A Race a Week: CT-05

Please welcome Noah Rudnick to the Decision Desk family. Mr. Rudnick will be profiling potentially interesting House races on a weekly basis.

This week’s seat had undergone a tumultuous couple of days, as the Washington Post broke a scandal where incumbent Elizabeth Esty kept a credible sexual harasser on her staff for 3 months and then wrote a positive recommendation letter for him as part of his severance. She then retired, after she was unable to keep the confidence of the Democratic town chairs, making this seemingly out of each seat even more possible for a flip. Now, as the #MeToo movement advances and marks yet one more electoral impact, this seat may be burst wide open. But dominating it is the same polarization that is tearing apart the nation at a micro-level as the district is pulled in two directions. All these factors converge on a seat, that if targeted, has the potential to be one of the biggest battlegrounds of the 2018 cycle, and a rare opportunity for Republicans to take the offensive. Currently, Sabato’s Crystal ball and the Cook Political Report have the race as Likely Democratic; Inside Elections has it as Safe Democratic.

 

District Overview:

Connecticut’s 5th district resides in the northwestern corner of the state, with much of it in rural Litchfield County, with the population near evenly split between four different areas (which I will highlight later). Connecticut’s district maps are supposed to pass with bipartisan support in the state legislature, but to no one’s surprise, they failed to agree on a map, so the courts appointed an out-of-state special master to draw it. One part of the assignment was to make as few changes as possible to the last map, and Democrats successfully pushed to keep the heavily Democratic-friendly city of New Britain in the district. Republicans were unable to successfully challenge it.

The Fundamentals:

The first thing to look at is the breakdown in the district by county over the last couple of cycles.

There is not a lot of variation year over year, with each county taking about a quarter of the vote (New Haven snags around 28% and Fairfield 22%). The two changes I’ve noticed are the dip in Fairfield’s share, and rise in Litchfield’s, during midterm elections.

 

District-wide, Obama received 56.4% in 2008, 53.5% in 2012, and Clinton won with a plurality of 49.9% in 2016. On the GOP side, McCain received 42.4%, Romney 45.3%, and Trump bumped up slightly, to 45.8%. In 2014, incumbent Democratic Governor Dan Malloy lost to Republican nominee Tom Foley by just over 5%. Congresswoman Esty grew her share from 51.3% of the vote in the 2012 open contest, to 53.2% in 2014, and up to 58% in 2016.

Examining the partisan lean within each county division of the district, you notice some interesting trends.

The Litchfield and New Haven County portions moved slightly towards the Republicans while Fairfield and Hartford Counties went a bit towards the Democrats. Surprisingly, unlike the county as a whole, the municipality of Fairfield did not go to Hillary Clinton. New Haven County is more Democratic in the Presidential elections, but lags in midterms, likely a function of lower turnout in places like Waterbury. The 2018 election could come down to how polarized each of these areas are: can Republicans maximize the rural areas and avoid huge Democratic turnout?

The last factor is Esty herself, who increased her margin in contrast to the top of the ticket, cycle over cycle. The next chart compares the change in Republican Congressional vote margin with the change in the Republican Presidential candidate’s margin for every Congressional district in the northeast.

This district was one of the worst Republican underperformers. With Esty, a comfortable incumbent until recent events, out of the picture, the disproportionate deficit Republicans experienced there could shrink.

Another factor to consider are the demographics. This is an older district than most others, with a median age of 41.8 it’s tied for 63rd oldest in the nation. It is also pretty white (81.5%) and consists of a labor pool with 12% in manufacturing and 12% in retail. None of this guarantees a GOP victory, especially in a season where Democrats seem to be doing quite well, but it makes for a more plausible win than most other Democratic seats.

State Factors and Probable Frontrunners:

The dominating force in Connecticut politics the past eight years has been the very unpopular Governor Dannel P. Malloy. Malloy currently boasts an approval rating of just 23% and a disapproval rating of 68% according to Morning Consult, making him the most unpopular sitting governor in the nation. This has allowed the Republicans to claw back to within striking distance in the State House (71-80) and tied in the State Senate (18-18) where the Democratic lieutenant governor breaks the tie. His shadow will loom large under any future contest even without him on the ballot and already has.

CT Partisan Breakdown of the State House (left) and the State Senate (right)

The chart below, compiled from the tracker at DailyKosElections, shows that the special election blue wave is striking unevenly in Connecticut, even improving for the Republicans in several contests.

The national forces upping Democratic chances could be running against state currents. Time will tell if the former wins out in the remaining eight months.

The Republicans:

With the original challenger having dropped out very recently with only $100 in his campaign account, the only remaining challenger so far is former Meriden mayor Manny Santos. Santos was elected in 2013 in the heavily Democratic city and lost in the higher turnout 2015 election by only a few votes against an unaffiliated candidate who was an ex-Republican backed by Democrats. Recently, he ran and lost a seat for city council. Despite his recent losses, he seems like an ideal candidate with a geographic base and possible crossover support from his last run. He is also tapped into the state network a bit, though he entered late, and needs to raise more money. The NRCC announced that the 5th was a target a while ago, but didn’t seem eager to actually play here or put money down. An open seat may attract attention for a flip.

The Democrats:

            With Esty gone, the field is wide open for anybody to take her place, and candidates have until June 12th to file for candidacy. One of the rumored names out there is freshman State Representative Liz Linehan, who barely won last cycle by 85 votes in a district near Waterbury and Meriden, the same voting base as the likely GOP nominee. The contest remains wide open and it’s not known whether an Esty endorsement would be helpful or hurtful. What is known is that she had $1.2 million on hand last filing cycle and a significant war chest to help a potential successor out, if they wished for it.

The Others:

            There are no third-party candidates registered downballot and this district hasn’t historically been home to any independent bids. On a state level, there are a couple, and Oz Greibel, a Hartford businessman who was a GOP candidate for in the 2010 primary, may lure some votes away. His running mate is gun control activist Monte Frank, so it is not known which side they will take from, and their downballot voters could be a mixed bag.

The Verdict:

Calling this seat a tossup is too ambitious, even with the circumstances surrounding Esty, so I’d still give Democrats the edge. This is built on two assumptions of mine that could be dead wrong, but let’s run with them. The first is that turnout will be a bit up in the Fairfield area, helping the Democrat. This argument is somewhat shaky, because Fairfield made up no more of the region in the low turnout, good Republican year of 2014 than it did in 2006, a good Democratic one. The second is a bit stronger: it’s easier for the Republicans’ floor to fall out from under them with the current national environment, so I’m hedging my bet on a good year at the national and state level for Democrats to carry this seat across the line. The biggest unknown is whether or not the parties are committed to dumping cash into this race. Will it become competitive enough to attract attention and motivate voters? In a year where Republicans may need all the help they can get, this could grant them a rare place to go on the attack, boosting their morale and their chances at retaining a majority.

I would like to thank Miles Coleman, DailyKosElections, US Election Atlas, OurCampains and the Secretary of State for their data, essential for reviewing this contest.

 

Photo Credits: www.ctn.state.ct.us, Ourcampaigns.com