In Esty’s decision not to run, morality and politics coalesce

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Now that Elizabeth Esty has said she won’t run for reelection in November, Connecticut Republicans are hoping they can pick up the state’s 5th District Congressional seat. They believe they have the advantage for two reasons.

One, the Democratic governor is monumentally unpopular. Dannel Malloy, who is also not seeking reelection 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.

The Congresswoman announced the news on Facebook late Monday: “Too many women have been harmed by harassment in the workplace. In the terrible situation in my office, I could have and should have done better. To the survivor, I want to express my strongest apology for letting you down.”

The Republicans still have a tough row to hoe.

The 5th District includes parts of New Britain, Meriden, Danbury and Waterbury—epicenters 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, D.C. This was the case even in 2010 when the so-called Tea Party moved most of the rest of the country rightward. In Connecticut, voters stayed blue. The last Republican left the US Congress in 2009. By the standards of today’s Republican Party, Chris Shays is 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 is preventing out-of-state groups, like the National Rifle Association and 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 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, not among the Washington delegation, but state leaders like Senate 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 that the Washington 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 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. The Democrats here are barely holding on to power thanks to Malloy’s monumental unpopularity. The state Senate is split, and the state House is in play. Everyone 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 may have wedged support for Democratic candidates. This is a rare example of morality and politics coalescing to become truly the right thing to do.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a business columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.

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