Dec 23, 2013
12:35 PM
Connecticut Politics

11 Months Before Election, Elizabeth Esty is Already Feeling the Heat

11 Months Before Election, Elizabeth Esty is Already Feeling the Heat

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U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) knows that every comment she makes to the press is critical to her reelection bid in the state's Fifth District.

Democrats hold every seat in the state’s congressional delegation, and the state overwhelmingly votes Democratic in national races. Yet, in this year’s upcoming elections, incumbents in the western corridor districts of the state—particularly the 5th District—are far from safe.

Since the day she won the 5th District seat and became Connecticut’s most junior representative, Elizabeth Esty has been fighting to keep her job in the House of Representatives. With nearly one year in office and only 11 months away from her next election, she essentially hasn’t stopped campaigning—each vote, speech and statement is as much a part of her policy as it is preparation for her next run.

That was seemingly evident in November, when Esty voted with Republicans to pass a fix to Obamacare that would allow for insurance companies to sell plans that weren’t in compliance with the Affordable Care Act through 2014. It was a symbolic gesture as it would never make any headway in the Democratic-controlled Senate and would face a likely presidential veto, but one designed to enhance her attractiveness to independents.

The day after the vote, the lawyer from Cheshire was feeling heat from both sides of the aisle. Democratic blogger Alfonso Robinson of My Left Nutmeg immediately called for Democrats to bring others into the field to create a primary to challenge Esty for her seat in November. In a post titled “Dump Esty,”

Robinson argued that this was not the first time the representative had voted with a Republican majority. “With her latest act of outrage, progressives in the 5th District who voiced their disapproval of Rep. Esty but held their noses in support for her after the 2012 primary, should make their outrage known by suggesting a primary challenge to the congresswoman in 2014,” he wrote.

Republicans, of course, commended Esty for supporting the Democratic ideals of Obamacare while accusing her of pandering.

Either way, it can’t be ignored that Esty, who was elected by a slim margin and in large part by riding on the coattails of President Barack Obama, was straying from party lines.

It’s early, but Esty’s vote caused a stir among Democrats and Republicans, raising the question: Should she, as well as other Connecticut Democrats, be worried about losing their congressional stranglehold?

“Mitt Romney got 40 percent of the vote and the Republicans have zero percent of the Connecticut delegation in either the House or Senate,” says Vin Moscardelli, assistant professor of political science at UConn, who acknowledges Esty’s vote may have been purely politically motivated. “It does seem that the places where Republicans have natural strength, primarily in southwestern Connecticut, are going to continue to be competitive.”

Critics of Esty from elections past aren’t staying quiet. Republican Mark Greenberg is already mounting his third run for the district, and Dr. William Petit is rumored to be considering a run as well.

In Connecticut politics, the Democratic hold on the 5th District—and adjacent 4th District—is relatively new. Republican Christopher Shays held the 4th District seat for more than two decades until he was defeated by Jim Himes in 2008. Before Esty’s predecessor Chris Murphy, now U.S. Senator, claimed the seat in 2006, it had been held by Republicans for 16 of 22 years, dating back to the election of John Rowland in 1985.

“These two districts obviously have something in common. It makes sense for Republicans to look first in these two districts,” says Moscardelli. “The problem to me is these districts are moving away from the national Republican party.” He believes the winner in the 5th District will be someone who can unite moderates, not someone in the extreme faction of the Republican party, such as Greenberg.

But many Republicans think their candidates have a genuine shot in both districts this year. The other three districts may have challengers in November, but are either safe or the competition is still a work in progress. “I believe the Republicans in Connecticut are uniquely poised to take back Congressional seats in 2014,” says Republican party chairman Jerry Labriola, who adds that the GOP is working to bring back a “reasonable” balance of power. “Every single member of Connecticut all-Democratic delegation fought hard for Obamacare, which has been an utter failure.”

Labriola charges that Esty is now just “trying to pander to voters by walking back her support, but she’s still fully in favor of this harmful law.” He adds: “We feel like the issues are on our side, and we certainly have the potential to emulate our success at the local level and extend that to congressional and statewide races.”

Democrats claim they aren’t concerned. “I don’t really think it’s going to be a tough fight,” says Democratic party chairwoman Nancy DiNardo. “I’m very proud of all of our congressional members.” She points out that both announced challengers in the 4th and 5th districts are affiliated with the Tea Party, which is not what constituents in those districts identify with.

“Historically in Connecticut voters tend to be educated and voters who understand the issues, and they vote on issues rather than on people,” she says.

Despite Connecticut’s implementation of its own health insurance exchange, which was a rousing success compared to the federal government’s rollout, Obamacare is a serious concern for voters contemplating upcoming races. DiNardo says Esty’s vote is proof she’s listening to her constituents. “Each district in Connecticut is very unique and the members need to take strong, difficult positions,” she says. “I support her taking a position that is unique to her district.”

For her part, Esty says she’s not yet focusing on the race ahead, but is instead working to do what’s best for her constituents. She regards Greenberg as someone who is obviously very earnest in trying to secure the seat in the 5th District—but says they have very different beliefs on how that job should be done.

She also says she wants to be a representative where constituents know if they call her, someone will answer and try to help. “That’s one of the most critical jobs you have always, and that’s not just because you face election every two years—it’s because that’s the job,” she says. “If I’m doing my job the way I’m supposed to, then I’m doing everything I can to get re-elected.”

 

11 Months Before Election, Elizabeth Esty is Already Feeling the Heat

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