Connecticut is rarely in the spotlight when it comes to House races or part of the equation for how Republicans seek to build a majority in Congress. But this year has been a major exception, with the 5th District becoming a hotly contested battleground awash with millions of dollars in spending.

At stake is a seat in the western and central parts of Connecticut that Democrats have held for 16 years. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, faces Republican George Logan for a third term in a campaign that largely mirrors themes reflected at the national level on the economy and abortion.

The race has essentially boiled down to experience versus change. Hayes is firmly defending her four years in office with the hopes of building on legislation recently passed by Democrats. Logan, meanwhile, is looking to “offer an alternative to the status quo” and give Republicans representation in Congress for the first time in over a decade.

Targeting the 5th District is part of national Republicans’ larger strategy to contest districts in deep-blue New England in a year when the odds are in their favor to make enough gains to flip control of Congress. Republicans have been out of power in the U.S. House since 2019.

Rep. Jahana Hayes spoke before the discussion with Vice President Kamala Harris about abortion rights. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

With the initial lack of public polling, the deluge of money and the big-name politicians flocking to the area were a big indicator that Republicans felt like they had a promising shot, and Democrats were taking the challenge seriously.

[RELATED: Kamala Harris visits CT ahead of key race in 5th district]

But a poll from WTNH/The Hill/Emerson College solidified what election forecasters have been predicting about the race: It is a toss up. The survey found Logan edging out Hayes by 1 percentage point — within the margin of error — and 4% of likely voters remaining undecided.

Recent historical trends in the district have favored Democrats. Hayes won the seat twice by double-digit margins in 2018 and 2020, and President Joe Biden had a similar victory there. But during the same year when Hayes was first elected, Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob Stefanowski carried the 5th in his 2018 campaign.

Some analysts also point out that Democrats benefited from a wave election in 2018 and likely from anti-Trump sentiment in 2020.

“All of this, plus the fact that the district had a long history of being represented by Republicans, would suggest the district could be ripe for the picking, under certain circumstances,” said Aaron Weinstein, a political science professor at Fairfield University.

The 5th District has not seen this level of investment from outside groups in at least a decade, when Hayes’ Democratic predecessor, Elizabeth Esty, first ran in 2012. With just days to go until the Nov. 8 race, national outside groups have spent $8.3 million, according to California Target Book, with Democrats holding an advantage in both party and candidate spending.

“Outside group activity is off the charts — not just here but in federal contests,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, a government professor at Wesleyan University who also serves as co-director of the federal campaign ad tracker Wesleyan Media Project. “I don’t remember the last time, if ever, that the Hartford media market made the top list of media markets.”

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, gives a speech to Democratic supporters at a campaign event in Avon on Oct. 11, 2022. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Building on her record

A former history teacher at Waterbury High School, Hayes, 49, garnered national attention when she was named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. She catapulted into the political arena two years later with a surprising primary victory over Mary Glassman, a more well-known Democrat, in 2018. Hayes went on to become the first Black woman to represent Connecticut in Congress.

Hayes said that much of her work is personal. As a mother at 17, she said she benefited from many of the same programs — including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) — she now works on to support lower income families.

The standalone legislation that Hayes has introduced over her two terms hews toward education, veterans and hunger. During the baby formula shortage, her bill to expand access for WIC benefit recipients overwhelmingly passed Congress with bipartisan support.

Logan has knocked Hayes and Democrats for “excessive spending” that Republicans argue has contributed to inflation, but she remains steadfast in her support for large Democrat-led bills like the federal pandemic relief package known as the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, which, among other things, capped the price of insulin at $35 per month and allowed Medicare to negotiate prescription drug costs.

“We passed the American Rescue Plan that really stabilized families even if it was in the short term,” Hayes said in an interview, noting that no Republicans voted for the bill. “But it was the relief we needed right in that moment, and I think it was the right thing to do.”

Since she was first elected, Hayes said, her time in Congress has changed the way her office operates, particularly after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. She said she notifies U.S. Capitol Police when she travels. In her official capacity, Hayes said she has contacted local authorities a few times about emails and calls that “went over the line.” And she called GOP pushback to the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6 “unpatriotic.”

“That’s why I think that this race, the Connecticut 5 race, is about so much more than me. It’s about so much more than my challenger,” she said. “It’s about this idea of this Trumpian, I guess, mentality that is emerging.”

Republican 5th District candidate George Logan campaigns on Aug. 27 at the Terryville Fair. At left is Plymouth Mayor Joseph Kilduff. Lisa Hagen / CT Mirror

‘A voice for moderate and conservative voters’

Logan, 53, is new to national politics but no stranger to competitive districts. He knocked off a 24-year Democratic incumbent state senator in 2016 and squeaked by in his reelection race after a recount. But he narrowly lost in 2020 and went back into the private sector as a government affairs official for Aquarion, a water company owned by Eversouce.

