Washington – The campaign tactics by Sen. Richard Blumenthal and his Republican challenger, state Rep. Dan Carter, are as different as they can be in politics.
Blumenthal, 70, has largely ignored his challenger.
“I think the senator is very focused in making a case on what he’s done for the people of Connecticut,” said Blumenthal campaign adviser Marla Romash.
Carter, meanwhile, is waging a death-by-a-thousand-cuts campaign, launching a blizzard of attacks that have included Blumenthal’s vote for a deal with Iran and a recycling of a six-year-old controversy over Blumenthal’s misstatements about his military service.
The difference in tactics is a reflection of the vastly different amount of resources each campaign has, and of Blumenthal’s advantages as an incumbent with statewide name recognition.
In his attacks, Carter is also aiming to tie Blumenthal to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, whose popularity has plummeted, and to a lesser degree Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. One Carter campaign release blasted Blumenthal as well as Clinton’s use of a personal server to access official State Department emails.
“In the last five years Senator Blumenthal has called for transparency and accountability nearly 85 times,” Carter said. “I guess there’s a different standard for his friends in Washington than for the rest of us.”
Carter, 48, is a former Air Force officer who has served in the Connecticut House of Representatives since 2010, representing parts of Bethel, Danbury, Newtown and Redding. He was the only representative for Newtown to vote against the gun laws passed in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, saying the bill “overreached.”
He entered the race relatively late, in April, after CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow decided not to run and after Republican businessman August Wolf began to have trouble in his campaign, which was plagued by staff turmoil. Carter won the nomination at the state GOP convention, and Wolf failed to garner enough signatures to become a petitioning candidate.
Carter’s campaign did not cooperate for this story. His campaign web site says he supports a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, cuts to federal spending and more local control of schools – bread and butter Republican issues.
In the state legislature, Carter voted against Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s $1.5 billion tax increase in 2011, the repeal of the death penalty, the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, two minimum wage increases and a mandate on some private employers to offer paid sick days. He voted for the legalization of medical cannabis.
Carter is the clear underdog in the race. But University of Connecticut political science professor Ronald Schurin said his candidacy helps the Connecticut Republican Party and could prepare him for a better shot at another political office.
“The Republicans have a living, breathing candidate. That’s something,” Schurin said. “And for a bright, young, political person, this is a way to get name recognition. Even if he loses, he wins something.”
Schurin said Blumenthal’s best bet is to run on his record and largely ignore Carter.
“If you raise your opponent’s profile, he may be able to get media attention to raise an issue that could hurt you,” Schurin said.
Romash, however, promised Blumenthal will run a vigorous re-election campaign.
“What is true of every election he goes into is believing he is 20 points behind,” she said. “He’s not going to take anything for granted.”
From underdog to top dog
A long-serving, high-profile Connecticut attorney general, in 2010 Blumenthal won the seat of retiring Sen. Chris Dodd in a race against Republican World Wrestling Federation co-founder Linda McMahon.
He’s spent his first term campaigning on a host of health and consumer issues, ranging from rail safety, defective auto airbags and dangerous guard rails to furniture that has tipped over on children and the marketing of menthol cigarettes to young people.
Although a freshman in the minority, Blumenthal is one of the most active senators when it comes to introducing legislation. While most of that legislation has not been approved, he has sponsored a wide-ranging, bipartisan veterans bill and several gun control measures that have won recognition or sparked debate and boosted his profile in the Senate.
Blumenthal has also optimized his connections to the White House, helping to lead an effort by Connecticut officials to persuade the Bureau of Indian Affairs to bar two Connecticut tribes from taking advantage of new regulations for federal recognition.
Six years ago, in his race against McMahon, Blumenthal was the underdog as far as campaign fund raising. McMahon raised more than $50 million to challenge Blumenthal, most of that money coming out of her own pocket.
Blumenthal is an underdog no more.
Blumenthal’s campaign reported having more than $5.3 million in its war chest as of June 30, after having spent more than $1.6 million, while Carter’s campaign reported only about $70,000 in cash on hand.
That incumbency advantage allowed Blumenthal to begin running television
ads. The first one, released last month, never mentions Carter but focuses on a Connecticut veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who committed suicide. The ad praises Blumenthal for winning approval of a bill that aims to strengthen the Veteran Administration’s mental health care and suicide prevention programs.
“We lost Justin to suicide and we miss him so much, but because of Senator Blumenthal so many others who are struggling can get help,” the vet’s wife says in the ad.
In a press release, Carter called the ad an “election year gimmick,” and raised the controversy Blumenthal embroiled himself in when he referred to his service during the Vietnam war. At a 2008 event, Blumenthal said he had “served in Vietnam” when he actually served stateside for six years in the Marine Reserve. Blumenthal said he misspoke.
“If we hadn’t seen this from Senator Blumenthal so many times before, maybe I wouldn’t be so cynical,” Carter said. “But the truth is Senator Blumenthal is known for his political opportunism, and this ad is no different.”
Ronald “Rusko” Rusakiewicz, an official with the Connecticut Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Blumenthal “did make a mistake, way back.”
“But that’s water under the bridge,” Rusakiewicz said. “He’s doing a fantastic job helping veterans. Every time you turn around, he’s introducing a (veterans) bill.”
Running his race
Despite Carter’s attacks, Blumenthal continues to refrain from engaging his rival, preferring in his campaign fundraising solicitations to attack GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
But he has not ignored all those who’ve eyed his Senate seat. Blumenthal’s campaign attacked Kudlow last winter as the conservative commentator mulled his entrance into the race.
With the Senate in play in this year’s elections and the possibility that Democrats could take back control of that chamber, propelling Blumenthal and fellow Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy into the majority, Blumenthal has been campaigning for other Democratic Senate candidates. He’s used his personal campaign account and his leadership PAC, the Nutmeg PAC, to contribute to Democrats in competitive Senate races.
Blumenthal’s campaign has also asked donors to send money to other Democrats directly.
“I’m fighting to put a Democrat in the White House, but if Trump wins, our last line of defense against his extremist, racist and misogynistic agenda will be a Democratic Senate,” a fundraising appeal says. “This is urgent. Join me right now, and contribute as much as you can now to support Catherine Cortez Masto and help take back the Democratic Senate. ”
Masto is running for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada.
Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report said Republicans missed their opportunity to defeat Blumenthal in 2010, a bitterly bad midterm election for Democrats. The only question for the Democratic senator on election night, Gonzales said, is not whether he wins or loses his race but whether he remains in the minority or is boosted into the majority.
Gonzales also said hot Senate races in other states and Republican concerns the party could lose up to eight seats in that chamber mean the Connecticut Senate race is off the party’s radar.
“They just don’t have the time or money to spend on a race in Connecticut,” Gonzales said.
Blumenthal is a strong supporter and surrogate of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and has used attacks on Trump as part of his re-election strategy, Carter has endorsed “his party’s nominee” but generally refrains from using Trump’s name in campaign literature or in public utterances. He did ask the crowd at Trump’s Aug. 13 rally in Fairfield :”Are you ready to elect me as your United States senator and Donald Trump as your next president of the United States?”
The Connecticut Democratic Party has tried to link Carter to Trump, thinking that could hurt the GOP Senate candidate.
Gonzales said Carter’s inability to raise campaign cash or draw support from outside groups makes his position on Trump almost irrelevant.
“I can’t see how being tied to Trump could help or hurt him,” he said.