Jahana Hayes declaring victory on election night in 2018. Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes during a  U.S. House hearing on education.
U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes during a  U.S. House hearing on education.

Washington – The saga of Robert Hyde focused national attention on a contest that, even without Hyde’s notoriety, promises to be Connecticut’s most interesting congressional race in this tempestuous election year.

Rep. Jahana Hayes, a 46-year old Democrat who represents the sprawling 5th District, is defending her U.S. House seat for the first time. Her Republican opponent is not yet known — that will be decided by a GOP convention or primary — but the race could be competitive.

The 5th  District has been a battleground before. Then-candidate Donald Trump won 46% of the vote there, and its reputation as a “purple” district has attracted four GOP challengers, including Hyde, all vying for their party’s nomination.

Long-shot candidate Robert Hyde brought national attention to a race that’s in its infancy, but could get interesting.
Long-shot candidate Robert Hyde brought national attention to a race that’s in its infancy, but could get interesting.

Hyde, 40, was a long shot for the nomination even before documents were released last week containing his text exchanges with an associate of President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, about the surveillance of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. He’s been asked to quit the race by Connecticut Republican Chairman J.R. Romano, but so far has refused to comply.

The Republican candidate considered the front-runner in the contest for his party’s nomination is David X. Sullivan, who retired last year from a 30-year career as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Connecticut to run for Congress. His late father, William W. Sullivan, served as a state representative and David Sullivan has the backing of some powerful Republicans, including House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.

Klarides said she’s known Sullivan for many years and that he prodded her to run for political office.

“One day he said to me ‘you should run (for state assembly.)  I said ‘I don’t know anything about that,’” Klarides said, but Sullivan convinced her to take the plunge.

“He’s someone I respect a lot,” Klarides said.

The first African-American woman to represent Connecticut in Congress, Hayes ran as an outsider and underdog two years ago helped by a compelling personal story – she grew up in public housing in Waterbury and was a teen-age mother – her status as a former national Teacher of her Year, and powerful allies like Sen. Chris Murphy.

She drew strong support from union members and the district’s progressives, defeating party favorite Mary Glassman in the Democratic primary and winning the general election, in which woefully-underfunded Manny Santos was the  Republican candidate.

Hayes is no longer the underdog with the fresh face who focused on introducing herself to voters.  She faces her next election as an incumbent running on her accomplishments in Congress and what she’s done for her constituents.

“I’m running on my freshman record,” she said. “I’m going to say ‘this is what I’ve done and I need your support to stay here.’”

Hayes said that, so far, she’s run a “passive campaign,” focusing instead on her congressional duties including “gavel to gavel” attendance at hearings.

But she won’t remain passive. Hayes has started to recruit volunteers and plans to open a campaign headquarters in Waterbury by the end of the month.

‘Trump elicits strong reactions’

When the race to represent the sprawling 5th District, which covers most of the western part of the state and includes 41 towns, begins to heat up this spring it will mirror the sharp partisan divisions across the nation.

There are two other Republicans in the race besides Sullivan and Hyde. They are newcomer Ryan Meehan, a 37-year-old Litchfield businessman who filed his candidacy at the beginning of this month, and Ruben Rodriguez, 41, a water meter technician for the city of New Britain.

This photo of David Sullivan and former President George Bush is on the candidate’s web site.
This photo of David Sullivan and former President George Bush is on the candidate’s web site.

All the GOP candidates are political neophytes, as was Hayes when she first ran for Congress two years ago. The Republicans support the policies of Donald Trump and say having the president at the top of the ticket in November’s elections will help them in the 5th, with its many Trump supporters.

“It’s amazing how people are reacting to Trump,” Rodriguez said.

Meanwhile, Sullivan said, “Mr. Trump elicits strong reactions.”

“I, like many of his ardent supporters, applaud his economic policies which have served to unshackle our economy and produce unprecedented prosperity across the United States,” he said. “At the same time, many people find fault with Mr. Trump’s style of communication, especially his penchant for tweeting.”

University of Connecticut political science professor Robert Schurin said “there are some true believers who think Donald Trump can pull in Republican votes.”

But Schurin also said Republican candidates are not fighting a lost cause in the 5th..

“Anybody has a chance,” he said.  “That’s a district that was represented by Republicans.”

But not since 2007, when Rep. Nancy Johnson, the last Republican to represent the 5th District was replaced by Democrat Chris Murphy, now a U.S. senator and political mentor to Hayes.

Hayes provides a sharp contrast to the Republicans in race, who are all white men.

She voted with most of her House Democratic colleagues to impeach Trump, and while not militant, supports progressive ideals, including Medicare for All.

Hayes said so many Republicans are running to challenge her “because I make it look easy.”

“I’m not surprised people are coming out,” she said.

Hayes also said she expects her GOP challenger to take aim at her for voting for Trump’s impeachment, which she said could cost her some votes.

“I know there are some people who won’t forgive me for that,” she said. “But it was the right thing to do.”

