In the tightest, most expensive U.S. House race in Connecticut this year, Democrat Elizabeth Esty defeated Republican Andrew Roraback in a close battle Tuesday night in the 41-town district.
With the polls so tight, the battle came down to turn-out on election day. Esty’s spokesman, Jeb Fain, repeatedly said that Esty had a stronger grassroots operation than Roraback that would prove to be the difference. But Roraback countered that his get-out-the-vote efforts were being led by a full complement of volunteers and seasoned political veterans, including former state legislators Brian Mattiello and Brian Flaherty, former state Republican chairman Bill Hamzy, and Torrington Mayor Ryan Bingham.
Early in the evening, Democrats were running strong statewide as both President Barack Obama and U.S. Senate candidate Christopher Murphy were declared the winners in Connecticut. That spillover effect was expected to help Esty on a strong day for Democrats
The nationally watched battle in the 5th Congressional District was marked by millions of dollars spent on TV commercials by Super PACs and other political committees that were both for and against the candidates.
While the combatants emphasized their differences in debates and commercials, they actually have similar backgounds as lawyers, Ivy League graduates, and elected officials. Roraback has represented a far larger area as a state senator, covering 15 towns in Litchfield County, while Esty was a one-term lawmaker in the state House of Representatives from her hometown of Cheshire and surrounding communities.
The campaign’s final days were marked by a major blitz of more than $1 million in TV advertising paid by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC in favor of Roraback as a moderate Republican who supports gay marriage, gun control and public education. Esty repeatedly tried to tie Roraback to the conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, citing fundraising trips to Connecticut by House Speaker John Boehner and the conservative majority leader, Eric Cantor. But Roraback countered that he would vote independently of his party leadership in the same way that he has during the past 18 years in Hartford.
During multiple debates, the candidates clashed over health care as Roraback said he would vote to repeal President Obama’s health-reform act as too costly. Esty the Affordable Care Act, known widely as Obamacare, as a good start. Both candidates pledged to preserve Social Security and Medicare — two key issues for elderly citizens who turn out in big numbers to vote.
Roraback, who has used his Spanish skills to reach out to voters, has far more political experience with nearly two decades in Hartford. Esty served on the town council in Cheshire and then for two years in the state House before losing her seat in a rematch with Republican Al Adinolfi. Esty voted to abolish the death penalty, and she said she believes that position — highly unpopular in Cheshire after the triple murders of the family of Dr. William Petit — cost her the House seat.
As the candidates battled for momentum, both campaigns released polls last month that placed their candidate in the lead. Two of the nation’s best-known political prognosticators pronounced the race as a toss-up heading into election day.
In the 41-town district, where unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats and Republicans, both candidates were battling for the independent vote. The district stretches from Simsbury to Danbury to Salisbury and touches both the New York State and Massachusetts borders.
Overall, more than $6 million was spent on the campaign by the candidates and outside groups. Esty collected more than $2.7 million in contributions and personal loans as of mid-October, and Roraback had raised $1.1 million. Those totals, though, do not include the money from Bloomberg’s Super PAC, more than $1 million from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that opposed Roraback, and more than $1 million from an Ohio-based Super PAC known as the Government Integrity Fund Action Network that opposed Esty.
Roraback criticized Esty’s fundraising, saying that she accepted money from individuals who work for businesses that her husband, Daniel Esty, regulates as commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. But Esty countered by asking Roraback to focus on her record — and not her husband’s career.
In a recent interview with The Courant, Roraback said he believes his “socially moderate, fiscally prudent” message was resonating with voters, while Fain countered that Roraback had attracted support from “right-wingers.” He added that Esty shares the values of Connecticut’s middle class.
Esty beat state House Speaker Christopher Donovan in a three-way Democratic primary in mid-August after Donovan’s campaign was marred by the arrest of two of his former campaign aides over illegal campaign financing. Roraback won a close, four-way Republican primary that sent him into the general election race.
Courant staff writers Josh Kovner and Amanda Falcone contributed to this report.