Connecticut's 5th District is a Sleeper Bellwether House Race

There are several races in the Nutmeg State that deserve close attention.

There are several races in the Nutmeg State that deserve close attention. The race for U.S. Senate between WWE CEO Linda McMahon and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has received the most attention due, most recently, to two polls that show that race tightening unexpectedly. In the House, Connecticut’s 4th district, which was represented by former Republican Rep. Christopher Shays until 2008 when Democratic Rep. James Himes won a narrow 51 percent victory, is another closely watched contest in 2010. That district will be interesting to watch on election night; returns will come in early and it should showcase how well Republicans do overall on November 2nd. There is, however, another race that is worth watching as an indicator of Republican performance – the 4th district’s northern neighbor, Connecticut’s 5th district.

Connecticut’s 5th district includes the cities of Waterbury, New Britain, Danbury and Torrington. It is home to several prestigious private high schools including the Kent and Canterbury Schools. The district has an above average median income and has a high commuter population – those New York City exurban voters that have recently lost faith in Washington. The 5th district has traditionally been a swing district and is among the worst performing districts in New England for Democrats, outside New Hampshire. That said, Connecticut is exclusively represented in the 111th Congress by members of the Democratic party.

In CT-05, Democratic Rep. Christopher Murphy has represented the district since his 2006 victory over former Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson. He beat her soundly, winning 56 to 44 percent. In a district that voted for John Kerry in 2004 by less than a percentage point, this was a significant swing towards the Democrats. It signaled just how good the 2006 midterm elections were going to be for the Democratic party.

Murphy’s Republican opponent this year, state Senator Sam Caligiuri, defeated his GOP primary opponents, Republican party establishment candidate Justin Bernier and Litchfield developer Mark Greenberg. Caligiuri has received the attention of the NRCC, having been named one of its “Young Guns.” The party’s embrace of Caligiuri is a forced reversal from its earlier position on his candidacy as evidenced by a July NRCC editorial criticizing his “extreme” positions on social issues. Murphy’s campaign manager, Kenny Curran, has dismissed all this attention from Washington as proof of Caligiuri’s not-so-outsider status. Caligiuri has recently received the endorsement of former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. He also has a local advantage; having represented state Senate district that Rep. Murphy held until 2007, Caligiuri believes that he can neutralize Murphy’s base of support.

Murphy released his first television advertisement three weeks ago. In it, he reveals how anti-government sentiment is pervasive even in this well-healed part of Connecticut. The ad touts Murphy’s vote “against the budget” and how eager he is to work with Republicans to pass “made in America” laws. Caligiuri quickly responded to the ad calling it “a blatant attempt to mislead voters.” “The only thing he voted against was a procedural budget vote, after this Congress became the first in 35 years to fail to pass a budget resolution," reads a statement from Caligiuri’s campaign office.

There has been no independent polling in this race, but some internals that were released over the last three months that shed some light on this race. The Republican polling outfit American Action Forum surveyed voters in this district in late July, before the primary, and found the prospective challenger, Greenberg, trailing Murphy 49 to 39 percent. Following the primary, the Caligiuri camp released its own poll, conducted by Adam Geller’s Republican polling firm National Research Inc., on September 7th showing Caligiuri trailing Murphy by a single point; Caligiuri receives 39 percent of the vote to Murphy’s 40 percent. That poll also showed Murphy with only 36 percent job approval.

Of course, internal polls can be manipulated and the Murphy camp was quick to question the poll’s sampling methodology. However, respected political handicapper Charlie Cook cautions poll watchers not to dismiss internal polls outright. Often, he says, the time, money and methodology that partisan pollsters employ can lead to just as accurate, if not more accurate, results than academic polls. Sometimes, though, internal polls are publicly released to raise public confidence and campaign funds. The Murphy camp has not released any internal polling.

As of the last campaign finance report deadline, Rep. Murphy had $1.49 million in cash on hand to Caligiuri’s $95,000. This cash deficit is a problem for Caligiuri; Murphy’s ads are penetrating local television in the expensive New York-area media market. Caligiuri will benefit though from the seemingly bottomless resources that the top of the ticket, Linda McMahon, is spending in the state. Both Connecticut’s 5th district candidates are scheduled to have their first debate next Tuesday in Danbury.

Whether or not the Republican party’s internal polls are credible, this race is probably very close. It is one of many unsung indicator districts that could be tight or even flip to Republicans in November. The incumbent needs to bring out the Democratic base in Waterbury, Torrington and Danbury. If turnout in those cities is low on Election Day, it will be a long night for Mr. Murphy.

Noah Rothman is the online editor for C&E. Email him at

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