Republican Manny Santos is swimming against a blue tide this year, hoping to break the Democratic stranglehold on Connecticut’s representation in Congress by defeating an opponent who has captured national attention and has a huge campaign fundraising lead.
Since winning the Republican primary in August, Santos — a former Marine and the past mayor of Meriden — has stepped up a campaign he began back in February, when he threw his hat in the ring to challenge Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.
But when Esty decided against running for re-election after she was roundly criticized for her handling of an abusive staffer, Santos suddenly faced a new opponent: former national Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes, who won a Democratic primary to run for the chance to represent a sprawling district in western Connecticut.
Santos said his candidacy “is not getting a lot of attention” and hopes that changes. He plans to step up his campaigning on social media, “putting together better messaging online.”
“Fundraising has picked up, but we’re still lagging,” Santos said. “We don’t anticipate raising as much as Ms. Hayes, but our messaging does not require as much [money] as hers.”
As of July 25, the last reporting deadline at the Federal Elections Commission, Hayes reported raising about $461,000 and Santos about $26,000.
Hayes, whose candidacy is supported by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., drew national attention because of her background – she grew up in Waterbury’s projects and was a teen mom. Her story was detailed in a YouTube video that went viral and helped her raise a lot of campaign cash.
She’s supported by powerful unions, including the National Education Association, and progressive groups like MoveOn.org. Prominent Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are helping Hayes with campaign fundraising appeals.
Santos, meanwhile, is counting on personal appearances, attending community events to drum up support. He recently opened a campaign headquarters in Waterbury, the town where his political rival grew up, taught for decades, and has her campaign headquarters.
Santos said he chose Waterbury as the location to anchor his campaign because of its central location in the sprawling congressional district.
While the candidates’ paths may cross while they are stumping for votes, they have kept themselves at arms length in their campaigns, rarely mentioning their opponent.
“I don’t see any antagonism between them,”said Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University. “I don’t see any attack ads.”
Hayes initially focused her campaign on her compelling personal story. These days, she stresses her support for a number of progressive issues, including tougher federal gun laws, a single-payer health care system known as “Medicare-for-all,” and education reforms.
On Monday, Hayes was one of the Democratic candidates endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
“President Obama and I share the belief that a brighter future is possible for every American, and we share the belief that elected leaders can make this vision a reality through smart, fair and compassionate policies,” Hayes said. “I’m humbled to receive President Obama’s endorsement and thank him for his support.”
Santos, meanwhile, is running on a traditional GOP message of lower taxes and fewer regulations.
A loyal Trump supporter
Like most of the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, Santos is also a supporter of President Donald Trump and most of his policies.
He credits the president and the Republican Congress for the strength of the U.S. economy, which he says is largely due to the GOP tax cut bill and of Trump’s campaign to fix “an imbalance in our trade” by imposing tariffs on China and Canada and some of the United States’ European allies.
“In the beginning it’s going to hurt,” Santos said of the retaliatory tariffs countries are imposing on U.S. goods. “But it will be a success in the end.”
As an immigrant from Portugal who came with his parents and siblings to Connecticut when he was 5 years old, Santos also supports Trump’s immigration policies.
“It resonates with a lot of people,” he said.
Santos said the nation’s resources “are over strained by the needs of illegal immigrants.”
“There’s a desire to clump all immigrants together,” Santos said. “This country was built
on legal immigration.”
Rose said it appears that Santos is “wrapping himself in Trump.”
That might be a smart political move. An Ipsos poll shows Trump’s approval rating is 44 percent in that district, the highest of any congressional district in the state.
Still, political analysts give race a “likely Democratic” prediction for the election.
Santos said he would welcome Trump to campaign for him if the president visits the state before the midterm.
“I would take his help because his policies are what I’m campaigning on and what are working in the district,” Santos said.
And he continues to stay on message. He recently signed the Tax Reform Taxpayers Protection Pledge, which commits its signatories to oppose any increase in personal income tax rates or business tax rates, or the elimination of a tax deduction without an equivalent reduction in the marginal tax rate.
Santos also says he opposes what he views as Congress’ runaway spending and would press for a constitutional “single subject” amendment prohibiting federal lawmakers from adding “riders” that are not germane to the underlying bill, but substantially add to its cost.
The competitive governor’s race may turn out Republican voters for Santos. But Democrats who are angered at Trump policies are also energized this year and a “blue wave” could impact the race for the 5th District seat and other elections in the state.
Murphy represented the district before his election to the Senate. Rose said the senator is “still a name there” and the help he’s giving Hayes “makes things rough right now for Manny Santos.”
Hayes will likely step up her campaign closer to Election Day, perhaps with some new cable and broadcast ads.
Santos is likely to pick up the pace of door knocking and attending fairs and other public events where he can meet potential voters.
The race may get more attention, and the candidates will have a chance to debate issues, in three debates scheduled next month. The first Hayes-Santos debate is an Oct. 4 showdown in Waterbury. Another debate will be held Oct. 16 in Danbury and the third on Oct. 17 in New Britain.
But unlike other hyper competitive races that will decide whether the U.S. House of Representatives remains in GOP hands or flips to Democratic control, the 5th District congressional race is extremely low-key, at least for now.
“I don’t see any action in the 5th at all,” Rose said.