said.

But Republicans, who also have to defend their share of open seats, still must campaign in a blue state where President Obama’s lead has stretched into double digits.

Democrats currently hold 22 of the Senate’s 36 seats, and haven’t held fewer than 21 since 2000.

Donald E. Williams

Donald E. Williams, Senate president pro tem

But after witnessing the tens of millions of dollars McMahon has pumped into her current and 2010 bids for Senate — as well as the impact that GOP super PACs brought to bear on state legislative races in Kansas and North Carolina — Williams fears learning too late that big special interest dollars are targeting state Senate races here.

“No state is immune from the special interest negative attacks,” he said. “Connecticut is not an island.”

The leader of Kansas’ moderate Republicans, state Senate President Steve Morris, said attack ads from conservative-funded Super PACs were to blame for moderates’ losses in that state’s August primary.

And the political outlook of the North Carolina House of Representatives changed in 2010 when several Republican representatives were ousted in primaries by a slate of candidates financed by super PACs organized by discount-store-magnate-turned-political-operative Art Pope, chairman of Variety Wholesalers.

Political action committees that on the surface are not linked to any particular candidate, super PACs take advantage of loopholes in campaign fundraising laws to shield donors and amass huge corporate and other special-interest dollars to assist select candidates.

Would well-funded conservatives consider flexing their financial muscles here?

“We have heard rumors to that effect,” Williams said.

The focus of several of those rumors has been Thomas Scott of Milford, a former state senator and McMahon campaign aide who first gained notoriety in 1991 for leading grass-roots opposition to the newly enacted state income tax.

But Scott said recently that although he has heard rumors that he runs a Connecticut-based super PAC, they are untrue.

Since leaving the McMahon campaign, he has been helping his friend, Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, and offering “friendly advice” to a few other candidates; but he said he is not running or forming a political action committee.

“I’m not aware of any super PACs in Connecticut except on the left,” he said. “I  am not aware of a single super PAC in Connecticut helping Republicans.”

The top Republican in the Connecticut Senate, Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield, said Democrats have good reasons to be wary, but not of the super PAC bogeyman.

John McKinney

John McKinney, state Senate minority leader

“That’s a reflection of the frustration people feel with the direction our state has gone in,” McKinney said. “People don’t like arrogance or concentrated power in one person or one party. People intuitively like balance.”

Watching the state budget continue to struggle with small deficits despite more than $1.5 billion in tax increases in 2011, Democrats may not want any help this month from their party’s leader, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, McKinney predicted.

“The Democrats can try to run away from the governor as much as they want,” McKinney said. “I don’t know one Democrat who wants this to be a referendum on the governor, but it is. In the first two years the Democrats gave this governor everything he wanted.”

Malloy, who isn’t up for re-election until 2014, was coy this week when asked if he expected to campaign for legislative candidates this month.

“Probably just Democrats,” he quipped, before adding, “I’ll do what I’m asked to do. I’ve told people I’ll be for them if they want me to be for them.”

Senate races

Four Senate seats — including three held by Democrats — are being vacated by incumbents.

And while Democrats generally consider the Bridgeport-centered seat in the 23rd District to be safe, they are gearing up for tough races in the other two:

In the 19th District, which runs southeasterly through portions of 10 towns from Marlborough and Hebron to Norwich and Ledyard, longtime Sen. Edith G. Prague is retiring; and Democrat Cathy Osten, the first selectwoman of Sprague, is running against Republican state Rep. Christopher Coutu of Norwich.

In the 33rd District, which includes all or portions of 12 towns in Middlesex and New London counties, another veteran senator, Eileen Daily, is stepping down. Two Westbrook residents — Democratic state Rep. James Crawford and Republican Art Linares —  are fighting for her seat.

The House

Democrats hold a wider cushion in the House of Representatives, 99 seats to 52.

But while incumbents leave 10 to 12 House seats vacant in a typical election year, this time there are 24 open. And 18 are held by Democrats.

“We have a lot of seats to defend,” House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said. “But in a way the Republicans do, too.”

The GOP, which controlled just 37 seats out of 151 in the 2009-10 term after a string of poor election finishes in the 2000s, finally began to reverse its decline two years ago, gaining 15 seats back.

And Sharkey said, “We expect to take back a number of those seats this November,” particularly given President Obama’s healthy lead over Mitt Romney here. “I think the top of the ticket will definitely help us.”

George Gallo, chief of staff for the House Republican Caucus, said recently that while the party won’t target specific races until the second half of October, it’s clear that the unusually large number of open seats — and fears about the economy — present an opportunity.

“It’s jobs, it’s the economy, it’s the deficit, it’s a whole series of economic issues that are taking the day,” Gallo said, adding that in better fiscal times, more voters would be discussing education, health care or the environment.

But not now.

“Now it’s all, ‘I’m worried about my job, all of my costs are going up and what is government doing to help me?’” Gallo added.

But Sharkey said the economy is not the ace in the hole Republicans think it is.

Democrats not only closed the largest budget deficit in state history without reducing municipal aid, but also carved out a new revenue-sharing program for towns and modestly increased education grants — potentially staving off property tax increases in many communities.

“The state actually held them harmless, and that is something that can get lost in the conversation,” Sharkey said, adding that Democrats also are pointing proudly to last fall’s special session that launched a number of new state programs to grow jobs.

The Hamden lawmaker added that Democrats are hardly running from Malloy.

“He has offered to go anywhere and we are taking him up on that,” Sharkey said. “We’re all in this together. We have a lot to celebrate.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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