Elizabeth Esty and Clay Cope
The candidates, who had never met, shake hands at the conclusion of their debate.
Clay Cope and Elizabeth Esty, who had never met, shake hands at the conclusion of a recent debate. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Clay Cope and Elizabeth Esty, who had never met, shake hands at the conclusion of a recent debate. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Washington – Overshadowed like other congressional races in Connecticut by the loud and vitriolic presidential race, the matchup between 5th District Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty and GOP challenger Clay Cope has been a civil contest between party moderates.

Cope, a Texas native, has lived in Sherman since 1995 and is in his third term as the town’s first selectman.

Esty, who lives in Cheshire, is trying to win her third term in Congress after a contentious and high-profile election two years ago.

Cope, a fiscal conservative who splits with the national Republican Party on some issues and offers lukewarm support for Donald Trump, is running for Congress for the first time.  He’s one of only two openly gay GOP candidates running for Congress; the other is Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu.

Esty is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a moderate bloc of Democratic lawmakers led by Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, that is likely to grow after the Nov. 8 elections if Democrats pick up seats in “purple,” or swing, districts.

For Esty, this year’s race is very unlike her two previous runs for Congress, when her GOP rivals had plenty of campaign cash to run television commercials, outside groups helped with attack ads and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had to come to Esty’s aid.

Esty won the vacant seat in 2012 with 52 percent of the vote, and was reelected in 2014 with 53 percent.

This year, no help was needed from the DCCC. As of Oct. 19, Esty had raised nearly $1.9 million in this campaign cycle and spent about $784,000 defending her seat. Cope has raised about $103,000.

Connecticut’s congressional delegation is all-Democrat, and this year all GOP challengers have lagged behind the incumbents in fundraising and political profile. “Ninety-three percent of incumbents win re-election,” said Vincent Moscardelli, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. “The deck is stacked against challengers.”

Esty’s last challenger, Republican businessman Mark Greenberg, was able to even the playing field by putting more than $1.6 million of his own money into his campaign.

But there were no big GOP self-funders this year.

Moscardelli also said challengers like Cope had no “window of opportunity” to defeat an incumbent this year. Those windows open when there’s scandal, a big political “wave” that favors a challenger’s party, or a highly popular candidate with “coattails” at the top of the ticket, he said.

“Hillary Clinton is unpopular, but Donald Trump is singularly unpopular, and he sucks up all the air in the room,” Moscardelli said. “There is no space there for an unknown candidate to get the word out.”

There’s a third candidate in the race, John Pistone, who is running as a write-in and says Cope is not conservative enough for the GOP.

Running on their records

Esty said the biggest difference between this and her previous races for Congress is that she has greater name recognition and goodwill because of the constituent services she and her staff have provided. “Because I’ve been working hard in the district, more people know who I am,” she said.

She’s run just one television ad that featured a “Gold Star” father who lost his son in combat and has largely based her campaign on attending events and canvassing the sprawling 5th District, the most Republican-leaning in the state.

“I love knocking on doors,” she said.

Esty says she’s also running on her record.

She’s secured additional transportation funds for the state and shepherded several small bills into law, despite her position as a junior member of the minority party in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Elizabeth Esty and Clay Cope
Elizabeth Esty and Clay Cope

One, the Gold Star Fathers Act, extends hiring preferences for federal jobs to fathers of military men and women who lost their lives or were severely disabled in service to the nation. She also won passage of amendments that included a consumer education campaign to help children and adults understand the risks of opioid addiction and a new pain management program for Medicare beneficiaries in a bill aimed at fighting addictions.

Other wins included a measure that made teachers of computer science eligible for grants in a STEM education bill and legislation that helps communities clean up abandoned, often contaminated former industrial properties.

Esty also touts her constituent services, saying her office has been able to return $10 million to constituents who had problems with Social Security checks or other monies due them from the federal government. She also said she’s secured medals for World War II veterans who were overlooked and visas for constituents who sought to bring family members from overseas for funerals or to visit the critically ill.

