Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Murphy Seeks to Ride Wave of Energy, Discontent

Sen. Chris Murphy’s (D-Cheshire) campaign headquarters isn’t quite what you might expect from a campaign that’s rated visits from high-ranking Democrats, the blessings of the DCCC and national attention as the best chance in a decade to turn out longtime incumbent Rep. Nancy Johnson. For one thing, it’s really hard to find.

Now, I’m from neighboring Newington originally, and I spent a lot of time when I was young riding my bike or, later, driving aimlessly around New Britain. Despite my familiarity with the place, I still find the Hardware City a bit confusing from time to time. Sen. Murphy’s headquarters is easy to lose even by New Britain standards.

Squirrels in the Roof

Murphy for Congress HQ is located on a side street right off of downtown New Britain, in an old white house set back from the street behind a law office. I drove past the narrow driveway a few times before getting it right. The only way that I knew I was in the right place was a black-and-white “Murphy for Congress” sign in the window.

I was greeted at the door by Sarah Merriam, Murphy’s perky and energetic campaign manager. She gave me a quick tour of the few first-floor rooms that constituted the campaign’s operations. There weren’t many staffers around, the time being late, and we could clearly hear the scraping and scrabbling of what she said were squirrels in the roof. There had to be at least two dozen. She seemed proud of the place, though, and informed me that she had worked in much worse before. There was a sort of optimistic energy to the place, though, that seemed to transcend the surroundings.

Sen. Murphy himself was on the phone when I got there, but he came out to sit with Merriam and myself, and we talked for nearly an hour about his campaign and his chances. He’s an unpretentious and approachable man who possesses a sort of quiet, firm energy and intensity. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation, mostly paraphrased.

New Britain and the Fifth District

One of the first questions I asked was about the headquarters. “Why,” I asked, “New Britain?” After all, it’s a big district, stretching from New Britain and Meriden to North Canaan to Danbury.

For one thing, Murphy said, “It’s close to Hartford,” where he spends his days during the short session. However, he said, he was planning on opening satellite operations all over the district. Some of the places he mentioned were Waterbury, Danbury, Meriden and “a smaller office in… Litchfield County,” maybe in one of the small towns like Cornwall. Murphy wants to run strong outside of the cities as well as in them.

Secondly, the office was inexpensive. Murphy wants to build a first-class field operation, and needs to reserve money for that instead. “Don’t get obsessed with money at the expense of [the] field operation,” he said. “Democrats are better at field organization,” than Republicans, which gives him an edge.

I asked him about his district. What made him think he could win it? After all, it was historically something of a Republican stronghold, and Nancy Johnson has traditionally been popular here. He pointed to the 2005 municipal elections, in which Democrats made significant gains in small towns, as an indication that the normally Republican small towns in the district were willing to vote Democratic. He did admit that “…in the cities… people are looking for something different,” which often means the Republican Party. This election, he said, is going to be “closer across the board. …Both parties will be forced to contest everywhere.”

Secondly, he suggested that the narrow loss of Charlotte Koskoff in 1996 as an indication that “…this district is willing to vote on national issues.” Murphy thinks that Johnson’s ties to DeLay, her vote on the budget and her work on the Medicare bill will be serious handicaps. “Johnson,” he said, “is so fatally linked the right wing,” that people may have more trouble voting for her than in the past. Democrats have historically had trouble tying their more moderate opponents to DeLay and the right wing, but Murphy feels that high voter discontent will make this year different.

The Iraq War

Our conversation took place on March 17th, near the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I asked Sen. Murphy what he thought about the war, and how he thought we could get out of it.

Murphy is very much a pragmatist about possible solutions to the conflict. “No candidate running for office [can declare] a panacea,” he said. No one person has all the answers. Some of his ideas for progress are pulling back National Guard and reserve troops by the end of the year, setting up benchmarks for the Iraqis, convening a multinational contact group to deal with issues and helping the Iraqis do as much as they can for themselves. What’s most important, he says, is “honest dialogue,” which isn’t forthcoming from his opponent. “In this district, Johnson says nothing.” She seems to have “no interest.”

Campaign Finance Reform

I asked Sen. Murphy about the landmark campaign finance reform passed last year. Should something like it happen at the national level?

“If it works in Connecticut, it should work at the national level,” he said. “It’s amazing, given the ethical swamp [in Washington, that] there’s no move towards reform.” Again, he said, on reform, “Johnson says nothing.”

The Campaign

One of the reasons Murphy believes he can win because he’s running a young, energetic campaign. This campaign “…will look a lot different from Nancy Johnson’s campaign.”

I alluded to a comment I’d made about a month ago, in which I’d suggested that the campaign was “colorless.”

“Half of campaigns is building momentum,” he countered, telling me that his campaign is consciously being built in a very careful way. Still, even though they’ve got something of a low profile, now, the excitement and enthusiasm they see from people in the district so far has been high. Murphy stresses the energy of activists and other voters at the house parties he’s held, and the fact that a remarkable 80% of donations to his campaign have come from within the district. Apparently, I was mistaken about Murphy. In fact, as he reminded me, I can’t start a thread about Diane Farrell or Joe Courtney without the topic turning to Chris Murphy at some point. Maybe there’s more to this than I’d thought.


