Washington — The heated race for the 5th District seat is a choice between a pragmatic Democrat who relishes grappling with complex issues and a Republican running on a moderate record who promises to return civility to Washington.
The contest pits Elizabeth Esty, a lawyer and former Democratic state representative, against Andrew Roraback, another lawyer who has been a state lawmaker for 17 years, serving in both the House and Senate.
The Ivy League graduates like to call themselves moderates.
“Both have been more flexible than their parties on issues,” said Scott Benjamin, a political science professor at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.
As a state legislator, Esty once rejected a Democratic budget because “too much of it wasn’t paid for,” and she said it would raise the cost of energy. Roraback rejects his party’s position on abortion and gay marriage — he is pro-choice and supports gay marriage.
Despite their similarities, their campaign strategies are widely different.
Esty’s plan is to tie Roraback to his party’s conservative leadership and its tea party members. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is helping to promote this with two commercials that link Roraback to the right wing of his party and its conservative policies.
Esty also reminds voters that Roraback’s vote would keep GOP leaders in control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Roraback has had a tougher time coming up with a line of attack, but he’s found one. The affable Republican has seized on a 10-year-old tape of Esty at a town council meeting in her hometown of Cheshire saying people who don’t like the town’s property tax rate should move out.
That snippet of tape, used in a campaign commercial, aims to feed the perception that Esty is a smart, but haughty, policy wonk who lacks the niceness factor that’s one of Roraback’s major assets.
“One of the things you hear is that he’s almost too nice,” Benjamin, the WSCU professor, said.
But Benjamin said Roraback’s uncharacteristic attack on Esty’s character is unfair. He pointed out that Esty did not criticize Democratic primary rival Chris Donovan after his campaign was swamped by scandal.
“That spoke to her character,” Benjamin said.
The 5th District race is one of the nation’s hottest because it is a contest for a rare open seat — vacated by Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy who is running for Senate — and it is being held in a true swing district.
The district stretches from Danbury and Bethel in the south, to New Britain in the east to stretches of rural areas bordering New York and Massachusetts in the west and north.
About 172,000 of the district’s registered voters are unaffiliated or independent, 128,705 are Democrat and 93,843 are Republicans.
That means the support of unaffiliated and independent voters are key to winning that seat, and the candidates are wooing them in different ways.
Roraback is trying to appeal to them by portraying himself as a maverick who often bucks his party.
“I’m an American before I’m a Republican,” he says.
But his independent streak runs largely on social issues. Roraback backs GOP leaders on most fiscal issues.
Esty seems to be using former President Bill Clinton’s handbook to appeal to swing voters, Benjamin said. “She understands there needs to be compromise.”
But Esty is also a loyal Democrat, supporting the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s tax plan, as well as the need to protect the nation’s social safety net.
The national parties have come to the aid of both candidates.
Democrats are desperate to hold onto the 5th District seat to help them gain a net total of 25 House seats that would give them the majority in that chamber. Republicans are just as eager to take the seat to break the Democratic monopoly in Connecticut’s House delegation
The DCCC has spent more than $1 million on the attack ads that tie Roraback to conservative Republicans like Sarah Palin, vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and other tea party favorites.
That strategy seems to have worked on Matthew Palmer, a firefighter who lives in Cheshire. Interviewed recently in a coffee shop in Cheshire, Palmer said that Roraback, who has an 18-year record as a moderate in the state Senate, is “too closely aligned to the tea party.”
“As a public employee, I would have a hard time supporting someone from a party that has attacked public employees,” Palmer said.
Esty’s success in winning the support of Connecticut’s labor unions — who once viewed her as too moderate and preferred Donovan — is a key part of her strategy.
Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee is helping Roraback, but less visibly. It has provided Roraback with some strategic help and put him on a priorities list. That’s what has prompted House Speaker John Boehner to hold a fundraiser for Roraback in Hartford Tuesday — help the candidate welcomes even as he proclaims his independence from party leaders.
Roraback has lagged behind Esty in fundraising until the last three months, when he seems to have raised nearly as much as his Democratic rival. Closing the fundraising gap helps level the campaigns, but Roraback could benefit from the type of third-party attack ads that are helping Esty.
The candidates’ strategies are also likely to take a different turn when it comes to the 5th District’s sprawling geography.
Esty has a stronghold in Cheshire, which is the hometown of Senate candidate Murphy as well, and she is popular in the Democratic-leaning towns of Danbury, Meriden, Waterbury and New Britain.
Republican State Sen. Rob Kane, who ran Roraback’s successful primary campaign, said Roraback needs to spend time introducing himself to voters in those towns.
“He gets things done and he works well with people,” Kane said. “He needs to get that message out.”
Kane said the 5th District is the most conservative in the state. It is home to more Republicans than the other four congressional districts, and even the district’s Democrats tend to be moderate, he said.
“Obviously jobs and the economy are the major issues,” Kane said. “But [voters] are also tired of the gridlock in Washington and want someone who plays nice with others.”
Esty would be smart to spend time in the more than 15 municipalities that comprise Roraback’s state Senate district in the northwest corner of the state, including Goshen, Litchfield, Kent, Washington and Torrington, Benjamin said.
Esty is scheduled for at least one high-profile visit there — she plans to attend an Oct. 13 fundraiser in Kent hosted by Vice President Joe Biden to raise money for the Obama-Biden ticket.
Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said he has rated the Roraback-Esty race as one that “leans Democratic.”
“But that is a tentative rating,” he said. “I could definitely imagine Roraback winning because he seems like a decent fit for the district, in the model of traditional moderate Northeastern Republicans.”
One thing that may help decide this close race and has nothing to do with the well-planned strategies of the campaigns: The strength of the candidates at the top of the ticket.
Obama is expected to win the state, but polls show he has much less support in Connecticut than he did four years ago. That could hurt Esty, Kondik said.
Meanwhile, a surge in popularity for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney could give Roraback a boost.