HARTFORD, Conn. — Democratic U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s decision not to seek re-election, amid controversy over her handling of harassment in her office, has given hope to Republicans that they can finally retake her western Connecticut congressional district in November.
While national political odds-makers predict the 5th Congressional District will likely remain in Democratic hands, the state’s GOP is banking on the dissatisfaction in Connecticut over continued budgetary woes and Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was among those who personally urged Esty not to seek a fourth term. Malloy also is not seeking re-election.
JR Romano, the state’s Republican Party chairman, contends Democrats and Washington, D.C., observers are wrongly assuming there will be a “blue wave” of support of Democratic candidates in Connecticut, partly propelled by unhappiness with President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.
“There’s an entirely different narrative in our state,” he said. “Democrats are wholeheartedly responsible for the fiscal crisis that has hit our state.”
He is also heartened by the partisan makeup of the 41-town district, which borders both New York and Massachusetts. As of Tuesday, there were 132,782 Democrats; 100,368 Republicans; and 177,749 unaffiliated voters in the district, according to the Secretary of the State’s Office.
“The district, it’s a pure toss-up,” Romano said.
But Democratic Party Chairman Nick Balletto remains confident his party will continue control to the 5th District, where voters have supported Democratic U.S. House and presidential candidates for more than a decade despite the large number of Republican local leaders.
“The Trump administration has energized activists who have not been active in the past,” said Baletto, pointing to the Democratic Party’s recent win in Stratford, where a Democrat won a state House seat that had been held by Republicans for more than 40 years.
The original 5th District had historically been controlled by the Republican Party. But that began to change after redistricting in 2000, when Connecticut lost one congressional seat and two districts were merged. Republican U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson won control of the reconfigured district in 2002 and in 2004, before losing to now-U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. The Democrat held the 5th District seat until 2012, when he was elected to the Senate. That’s when Esty became the 5th District congresswoman.
Esty had more than $1.4 million in cash on hand, as of December 31, 2017, before announcing she won’t seek re-election. It came amid calls for her resignation. The outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement apologized for not protecting female staffers in her Washington office, who said they were harassed by her former chief of staff in 2016. After learning of the alleged abuse of one woman, who received death threats and said she was punched in the back, Esty did not suspend or fire the male staffer until about three months after an internal investigation. She ultimately agreed to give him $5,000 in severance and a positive job recommendation.
William DeMaida, chairman of the Waterbury Republican Town Committee, said he believes having Esty remain in office through the election season will only help GOP, which he believes has a “great opportunity” to win the seat.
“How this happened and how this happened to come about, is not going to be forgotten by most of the citizens in the 5th District,” he said. “For the Democratic Party, I think it would have been easier for her to step down now.”
With Esty now out of the picture, potential candidates are beginning to come forward.
Former Simsbury Mayor Mary Glassman, a former lieutenant governor candidate, was among the first to express her desire to seek the party’s nomination in May. Other Democrats are also considering running, including state Rep. Michelle Cook of Torrington.
Among the Republicans, former Meriden Mayor Manny Santos was the only declared GOP candidate in the race before the controversy over Esty erupted. Romano said several others are weighing a run. The list includes Dr. William Petit Jr., the sole survivor of a widely publicized and deadly 2007 home invasion who is currently a GOP state representative. Romano said others include former state Rep. Dan Carter, a onetime U.S. Senate candidate, and state Sens. Kevin Witkos, of Canton, and Eric Berthel, of Watertown.
The Democrats will hold a convention to endorse a candidate on May 14, while the Republicans will back a candidate on May 11. It’s likely there may be a primary on Aug. 14.