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Some Connecticut Democrats are increasingly worried that fallout from a federal investigation surrounding state Speaker Chris Donovan could impair the party’s chances of holding Rep. Christopher Murphy’s seat this fall.
Donovan is the leading Democrat in the race to succeed Murphy, a fellow Democrat who is running for Senate. An FBI sting that resulted in the arrest of Donovan’s finance director, Robert Braddock Jr., threw his campaign into disarray earlier this month. Braddock is accused of involvement in an alleged quid pro quo scheme tying Congressional campaign donations and state tobacco tax legislation. Donovan went on to fire Braddock and two other staffers.
Donovan has not been implicated in any wrongdoing. But Democrats remain concerned about jeopardizing the party’s advantage in a competitive district and that more revelations could come.
One unaligned Democratic operative worried that Donovan’s ethical issues play into voter cynicism about politicians in a state that has struggled with corruption in the past.
“I just think there has been this culture of corruption on the Democratic side,” the source said. “This helps reopen a narrative that Democrats were trying to put behind them.”
The source added: “There’s not an appreciation of the [National Republican Congressional Committee] and some of these more conservative super PACs, who’ve already identified the 5th as a battleground area. They are not fully appreciating the kind of narrative Donovan’s campaign has provided for those groups.”
Still, many Democrats are taking a wait-and-see approach. Donovan is widely held in high regard, and many party insiders want to let the investigation play out before jumping to conclusions.
But even if he is completely cleared, he faces accusations of running an incompetent campaign and having improper oversight of campaign staffers.
The investigation has provided an opening for Donovan’s Democratic opponents: former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty and political newcomer Dan Roberti.
Esty, who had the most cash on hand as of the latest reporting period, has
EMILY’s List backing and is considered to be Donovan’s strongest opponent. Her campaign has been silent on Donovan’s ethical issues.
Roberti, on the other hand, has engaged. He issued a press release when the investigation publicly unfolded this month, charging that Donovan “failed to be watchful and responsible in the conduct of his campaign.”
“When issues arise, we should address them,” Roberti said in an interview with Roll Call. He added that the investigation comes up often in his conversations with voters.
The Donovan campaign sidesteps questions about concerns some Democrats have about his strength as the party’s nominee.
“This primary isn’t about nominating any Democrat. It’s about nominating a Democrat who the families of the district can trust to fight for our shared progressive values,” Donovan spokesman Gabe Rosenberg wrote in an email. “Chris has never backed away from those values and he never will.”
Labor unions and local Democratic allies are sticking with Donovan, and they are why he remains the frontrunner in the primary. He is also fortunate the primary is Aug. 14 and the television air war has yet to commence.
“He’s got this huge track record, so when this issue came out a couple weeks ago, our members waited and read the same information everyone else has,” said Jennifer Smith, a local SEIU political director. “Chris has said he’s not involved and clearly his track record speaks for itself.”
John McNamara of the New Britain Democratic Town Committee said that he would “bet the farm that [Donovan’s] integrity comes out intact.”
Republicans hope they face Donovan in November.
The GOP frontrunner is state Sen. Andrew Roraback, a longtime legislator who has cultivated an image as a squeaky clean moderate. The swing district leans Democratic but has a history of electing Republicans prior to 2006, when Murphy first won election to Congress.
“Donovan isn’t dead yet,” a state Republican operative said. “I think Donovan would be great [as the Democratic nominee]. Because although he has the union support, he has all this baggage you can hit him with.“
While many view Roraback as the most formidable GOP contender, he is not certain to win the party nomination. The field includes businesswoman Lisa Wilson-Foley and real estate developer Mark Greenberg, both of whom have the capacity to self-fund campaigns. Justin Bernier, the 2010 GOP nominee, is also running and has high residual name identification in the district.
Wilson-Foley, however, has run into her own ethical issues. Federal investigators are examining former Gov. John Rowland’s (R) work as a consultant for her husband’s health care company, Apple Rehab, according to the Hartford Courant. At the same time, Rowland was a volunteer for her campaign.
Her campaign manager, Christopher Syrek, said the investigation “stems from a political attack” from a former opponent.
“Neither Lisa, her campaign, or her husband’s business violated any election law,” he wrote in an email. “The truth and the facts are on our side and we are moving on with the campaign.”
Still, a Wilson-Foley nomination could set up a scenario in which both major-party candidates campaign under ethical clouds.