Connecticut 5: Can Anyone Deny Donovan a Seat in Congress?

by Stuart Rothenberg September 26, 2011 · 9:17 AM EDT

If Connecticut Speaker Christopher Donovan has a tough time getting elected to Congress next year, it could tell us something about the attitude of the overall electorate in 2012.

That’s because Donovan, 57, looks to be an ideal political package for the Nutmeg State, at least in a “normal” election environment.

A 19-year veteran of the state Assembly, he was elected Majority Leader in late 2004, and a little more than four years later he became Speaker. He represents a reliably Democratic area of Meriden.

When I interviewed Donovan during his August trip to Washington, D.C., I found him poised, polished and knowledgeable. He understands issues and the legislative process, and he isn’t likely to get flustered under tough questioning. He is confident without being cocky.

Before Donovan was elected to the Legislature, he spent years working for consumer and labor groups, including time as an organizer for the Connecticut Citizen Action Group and then the Service Employees International Union. He holds a master’s degree in social work.

Not surprisingly, Donovan is not exactly a Blue Dog.

An early supporter of Barack Obama, he backed Ned Lamont’s Democratic primary challenge against Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2006. Donovan describes himself as a “strong” early opponent to the Iraq War, and he says he probably would not have voted for the debt ceiling deal.

The Speaker faces two potentially interesting primary opponents: former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty and public relations professional Dan Roberti.

Esty’s website describes her as “an attorney and educator,” and she served a single term in the state House.

Through June, Esty had raised $424,000, and she has been put “On the List” — but not yet “recommended” — by EMILY’s List.

Roberti, who had raised more than $550,000 at the end of the second quarter, has little political background but unusual contacts, especially through his father, Vincent.

Vincent Roberti served four terms in the Connecticut House, and he is now a big-time lobbyist with the connections that allow his son to raise the kind of money that few 20-somethings could.

If 2012 is a normal year, Donovan, with his legislative experience and political connections to the labor and liberal communities, should be a slam dunk for the Democratic nomination. But if it isn’t a normal year, a youthful outsider with money or a one-term legislator and community activist might make some noise.

In the general election, Donovan should also have a clear advantage.

While the 5th district was the “worst” in the state for Obama in 2008, he still took 56 percent. With Obama on the ballot again, strong Democratic turnout is likely in a state that has moved to become reliably Democratic.

Rep. Christopher Murphy (D) is vacating the seat to run for Senate. Murphy won by 8 points last year, one of the worst Democratic years in memory.

But there are at least some reasons to wonder whether Donovan (or any Democrat) might have a more difficult time next November than anyone might initially assume.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Foley carried the 5th district easily in 2010, and the GOP nominee for state attorney general also carried it.

Now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) just barely carried the district in 2010. In the 2004 presidential race, Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) nosed out President George W. Bush by 1,100 votes.

Though the current district has changed over the years following reapportionment and redistricting, in the past 30 years a number of Republicans have represented parts of what is now the 5th district. That list includes former Reps. Nancy Johnson, John Rowland and Gary Franks.

When Democrats have problems in the 5th district, it is because they lose too many working-class whites, the kind of voters once referred to as Reagan Democrats. These blue-collar voters usually look to Democrats for economic solutions but have sometimes been attracted to Republicans running as agents of change, particularly if the Democrat seems too liberal or ineffective.

Donovan’s style certainly should appeal to those swing voters, and his connections to organized labor should be another plus. But his liberal record may cause problems, and Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket could be an albatross for any Democrat running in this district among blue-collar voters.

The GOP race is crowded already, with a nominee many months away. Still, two names are particularly worth noting now.

Justin Bernier is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a former executive director of Connecticut’s Office of Military Affairs. He ran unsuccessfully in the district in 2010.

Lisa Wilson-Foley is a wealthy businesswoman who impressed political observers even though she narrowly lost a bid to become the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor last year. In a state where female candidates have been successful, Wilson-Foley might present a particularly appealing profile to 5th district voters.

Chris Donovan seems like the obvious favorite to be the next Congressman. But in an unusual political environment, such as the one we are in now, this race is worth watching. Strange things could happen.