Esty's departure gives GOP a shot at regaining 5th district congressional seat

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U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s scandal-fueled exit from the race to represent Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District gives the GOP a fighting chance to send a Republican to Washington, D.C., this fall.

But it’s still an uphill fight for the GOP in a state where the seven-member Congressional delegation is all Democrats, and in a district where Democrats have held control since 2006, when Chris Murphy upset Republican incumbent Nancy Johnson.

“I think it has become an extremely competitive district,” says Gary Rose, who chairs the department of Government, Politics and Global Studies at Sacred Heart University. “It is certainly nowhere near as predictable as it would have been had Esty not left.”

Part of the unpredictability is gauging who is in the race. As recently as one week ago, after Hearst Connecticut Media broke news of abuse and sexual harassment in Esty’s Washington office, the three-term Democrat was still seeking re-election. Her only challenger at the time was former Meriden mayor Manny Santos.

Since Esty dropped out of the race — admitting she failed to adequately address harassment by former Chief of Staff Tony Baker and then helped him get a new job with Sandy Hook Promise — there is one new Democratic candidate: former Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman.

More candidates from both parties could declare their interest as soon as this week, Republican and Democratic leaders said, ahead of the nominating conventions in mid-May.

“We don’t have a lot of time - less than 40 days and 40 towns to contact and visit,” Glassman said of a 5th District that stretches from Bethel to the Massachusetts line, and from New Milford to New Britain. “That is why I jumped in so quickly. Of course there could be a lot of good candidates who run, as there should be for an important seat like this, which doesn’t open very often.”

If several candidates do jump into the race and compete for political support, it can only elevate interest in what is already a highly anticipated midterm election season, as Democrats in Connecticut fight to take power from the GOP in Congress, and Republicans in Connecticut fight to take back power from Democrats in the governor’s office.

“You have the general unpopularity of Governor Malloy versus the general unpopularity of President Trump, and the question is whether those two will cancel each other out,” said Scott McLean, professor of political science at Quinnipiac University. “If the Fifth District race is about congressional issues, the election will be more about Trump, because the difference is between a lame-duck governor who will be out in November versus a president who will be there for two more years.”

Nick Balletto, the state Democratic Party leader, said the Trump effect would have a big impact on the election.

“Trump is the best thing that ever happened to the Democratic Party,” Balletto said. “He is showing us what is going to happen to this country if we let Republicans control the White House and Congress.”

At stake for the 417,000 registered voters in the five cities and 36 towns of the Fifth District is which party’s candidate will be the right complement to the unique temperament of Trump.

“The Democrats are in a constant state of resistance,” said J.R. Romano, the chairman of the state GOP. “Trump has demonstrated he is willing to negotiate, but none of the Democrats on the federal level will sit down with him for Connecticut’s benefit.”

The district has added more registered Democratic voters and more unaffiliated voters than Republican voters since Esty defeated Republican Andrew Roraback in 2012.

Since then, Democrats have registered 19,460 voters, giving the party 132,780 voters, or 32 percent of the total, according to the latest numbers from the Connecticut Secretary of the State. Republicans added 7,570 voters over the same period, giving the GOP a total of 100,370 voters, or 24 percent. More than 9,500 new voters registered as unaffiliated, bringing their total to 177,750, or 42.5 percent of the total.

A national election analyst said Esty’s exit does not change the likelihood that the Fifth District would

be a Democratic hold

in November.

“What we’ve seen in elections across the country over the last year is that Democrats are energized and turning out in greater numbers,” said Nathan Gonzales, publisher of the Washington, D.C.,-based Inside Elections. “If Malloy was running, he would probably lose, but it is hard for me to see Democratic voters taking out their frustration on the Democratic nominees for governor and the Fifth District.”

The Esty effect

Esty’s decision not to seek a fourth term was supported last week by Connecticut’s top Democrats. The thinking is that with Esty stepping aside, Democrats can run on the issues and galvanize voters the way Esty did in 2016, when she won 58 percent of the vote, defeating Republican Clay Cope, of Sherman, by 49,000 votes.

But it is likely that Democrats will have to answer for Esty all the way to Nov. 6, analysts said.

“Esty is not doing the Democrats any favors by holding onto that seat, because the more she tries to explain herself the more it will look like she is trying to cover stuff up to protect her image,” said McLean, who argues that Esty should resign. “This is not just an error in judgment - this is a cover-up of an abominable case of sexual harassment and threatening where Esty used government money to pay off and help get her chief of staff another job.”

Santos agreed.

“She should drop out now,” said Santos. “What credibility does she have left?”

Esty admitted she made grave mistakes in allowing Baker to stay in her office for three months in 2016 after learning he had punched and threatened to kill a former female employee in her D.C. office. She said she regretted negotiating a deal with Baker that bound her to silence and required her to write a glowing job recommendation that led to a position with the Ohio state office of Newtown-based Sandy Hook Promise.

Sandy Hook Promise fired Baker shortly before the scandal broke. Esty canceled appearances in Newtown and Danbury last week and declined to comment, except to say through a spokesman that she would resume a full schedule in D.C. this week when the House is back in session.

Rose said Republicans would use the Esty scandal to their advantage, reminding voters of the way the incumbent Democrat abused her powers and betrayed the public trust.

“They are not going to let this go at all,” Rose said. “They are going to keep this alive as long as they can.”

Residents of the Fifth District voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election by just over 50 percent. Clinton won four of the district’s five cities — Danbury, Meriden, New Britain, and Waterbury — along with 16 of the district’s towns. Trump won Torrington and 20 towns, including New Fairfield and New Milford.

Rose said the key to the race would be the strength of GOP nominee, although there were plenty of variables that made the race a challenge.

“I don’t know who is more unpopular in the Fifth District — Trump or Malloy or Esty.”

“I know the answer to that question,” the GOP’s Romano said. “It’s Malloy.”

“Trump has a 36 percent approval rating in this district, and Malloy’s approval rating is 24 percent,” Romano said. “What are we going to do, export Malloy’s policies to Washington?” 203-731-3342