Waterbury — Elizabeth Esty won the race for Connecticut’s only open House seat, keeping in Democratic hands a district the GOP had hoped to recapture.

Esty, a former Cheshire councilwoman and one-term state legislator once considered a longshot to even win the primary, defeated state Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Goshen Republican who campaigned as an independent-minded politician. Her victory keeps Connecticut’s congressional delegation entirely Democratic.

A tearful Roraback conceded shortly after 11:30 p.m., telling supporters gathered in Torrington that he regretted nothing. Esty took the stage at the CoCo Key Water Resort in Waterbury minutes later. She was introduced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

“Democrats have been outspent in this state in race after race after race,” Malloy said. “Tonight we won ’em all.”

Esty sounded a similar theme, noting that she was targeted by three Super PACS.

“We proved in the Senate, we proved in the House, Connecticut cannot be bought,” she said.

Republicans had considered the 5th District their best shot to retake a spot in the state’s House delegation. Republican Nancy Johnson represented much of the district — before it was combined with another district a decade ago as part of redistricting — for two dozen years before losing to Democrat Chris Murphy in 2006. It’s the only district Republican Tom Foley won in the 2010 race for governor, and where Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon came closest to winning that year.

Roraback, who comes from a prominent Connecticut family, is popular across party lines in his Litchfield County district, and has won friends on both sides of the aisle in Hartford.

Early results from the district’s smaller towns favored Roraback, but Esty won by wide margins in Waterbury, New Britain and Danbury.

Esty, a moderate, had to overcome the misgivings of labor unions and liberal Democrats after she won the Democratic primary in August. On Tuesday, she said she’d received “tremendous” support from unions, and touted her campaign’s organization and the coordinated effort to elect Democrats statewide. She said volunteers reached “tens of thousands” of voters by knocking on doors and making phone calls. Esty spent Tuesday traveling to polling places across the sprawling 41-town district.

Her political climb from town council member to congresswoman was not a simple, clear path. After one term as a state representative, Esty lost her bid for re-election two years ago in a tight contest. Her defeat followed her vote to repeal the death penalty, something she said reflected a long-held view. The vote was particularly controversial because her district was where a woman and her two daughters were murdered during a 2007 home invasion that galvanized opinions on criminal justice across the state.

When she announced plans to run for Congress, seeking the seat Murphy vacated to run for Senate, Esty was something of an underdog. The favorite was House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, who had strong backing from labor unions and liberal Democrats.

But Donovan’s campaign was shaken by a campaign finance scandal. His former fundraiser and campaign manager were arrested as part of a federal probe into allegations of attempts to mask the source of contributions and influence legislation pending in the General Assembly. Donovan has not been implicated.

Esty won the three-way August primary with just under 44 percent of the vote. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Donovan’s supporters would embrace Esty, who is more moderate than Donovan, but she ultimately won the backing of labor unions.

She also benefitted from the endorsement of Emily’s List, which channels money to female candidates who support abortion rights. The group gave her about $350,000 for the primary.

Esty’s race against Roraback drew a substantial amount of outside money. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent about $1.4 million to support Esty. Government Integrity Fund, an Ohio-based group whose donors are not disclosed, spent $1.1 million to defeat Esty. Roraback also received $1.1 million from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Super PAC, running ads praising the Goshen Republican as an independent-minded supporter of women’s rights, gun control and environmental protection.

Esty sought to portray a different version of Roraback, targeting his position in favor of repealing the federal health reform law. Outside advertising also sought to link him to the far right wing of the Republican party, likening him to members of the Tea Party or suggesting that he’d be seen as a welcome vote for the Republican agenda by his party leadership.

Roraback’s campaign, meanwhile, ran ads featuring a 10-year-old clip of Esty speaking at a town council meeting in Cheshire, saying that people who didn’t like the property taxes were “always welcome to move to one of our neighboring towns.” He also took aim at her record on the Cheshire town council and in Hartford.

Esty told supporters Tuesday night that nothing could make someone fight for campaign finance reform more than being the target of three Super PACS.

“I tell you I am very committed to this cause,” she said.

Esty, a lawyer whose husband, Dan, is the state’s commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, spoke of being an “angry PTA mom” a decade ago when she realized she could get involved and address the things that bothered her, like school budgets getting slashed and seniors not being taken care of.

She praised Roraback as a “good, committed public servant.”

Roraback, 52, represented a northwest district in the state legislature for 18 years. His concession speech was brief and at times tearful.

“We ran a super campaign, we were just a couple of votes short,” he said.

He said he’s proud to be the fifth generation of Rorabacks to have practiced law in Connecticut. The family name has been known in the state for decades. A Roraback founded the state’s dominant electric utility and was once the most powerful politician in the state. Other Rorabacks founded Connecticut’s Civil Liberties Union and served on the state’s Supreme Court.

Although Andrew Roraback stressed his independent streak, he wasn’t enough of a political maverick to turn back help from Washington Republicans. The Republican National Campaign Committee made his election a priority and gave his campaign money and strategic advice. 

And the two most powerful men in the U.S. House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor came to Connecticut to help Roraback raise money.

In the end, the attacks linking Roraback to Sarah Palin and the most conservative Tea Party member of Congress seemed to hurt — as did the Democratic bent of the larger communities in the district.

“I think those cities hurt him,”  said Scott Benjamin, a political science professor at Western Connecticut State University.

Benjamin also said the early help national Democrats gave Esty helped turn the race.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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