He first came to a state Senate in an 18-18 tie, and he was the only Black Republican during his time in office. Hayes claimed at a recent debate that he wanted to shy away from talking about his thin record, but Logan pushed back that he is proud of his time in the state legislature. He pointed to his work on a bill requiring health insurers to cover prosthetic devices as well as a bonding cap to limit how much the state borrows in a past budget.

Logan’s family, which has roots in Jamaica, immigrated from Guatemala to Connecticut. He highlighted his fluency in Spanish in his campaign’s second TV ad featuring his mother as he ticked through the rising prices of food.

George Logan MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Republicans made more of a concerted effort this election cycle to focus on recruiting more diverse candidates as well as increasing outreach to communities of color. The Republican National Committee opened a Black and Hispanic community center in New Britain to bolster Logan. If elected, he would be the first Republican to win a U.S. House in Connecticut seat since 2006. 

“We’re going to finally have a voice — moderate voters and conservative voters in Connecticut,” Logan said at a fundraiser in Middlebury in August.

Logan said he would consider the environment in any legislation that comes before him but would have opposed the Inflation Reduction Act since the climate change provisions could not be separated from the health care and tax policy measures. He said weaning the country off of fossil fuels is a “good goal,” but he wants the U.S. to first reach energy independence.

“I’m tired of seeing, and my constituents are tired of seeing, these bills that keep coming up with a title to address one issue but then it’s filled with a bunch of other topics and issues that aren’t even related to what the main objective of the bill is purported to be,” Logan said.

The ‘contrasts’ on policy

The 5th District is a microcosm of the policy divides happening at the national level.

Republicans and Democrats are sparring over the state of the economy and the rising costs of food and gas over the past year.

The economy remains the biggest concern for voters in the 5th District, in Connecticut and around the country. The WTNH poll found that 46% of likely voters in the district see economic issues — jobs, inflation and taxes — at the top of their list, followed by abortion access at 16% and threats to democracy at 14%.

And in recent weeks, Hayes and Logan’s differences on abortion have come into sharper focus. The issue was front and center over the summer when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Incumbent Jahana Hayes (left) and Republican challenger George Logan appear for the Fifth Congressional District debate at Central Connecticut State University October 20, 2022. Mark Mirko / CT Public

The two disagree on national legislation to ensure abortion is protected. Hayes, who believes the decision should be between a patient and a doctor, has previously voted for a bill that would codify abortion access into federal law.

Logan would not vote for such legislation, arguing that the issue should be left to the states and pledging to uphold Connecticut’s law protecting abortion rights. He supports parental notifications for minors seeking abortions but would not support any national bans like the one proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Democrats argue Logan’s own personal beliefs are undermined by the support he has received from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is promoting the “Commitment to America,” the new GOP agenda that pledges to, among other things, “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers.”

“I think if Republicans have the majority, it wouldn’t matter, because even if he voted against it, there’s enough Republicans in the House who support this legislation, and that’s the only way it moves in the majority,” Hayes said, referencing Logan’s opposition to a national abortion ban.

But Logan counters that his would-be colleagues respect and know his views on the issue. When announcing his campaign last year, Logan said he would most likely support McCarthy for speaker if Republicans take back the House majority. But when asked in an interview earlier this month, the former state senator would not commit to supporting McCarthy for the leadership role, despite making campaign appearances with him.

“I don’t think there is a single member in Congress that I agree with on every single topic, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to work with them,” Logan said. “The current Republican leadership in Congress — they know where my positions are on these issues.”

For the leadership of her own party, Hayes said if the choice was again between McCarthy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., she would support Pelosi.

Other national issues arising in the 5th District include differences on education: who should be informing curriculum and how topics like racism should be addressed in those lessons.

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, and Republican opponent George Logan at a debate in Waterbury, Oct. 18, 2022.

While teaching high school, Hayes said she never encountered critical race theory. She argued that “we are doing our children a disservice if we are not teaching them their history.”

Logan, meanwhile, wants K-12 schools to focus on math, reading comprehension and science but said history and social issues should be part of that curriculum. 

Another point of contention in the race has been over police funding.

Logan and Republicans have sought to paint the congresswoman as soft on crime and aligned with “Defund the Police” activists because of her endorsement from the Working Families Party. 

Hayes, whose husband is a police officer, said that both support for law enforcement and accountability are necessary. She has voted for funding and training for police officers and supports school resource officers. Hayes is also a co-sponsor for reforms in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

“In no other profession would you say to someone you have unfettered reign and there’s no accountability,” Hayes said. “It’s not a binary choice, and that’s how Republicans are trying to frame it, to put fear in people.”

Logan wants increased funding for law enforcement. As a state senator, he voted against Connecticut’s police accountability bill in 2020 that among other things bans chokeholds in most circumstances and makes changes to qualified immunity that protects officers from liability.

