Democrats Shouldn’t Fret About Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s Retirement

Republicans think they have the edge to capture a congressional seat in Connecticut. Here’s why they’re wrong.

Now that Rep. Elizabeth Esty has said she won’t run for reelection in November, Republicans in Connecticut are hoping they can pick up the seat in the state’s 5th congressional district. The GOP might think they have the advantage, but ultimately Etsy’s retirement is a gift for Democrats.

Republicans aren’t totally wrong to think they have an edge. The Democratic governor is monumentally unpopular. Gov. Dannel Malloy, who is also not seeking reelection at the end of his term in November, is the least liked governor in the entire country. Two, Esty is leaving under a cloud of controversy. Last week, she conceded to being complicit in a former chief of staff’s sexual and physical assault of a female aide.

But Republicans still have a tough row to hoe. The 5th District includes parts of New Britain, Danbury, and Waterbury—centers of Democratic power. Connecticut voters also don’t mind ticket-splitting—the governor’s mansion could go to a Republican, but voters here tend to send Democrats to Washington. This was the case even in 2010 when most of the rest of the country shifted right and Republicans gained more than 60 seats in the House. In Connecticut, however, voters stayed blue. A Republican hasn’t held a congressional seat in Connecticut since 2009 (and by the standards of today’s GOP, that Republican, Chris Shays, might as well be a liberal).

Republicans face three other hurdles. After a corruption scandal that ultimately sent a sitting governor to prison, lawmakers in 2006 passed sweeping legislation reforming the state’s campaign finance laws. The effect of these laws restricts the ability of out-of-state groups, like the NRA and Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, from spending on attack ads that favor Republicans.

The other hurdles are Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement. The president’s conspicuous caddishness has inspired millions to protest, run for office, or otherwise engage in civic life. An anti-Trump wave is expected to crest in November and potentially deliver Congress to the Democrats. This wave has coincided with an extraordinary spectacle of high-powered men being held (belatedly) to account. If either of these factors were not in play, the GOP might have a better chance of picking up the 5th. As it is, it’s unlikely.

Still, the biggest obstacle facing the Republicans is unity in the opposing party. Esty believed she could weather the storm over the weekend, but hour by hour she was losing support from Democrats like Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, a major power from New Haven. As early as Saturday, Looney was saying the right thing for Esty to do, morally and politically, would be stepping aside. I’m not surprised that after Esty said Monday she wouldn’t run, the state’s Capitol Hill delegation, including both Senators, echoed his remarks nearly word for word. “It’s the right thing to do,” they said. Now Democrats can remain united and fully in line with the political strength of the expected anti-Trump wave.

As Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzales wrote Tuesday: “In a midterm election with a Democrat in the White House, this would probably be a good Republican takeover opportunity. But Republicans haven’t won a race in the area in over a dozen years, and there is little indication they can pull this off in an election cycle trending against the president and the GOP. Esty’s exit might actually improve Democratic chances of holding the seat.”

Her absence is a relief to state Democrats, too. What the national media isn’t reporting is that Democrats here are barely holding on to power thanks to Gov. Malloy’s unpopularity. Control of the state Senate is divided, and the control of the House is in play. Everyone here is talking about this being the year for the Republicans. That’s partly hype, but if Esty had stayed on, it could have been reality, as she would have split support among the liberals. This is a rare example of morality and politics coalescing to become truly the right move for Democrats.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.