Cope is running on his experience managing Sherman and on the need for change.

He criticized Esty for hanging copies of the bills she’s pushed through Congress “which do nothing to ease the everyday burdens facing the people of the 5th District, on the walls of  her Washington, D.C., office.” Cope also says Esty hasn’t done enough to bring federal dollars to the state.

“We desperately need a change in both leadership and direction. We need to make Washington work for us – and not to put us out of work,” a Cope campaign release said.

Cope said he supports the candidacy of Donald Trump for the White House because he won the 5th District GOP primary. But he’s decried some of the “bad statements” Trump has made.

Esty calls Trump’s rhetoric “hateful and divisive,” and accuses him of “a scorched-earth campaign.” But she acknowledges he has strong support in the 5th District, especially its rural areas. She hopes those who vote for Trump also vote for her.

“It’s a ticket-splitting district,” she said. “(Republican candidate for governor) Tom Foley won by 7 points in the district in 2014, but I won too.”

Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University, said if Esty does well in the election “it would suggest that the Democratic realignment in the state is complete.”

Differences – and similarities

Both Esty and Cope have been endorsed by gay rights groups.

Cope won the backing of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest and oldest Republican gay rights advocacy group.

Log Cabin President Greg Angelo said he met Cope last winter when he was visiting family in Connecticut for the holidays and liked Cope’s position on issues, including gay marriage, which his group strongly supports. But the Log Cabin Republicans did not make formal endorsements until September.

Rose said Cope’s candidacy may mean the Connecticut GOP “possibly may have a more welcoming message and a bigger tent” than the national Republican Party.

Esty, meanwhile, has long championed LGTB rights and is also supported by its advocates.

She said she made a speech about gay rights when she was a 15-year-old high school student in Winona, Minn., years before her brother came out as gay. “We had to give a persuasive speech, and this is what I gave it on,” Esty said. “I take a back seat to nobody on this.”

Esty has received endorsements from the liberal-leaning Equality PAC and the Human Rights Campaign. She also has been backed by Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, a gay gun control organization. The  5th District is home to Newtown, where 20 first-graders and six educators were slain by gunfire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Those shots, fired just days before Esty was sworn into office for her first term in Congress, set her political course.

She is among the strongest advocates in the House of Representatives on gun control and was a major participant when Democrats seized the chamber’s floor this summer to press for votes on gun legislation.

One of the sharpest differences between the candidates is about the future of federal gun laws.

Cope is skeptical of the need for change. His campaign declined to make the candidate available for an interview for this story, but in a candidate debate earlier this month in Danbury, Cope knocked a measure backed by Esty that would expand FBI background checks of gun owners to individual sales at gun shows and on the internet and other proposals.

“I think that what we’re really talking about here is due process, and I think we need to be sure that a citizen’s rights are not being infringed on by these types of laws,” he said. “That’s key. The Second Amendment has proven to be slightly alterable by certain members of Congress.”

Cope also said voters don’t tell him they want more gun control. “What I hear people say is don’t take away my rights,” he said.

The candidates also differ sharply on how to handle the question of Syrian refugees trying to resettle in the United States. Cope wants to halt the resettlement until more vetting of the refugees is done. Esty says she has confidence in the current vetting process, which can take up to two years.

The Affordable Care Act is another flashpoint. Esty says it needs some fixes but is a good law that has helped millions of Americans afford health insurance. Cope said “the Affordable Care Act has become the widely unaffordable care act,” as premiums and deductibles rise.

Like Hillary Clinton and  Donald Trump, Esty and Cope are united in their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade deal among the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations critics say would ship U.S. jobs overseas.

Both candidates say they can reach across the aisle to reach consensus.

Esty said her bid for re-election has been quiet and civil, even through six debates. Neither candidate has demonized the other or hit below the belt in a political year where such nastiness has reached a new level.

Esty said she and Republicans like Cope differ on political ideologies and positions on issues but are seeking the same goals.

“We all want the same things fundamentally for our families and our country,” she said.

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Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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