Ongoing ad war in the district

Advertising in the 5th District is flooding Connecticut’s airwaves. 

The Wesleyan Media Project released a recent snapshot of how the ad war is playing out. Between Oct. 3 and 16, there was a total of about 2,200 TV airings in the district, a number that shows how many times a commercial went up but not the exact number of unique ads. More than half of those came from pro-Democratic groups.

In an overview of House race ads across the U.S., the issues widely vary between the parties. Democratic groups are mostly focusing on abortion and health care, specifically about lowering prescription drug costs. Republicans, meanwhile, are concentrating on the budget in addition to taxes and public safety. Those same topics are reflected in 5th District ads.

But there is a distinct difference between ads run by the campaigns themselves, which focus more on biography and record, compared to ones aired by outside groups.

A top Republican super PAC — Congressional Leadership Fund — has tailored most of its ads to criticize Hayes on fiscal issues and a past remark about Democrats stabilizing the economy. Meanwhile, Democratic groups are taking aim at Logan’s record on abortion rights. Both candidates argue their positions are being misrepresented.

Recent statewide surveys show that issues related to cost of living are considered the highest priority. In the latest Quinnipiac University poll, inflation was ranked as the most urgent issue among Republicans, Democrats and independent voters. Other top issues included taxes followed by crime and abortion tied for the third-most pressing concern.

What would they pursue in the 118th Congress?

Hayes, like Biden, sees codifying Roe as a major priority if she is elected for another term, though she acknowledges the unlikelihood if Democrats do not hold their majorities. And even if they do, the party would need to significantly grow its Senate ranks to pass such legislation.

The congresswoman, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, would also want to address food insecurity when Congress tackles the expiration of the Farm Bill next year as well as try again on stalled efforts around voting rights legislation.

“We can’t go back to where we were [before the pandemic] because there’s so many equity gaps and opportunity gaps that have been revealed, so if we’re not actively trying to work on those issues, then we’re all committing malpractice,” Hayes said.

If he is elected to Congress, Logan would seek to provide more support for law enforcement and establish “incentives for states and schools to implement school choice options.”

“One-party rule in Connecticut and Washington has not been beneficial for families,” Logan said.

Other congressional races on the ballot

While the stakes are the highest in the 5th District, all five of Connecticut’s congressional races are on the Nov. 8 ballot as Democrats and Republicans vie for control of the U.S. House.

National Republicans are also targeting the 2nd District but are not putting the same resources behind it. Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney faces Republican state Rep. Mike France, Green Party candidate Kevin Blacker and Libertarian William Hall.

Courtney has focused on his longtime support for the defense and submarine industry in his eastern Connecticut district, earning the nickname “two-sub Joe” for helping to secure the production of two new submarines a year. Both candidates want that number to increase. France is a retired Naval officer and electrical engineer.

The other three races are much more of a lock for Democrats.

Rep. John Larson faces Republican Larry Lazor and Green Party candidate Mary Sanders in the 1st District. Larson has represented the Hartford-based seat since 1999.

Larson, chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, is arguing that if Republicans win the House majority, they will make cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits. He pointed to McCarthy’s comments that the GOP would use debate over raising the debt limit next year to push for spending cuts that could include those two programs.

Lazor, meanwhile, believes his career as a physician at Hartford Hospital gives him a unique perspective to serve in government. But the odds are stacked against him since a Republican has not won the 1st District since 1956.

In New Haven and its surrounding suburbs, Rep. Rosa DeLauro is seeking a 17th term to the 3rd District. She is the longest-serving member currently in Connecticut’s congressional delegation and was elevated in 2019 to chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee to oversee the government funding process.

DeLauro faces Republican Lesley DeNardis, a former political science professor who has been involved in politics at the local level. DeNardis wants to cut back on Congress’ “out of control” spending. Her father, Lawrence DeNardis, was the last Republican to represent the 3rd District, but he lost after only serving one term in 1982.

Two minor-party challengers are also running: Independent candidate Amy Chai and Green Party candidate Justin Paglino.

And in the 4th District, Rep. Jim Himes will square off against Republican Jayme Stevenson. His district covers the southwestern part of the state that includes Bridgeport, Greenwich and Stamford as well as many commuters, given its proximity to New York City.

Stevenson, a former Darien first selectman, supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but like other Republicans around the state and country, her chief concerns are on inflation and crime.

In 2008, Himes, a former banker, defeated longtime Rep. Chris Shays, who ended up being the last Republican from Connecticut to serve in Congress. Since Shays’ defeat, the state’s congressional delegation has been represented entirely by Democrats.

But Republicans hope Logan can break the long dry spell in Congress this year.

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Lisa HagenFederal Policy Reporter

Lisa Hagen is CT Mirror and CT Public's shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline. She is a New Jersey native and graduate of Boston University.