Washington –– When Democrats at a state convention in May were picking a candidate for the 5th Congressional District seat, several delegates asked Democratic State Central Committeewoman Audrey Blondin, “Why can’t we nominate Andrew Roraback?”
“I just shook my head,” Blondin said. “I told them, ‘No, no, no, we can’t because he’s a Republican.’”
Roraback, 52, became his party’s choice to run for that seat in Congress, and he hopes his cross-party appeal will propel him to victory.
“I’m not an ideologue,” he says.
Blondin, who lives in Torrington, has been a Democratic activist for decades in the northwest part of Connecticut where Roraback has represented constituents in the state House, and then Senate, for 18 years. He is so well liked in Litchfield County few Democrats ever considered running against him, Blondin said.
But now this veteran legislator is facing the toughest race of his life against Democrat Elizabeth Esty for the 5th District U.S. House seat. It’s a rare open contest because current occupant, Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, is running for the U.S. Senate.
Roraback may not have been completely prepared for the rough-and-tumble of the campaign.
He seemed caught off-guard when a Democratic Super PAC ran deceptive ads about him a few days before August’s primary elections. He called an impromptu press conference to condemn them.
Roraback also reacted with outrage when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started to run negative ads against him last month. He demanded — unsuccessfully — Connecticut television stations take them off the air.
Roraback said, “I didn’t think this was the Boy Scouts, but I thought the campaign would be different.”
“He’s never had a competitive race,” said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report. “And the true test of political candidates is, ‘How do they react when the lights are brighter?’”
Gonzales said Roraback is a quick study. He replaced the media consultants he had in the primary with more experienced ones, and he has also been able to climb to the top of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s list of favored candidates. That status secured House Speaker John Boehner’s help at a fundraising event in Hartford this week.
But some think Roraback’s greatest assets in his bid for Congress are his gracious, affable personality, and his view that politics should be civil and legislation bipartisan.
Even his political opponent doesn’t dispute his likeability.
“I like Andrew. He’s a nice guy. But that’s not the point,” Esty said.
Roraback’s Republicanism is a different strain than the one in Washington. He breaks completely from the national GOP on social issues. He’s pro-choice and supports gay marriage — positions that are anathema to most House Republicans. He’s more in line on fiscal issues, but even there shows more flexibility and willingness to compromise.
Roraback says, for instance, that he will not sign anti-tax activist Grover Norquist’s pledge to never vote for a tax increase. Adherence to this pledge has prevented House Republicans — if they wanted to — from compromising with Democrats on a budget.
“What’s missing in Congress are moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats,” Roraback recently told a political science class at Western Connecticut State University. “I think my party needs me.”
Roraback’s particular brand of Republicanism has won him endorsements from both the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group considered the political stepchild of today’s GOP.
Roraback has also won awards from groups that usually favor Democrats. Those include environmental organizations like Connecticut’s League of Conservation Voters and the Audubon Society, activists fighting domestic violence and advocates of children’s rights.
Born in Torrington, Roraback lives with his wife Kara and young son in Goshen.
He has deep roots in the state, representing the 5th generation of Rorabacks who practiced law in Connecticut.
Roraback attended Yale as an undergraduate and received his law degree from the University of Virginia. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1994 and to the state Senate in 2000.
Roraback is proud that he has never missed a single vote, casting 9,829 of them in Connecticut’s General Assembly.
But one of those votes sparked controversy this year. A longtime opponent of the death penalty, Roraback voted against a ban on capital punishment because, he said, it did not include a repeal of an early release policy that “broke a promise” to the families of crime victims.
Others saw the vote as politically opportunistic for a candidate who was running for Congress in a liberal state’s most conservative district.
If Roraback wins the seat, he’s likely to be in the majority for the first time in his political career because Republicans are expected to keep their hold on the House of Representatives.
Fellow Republican state Sen. John Kissel of Enfield said Roraback’s career as a member of the minority party fed his natural inclination to compromise and reach across the aisle.
“Because we’ve never worked in the majority, we’ve learned to work harder to influence legislation,” he said.
Roraback relishes the thought of belonging to the party in power. He hopes to win a seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and press for more road construction funds for Connecticut because he thinks the state doesn’t receive its fair share.
But he said the first bill he’ll introduce would require insurance companies to cover ultrasound tests for women whose breast density makes it difficult for mammograms to detect tumors.
Meanwhile, Esty and the DCCC are intent on tying Roraback to the more conservative Republicans in Washington — including Sarah Palin and Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin — who may not be popular with Connecticut’s moderate Republican and independent voters.
“They are trying to paint everyone with the same brush, and that doesn’t work with Andrew,” said fellow Republican state Sen. Rob Kane.
But even as he distances himself from the national party, Roraback is a key player in GOP efforts to keep the majority in the House of Representatives. To that end, a conservative Super PAC, the Government Integrity Fund Action Network, will next week begin a $1 million television ad blitz on his behalf.
Those ads may help persuade voters in the parts of the 5th District where he is less known and where Esty is now favored. But in the 15 northwest towns he has represented, the area Blondin calls “Roraback country,” Roraback seems to have a clear advantage.
“When (Democrats) have come over to get yard signs, I ask them to take some of Esty’s,” Blondin said. “But when some of them they realize, ‘Oh, she’s the one running against Roraback,’ they say, ‘Never mind.’”