Washington – It may be largely under the political radar, but there’s a race for the 2nd District congressional seat, pitting veteran U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat, against Republican Daria Novak.
She hopes her third try for the job is a charm.
“I have a backbone of steel and am willing to take the hits so we can have a good future,” said Novak, 59. “I plan to be eastern Connecticut’s alley cat in Congress, fighting for this district.”
Novak lives in Madison and has never been elected to public office. But she’s not exactly a political novice.
A native of Westport, she lived in Washington, D.C., for decades, spending about 10 years working for the State Department, some of that time as a presidential appointee in the Reagan administration. She was a government spokeswoman during the Tiananmen Square uprising in China and speaks fluent Mandarin, an ability that helped her when she worked on then-Vice President George Bush’s advance team to Beijing.
Novak said she returned to her native Connecticut for a sense of community – something that the divorced mother of two said the Washington area lacks.
“I wanted to live in a town with a good education system,” she said. “I didn’t want my children growing up thinking politics is everything.”
She says she sympathizes with Tea Party values, but “wants to see who is being constructive” before joining any of the GOP factions in Congress.
“I strongly support the free enterprise system and limited government,” Novak said.
After leaving the State Department, she started a consulting firm with her sister, but was also lured into world of Republican politics.
She co-hosts a cable television and Internet show called the “American Political Zone.” She also has a nationally syndicated radio program called the Vernuccio-Novak Report. Co-host Frank Vernuccio is editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy & Government, a conservative newsletter.
A recent Vernuccio-Novak Report focused on GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s failure to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. Novak called it “un-presidential,” and also bashed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
To Novak, issues in this race will be the economy and the need for a strong defense and national security, themes that are popular with many GOP candidates this year, including those running for the White House.
“We’re facing stronger enemies, and our Defense Department is weaker,” Novak said.
Courtney has made his mark fighting for funding for the submarines made by Electric Boat and for cutting the cost of college loans. Both EB and the University of Connecticut are in his district.
He won support from the Navy and Congress for a two-sub-a-year production schedule and for a lucrative contract to lengthen the hulls and increase the firepower of a future group of Virginia-class boats. Courtney also had a recent victory when the Navy announced last month it would add a 10th submarine to the group of Virginia-class subs it will purchase from 2019 to 2023.
But securing funding for that extra submarine will pose a challenge.
“We’ve got some work to do in the defense bill this year to squeeze money for an additional sub,” he said.
Courtney said he’s glad of a hiring boost at Electric Boat and other accomplishments. Besides a seat on the House Armed Services Committee, Courtney serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee, which crafted a K-12 education reform bill.
But he says the notion there’s unfinished business pushed him to seek re-election.
“It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning,” he said.
Although Novak says Courtney “votes straight party line,” the congressman has had moments of independence, such as his support for GOP legislation that would require greater scrutiny of refugees from Syria and Iraq.
Like Novak, Courtney believes the key issues this year will be economic security and national security.
“People are still recovering from the recession,” he said. “And obviously there are challenges to our national security.”
There has been little notice of congressional races yet, but Courtney said they won’t be ignored forever.
“The presidential race is sucking all of the oxygen out of the room, but eventually there will be a shift of voter attention to the down-ticket,” he said.
Courtney also said it’s too early to predict how the presidential race will affect congressional races.
He thinks a contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump will help Democrats like him, “but I don’t want to rely on that kind of strategy.”
“The pendulum will surely swing away from Trump,” Courtney said. “But he’s defied the laws of gravity in so many ways.”
Despite her passion for unseating Courtney and her two previous attempts to do so, Novak has never gotten out of the gate.
In 2010, she won support in the GOP convention, but lost in her party’s primary to Janet Pekinpaugh. Two years later, Novak failed to win enough support at the Republican convention. This year, she’s the only Republican who has shown an interest in running against Courtney.
It’s a David vs. Goliath race.
Novak reported raising $3,592 last year; $727 of that money came from an “in kind” contribution from Mark Greenberg, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, in 2015. Greenberg, who largely self-financed his campaign, gave Novak his donor list.
“Money doesn’t win races all the time,” Novak said. “It takes people.”
Courtney said he “tried to be careful in the last year in not overspending,” to keep a decent war chest available to fend off any challengers.
“I never take re-election for granted,” he said.
Courtney was elected in 2006 by the slimmest margin in a congressional election that year, just 83 votes, earning him the nickname “Landslide Joe.” He won the seat by defeating former Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican who had represented the district for three terms.
Since then, Courtney has easily won re-election with at least 60 percent of the vote, the margin of victory he had in 2014 against Republican Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh.
Political analysts say he’s got a safe seat, despite the large, rural 2nd District’s history of Republican representation in Congress.
Based on the 2014 vote for President Obama, the Cook Political Report rated the 2nd District the 285th (out of 435) least Republican congressional district.
The Rothenberg-Gonzales Political Report rated the district “safe Democratic,” the same rating it gave all of the other four congressional districts in Connecticut.
“Not a lot of Republicans are lining up to take on congressional Democrats in Connecticut,” said Quinnipiac University political science professor Scott McLean.
While Esty has drawn four GOP challengers, they are all considered underdogs, as is the Republican who is running against Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District.
Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, have not attracted Republican rivals.
“Incumbents have a tremendous advantage, especially against someone who is a newcomer in politics,” McLean said.
The state legislature is usually a popular source of candidates for Congress.
But, except for Himes rival John Shaban, there has been a dearth of GOP Congressinal challengers coming from the General Assembly.
“They’ve looked at the situation and said, ‘This doesn’t look very possible,’” McLean said.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said the 2nd District “is definitely a Democratic-leaning district, though I suppose it could become competitive under the perfect set of circumstances.”
“This race is not really on either party’s national radar as far as I can tell, and if Novak really wants to compete, she’s going to have to start raising considerably more money,” Kondik said.
He also said, “New England has become largely inhospitable for Republicans in recent cycles.”
“Anything’s possible, but Courtney does not seem to be in much danger of losing at this point,” Kondik said.
Novak, who is running her campaign with the help of unpaid volunteers, said she recently began to fund-raise in earnest.
She also said this is a tumultuous political time when experience in politics could be a liability with voters.
“This year, it’s career politicians vs. outsiders,” she said.