Sullivan said he decided to run for Congress because he was alarmed with Hayes’ “strong embrace of incredibly costly and ineffective progressive priorities such as the multi-million Green New Deal and even costlier Medicare for All proposals.”

“I don’t believe the people of the fifth district want these radical, extreme, socialist programs and I certainly don’t want them for my children,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan is running on traditional GOP issues, including lower taxes and less regulation.

While he has no experience in elected office, Sullivan said he has “a lifetime of public service experience in law enforcement and more recently in higher education,” teaching trial advocacy at Yale Law School and other courses at the University of New Haven and Western Connecticut State University.

“And just as important, throughout my career as a federal prosecutor, I have also demonstrated the ability to lead, and to work cooperatively and constructively with others, to achieve important and common goals,” Sullivan said.

Former Connecticut state Senator Joe Markley joins Ruben Rodriguez and Scherie Murray at a Rodriguez fundraiser.

Meanwhile Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to Connecticut about  20 years ago, is seeking support among the district’s Latino and black communities.

“As a Republican, it’s hard to reach out to minorities,” he said.

But Rodriguez is trying, campaigning at churches and community events.

He was helped by Scherie Murray, a black Republican who is challenging U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a progressive lightning rod for GOP attacks.  Murray attended a fund-raiser for Rodriguez in November.

“By us teaming up, we can help each other,” Rodriguez said.

‘A hard fought race’

Hayes has an enormous fund raising advantage over the Republicans who want to take her seat.

She had nearly $900,000 in cash on hand in her campaign account on Sept. 30 and is likely to have sped by the million-dollar mark by now.

Sullivan, meanwhile, raised more than $100,000 last year for his campaign, a fundraising threshold his campaign called “a figure that attracts support from more donors and attention from media, both inside and outside of the district, and separates candidates in a multi-candidate field.”

Rodriguez raised just $3,274 and Hyde and Meehan have not yet filed any fundraising information with the Federal Elections Commission.

Despite the wide disparity in political fund raising, freshmen are most vulnerable during their first race for re-election and Hayes said she’s taking no chances.

“It will be a hard-fought race,” Hayes predicted. “You never make everybody happy.”

Still, Hayes said she “would not run a negative campaign,” a pledge many candidates for office keep until their rivals start slinging mud.

She is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of 44 vulnerable candidates this year who are priorities for the organization’s help, even though Hayes won her seat by 12 points.

That’s because the 2016 presidential performance is an important factor when the DCCC decides how to allocate its resources. Hillary Clinton carried the 5th District by only 4 points.

Hayes said she underwent a “baptism by fire” in her first term, starting her congressional career as the the federal government was suffering from a shutdown due to partisan arguments over the federal budge. And this year, Hayes was required to vote on rare, momentous issues like restricting the president’s war powers and impeaching Trump.

“I have had a year that people in this body who have been here many years have never had before,” she said.

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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  1. “strong embrace of incredibly costly and ineffective progressive priorities such as the multi-million Green New Deal and even costlier Medicare for All proposals.”

    Every credible study shows that true “Medicare for All” would SAVE money overall – several trillions. Everyone would be covered. Every other developed country has some form of it, with better health outcomes, and for about half the cost of our currant insurance system, including Government costs, plus co-payments, deductibles, and premiums which are unknown in those other countries. TAX is not a bad word when used to save us money overall and do something that cannot be done otherwise.

    Not sure about the cost of the Green New Deal, yet the cost of not doing something like it will be our coastal cities, low lying countries, islands, perhaps our civilization, and perhaps our species.

  2. Her “freshman record?”

    Being the proverbial Fifth Beatle (the Squad) and immediately supporting Pelosi for Speaker–contrary to her campaign promise–once she got to DC.

  3. Why does anything about Hayes start with ,the first African American Woman? Her mantra of “when Congess looks like us” was telling.Had her groupies not been so busy explaining what she” really” meant; they might have looked at the entire picture and what they were voting for. More of the same,rubber stamp liberalism and dangerous policies that have put CT on the path to bankruptcy both financially and morally. I don’t hold out much hope there are enough folks not thinking they are voting in a national election when it’s really local, or that are not benefiting by the 58% advantage their union status buys them over the folks paying for it. Would be nice though. Who pays their pensions and perks when the state finally admits we are already bankrupt?

  4. I strongly believe, public servants should serve in a role that corresponds to their strengths and experience. Though Ms Hayes is likable, and can relate to many of those in the inner city, functioning as “A small Cog in the Washington Sausage Machine”, does not leverage her core strengths and knowledge. I would love to see someone as Ms Hayes put politics aside, and instead take a leadership role at the helm of the BOE in one of our major urban cities. Or ever better, at the state level within the BOE. She has intimate knowledge of the shortcomings of our public sector education system in the State of Connecticut. If she truly wants to fix the system, she will lead where her knowledge and ability impart the greatest positive change. Just think how many children’s lives she could change to the positive if she did so. Just my humble opinion.

  5. Hayes’ biggest challenge will be to explain to the voters of her district what she has actually accomplished for them. In my opinion, it hasn’t been too much.

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