It’s hard to say where Chris Murphy will go from here. Nancy Johnson, ever since her defeat of Jim Maloney, has seemed untouchable, but 2006 is shaping up to be a Democratic year. If voters in the 5th District blow with the national winds, Johnson could be in her tightest race since 1996, when Murphy managed Koskoff’s campaign. Murphy says he’s learned from his previous campaign experiences, and he’s managed to defeat long-serving Republicans before. He thinks he can surprise Nancy Johnson this year. He might even be right.


Brass Tacks said...

Nice profile. It's too bad that Chris comes off as the most calculate-every-move-I-make politician since Lieberman came down the pike.

Survey says:
Murphy=Second Place

Anonymous said...

He comes off as "calculated" in that story??? Come on. Calculated would be a highly visible, fancy headquarters, not a place with squirrels in the roof... that sounds more like a real, working campaign office.

Anonymous said...

Murphy just thinks he he runs the 1996 Koskoff race with more money and his name on the ballot he'll get a better result.

Not Gonnna Happen

Anonymous said...

Stupid would be a highly visible fancy campaign HQ. Don't Take Me Seriously is also a campaign HQ "squirreled" away in some cubbyhole in New Britain (pun intended).

Weicker Liker said...

Interesting that Sarah Merriam is managing Murphy's Campaign.

She was Bill Curry's Field Director in 1994 when he defeated John Larson in the Primary for Governor.

Anonymous said...

Murphy is making this race out to be bigger than it really is. At this stage of the game his main concern is the APPEARANCE of viability. By parading in "Rahm and company" Chris Murphy is simply telling us what we already know: that he is desperately trying to convince anybody who'll listen that he's got half a chance, desperately trying to give the appearance of someone who won't get clobbered come November. He's like the man who accidentally falls into the bear pit at the zoo; he'll stand up and put his arms over his head and try his damnedest to give the impression that he's big and just as much of a threat to the bear as the bear is to him...but let's be honest, EVERY onlooker is thinking to him/herself that the guy doesn't stand a chance. I'm going to have to "SECOND" brass tacks' emotion.

MikeCT said...

Having seen and met most of the more prominent candidates in the state, my impression of Murphy is that he is more straightforward, gutsy, genuine, and progressive than most. He's also a good speaker and, as Genghis suggests, approachable and unpretentious. I have the sense he is willing to take risks. He is the only candidate about whom, upon first impression, I came away with a good gut feeling. I realize that's not scientific and I'd like to know more about him and his positions, but there it is. He also has an enthusiastic crew of volunteers. He has a good reputation as an effective chair of the Public Health Committee. But you should decide for yourself and get out to meet him in March or April, and check out his video interview.

Nancy's perceived strengths -- among seniors, on health care issues, and her ties to the Republican leadership -- are now her greatest weaknesses. Her big money donors - almost entirely from the pharmaceutical and medical industry buying the influence of a health subcommittee chair - can also help to undermine her image and credibility. Bush and the Republican Congress are in the tank. If there's any good time to take her down, it's now. I can't imagine a better time.

Anonymous said...

Nobody is saying murphy is a sure thing but this is a big year for dems, espcially when Johnson has always counted on seniors for her votes and now they are mad about the medicare drug plan, and she has been so close with Bush junior that she can't run away from him now.

The County Times ran a story a couple of weeks ago that JOhnson is not even good on the environment anymore, so I don't think she can count on those votes either.

Basically its not an easy race but he's young and he seems to be working hard so maybe this is the year?

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:54,

Of course giving the appearance of viability is important. That's all any challenger is doing when it's still eight months before an election. But if Murphy is making enough of a show of viability, maybe he's actually viable. He's raised a lot of money compared to those who went before him, he starts with a good base because of his time in the legislature, and it's possible that the national party people are coming here to support him because they believe he is viable. They know they have to beat a bunch of incumbents if they are going to take control of Congress, and I guess they wouldn't be wasting their time on Murphy if they didn't think he could help them do that.

Anyway like Genghis said, people on this blog (and in a lot of other places) seem to think there is something worth watching in this race.

Nobody can predict if he's going to win or not, but you've got to admit he's at least giving her something to worry about for a change.

By the way, even though I don't agree with your conclusion I like your bear story. It's very creative.

Anonymous said...

Better Murphy-- then crawling in bed with Nancy Johnson, Delay, and Bush!

The Republican agenda could never happen without the support of "Moderates" Shays, Simmons and Johnson.

Anonymous said...

i think what anon 9:54 was trying to say is that as a challenger murphy has no other option but to make this race a big thing and talk up his supposed viability. he's got an uphill climb and aside from that state senate seat absolutely nothing to lose, so why wouldn't he and the DCCC try to make a scene in the 5th? nothing to lose, nothing to risk, nothing to waste...sending in the national-level Dems isn't about thinking that he's worth it, it's about understanding that only good can come of it because there's really no where to go but up. so yes, for murphy appearance of viability is key, but that still places us in the realm of talking about what "seems" to be the case as opposed to what "is" the case. i honestly couldn't tell you who's pulling it off in november, i just know that i for one, as i have been for years, am taking all of this spin with a grain of salt.

Anonymous said...

The DCCC hand picked a war veteran to run in a suburban Chicago district and gave her unlimited money and resources. She won by about 1200 votes against a local with no endorsements and little money.

(BTW, the anointed candidate lost votes by moving into the district to run...hmmm...)

Chris, if Rahm Emanuel can barely deliver in a next door district, don;t hold your breath for him to deliver in CT

Anonymous said...

chris, i am sure you are following this string very closely. I have a question I hope you will answer--

Do you support Joe Lieberman or Ned Lamont?

Anonymous said...

Sarah Merriam was a CD Coordinator for Curry in '94 not the overall Field Director which was Peter Tercyak

Anonymous said...

Least we forget...when referring to Koskoff nailbiter... that was a different much more Democrat district. Granted, it was an extremely close race but the voter base was MUCH different.

MightyMouse1 said...

MikeCT: "I love you, Chris, thanks for the job at Senate Dems."

Murphy is 'progressive'??
nope he is a pure political BS'er.

Although great political move calling Plan B at 4:45 pm, can't have that on your hands when campaigning in the 5th.

The smartest campaign in this race is Vance's- raised his profile and then getting out.

Anonymous said...

Vance may have been smart to do that but Murphy is the one who is actually going after Johnson and can help us get rid of her once and for all. Just look at all the mud the Johnson people are throwing at him and you will know they are worried. I bet they already have a poll that says they are in trouble.

bluecoat said...

Push the hell oout of ConnDOt and they start to get smart. Here iin today's NHR they say something smart for a changelike State transportation officials said Wednesday that their long-term goal for reducing congestion along the I-95 corridor is to build new rail stations in both West Haven and Orange. the state has limited funds and it should be spending them where they have the maximum impact for the least amount of money like these two projects - and living on Fairfield County's Gold Coast thsy will rarely help me except to make the state better And what is wrong with that? Just as long as they don't put up big ass commercial parks next to them and negate the benefits.

MightyMouse1 said...

what mud? I have not seen Johnson even acknowledge her opponent yet.

bluecoat said...

Nancy is enetirely to tied to the insurance industry and the medical lobbby for me but at least here in today's New haven register she is willing to take on the IRS who appears to be getting a little tooo chummy with the IRS in looking for marketing venues.

bluecoat said...

I screwed up on the last post, I meant to say that the IRS was geting too chummy with H&R Block and other tax preparers that have no professional code of ethics unlike the CPA's.

And consistent with our dysfunctional transportation organiztional structure here is the Commuter rail Council challenging where their new train cars will be made in today'sne Norwalk Advocate when the legislature and governor should be doing that. All the CRC should have to concern themselves with is the delivery date and the quality of the new rail cars. Screwed up? You bet.

Anonymous said...

What was so smart about Vance's campaign??? Murphy kicked his a--!!!

Anonymous said...

really? did they run against each other?

Anonymous said...

Murphy never ran against Vance, he's been running against Johnson for almost a year.

Anonymous said...

the song RUNNING ON EMPTY comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

since when is half a million bucks "empty"?

Anonymous said...

NJ will spend that in the last week of the campaign

Anonymous said...

500k needs to be spent to make your boy seem like a candidate with some substance instead of one who is driven only by ambition.

Wolcottboy said...

Sen. Murphy is a viable candidate. He is now just as much as he was in 2002 and 1998- the first two races where he defeated long-time incumbants. And he's doing exactly what he says he's doing. He knows how to campaign, and in a brilliant way. Doesn't mean I'm going to vote for him of course.

First, no regular voter is really paying attention right now. Chris does have the Johnson loyalists in a tizzy though with them sounding back letters to the editor. Mud campaign? Yes. And the 5th CD knows that Johnson isn't as close to DeLay and Bush as he says she is. But they're still writing letters to his smoke, and he may just taint her reputation.

Her communication with the district? Since the last election (Maloney - but why couldn't Maloney beat her? There should be some parallels here because he was fairly well liked in the former 5th CD), there wasn't much of anything. Of course this could be due to the re-design and lack of reporters at the Waterbury paper.

There are some issues Murphy has brought up in this simple interview that he may have some fuel with, however. He's testing the waters now with what works, and in October will come out full force with the substance. That's when the voters will be making up their minds- with the A vs. B right in front of them. That and the mud biases thrown months before.

anonymous said...

No one needs to "taint her image", she's done enough damage to herself. Just look at her recent voting record. No amount of time in CT will make up for that.

Out with the old and in with the new-

Anonymous said...

"tainted image/reputation"??? back the truck up...Chris Murphy is nothing short of notorious when it comes to smearing his opponents, negativity is the boy's weapon of choice. you think that kind of thing is lost on voters?

by trying to make Johnson look inept at her job and out of touch with her district (which i guess explains why she's the senior member of CT's HR delegation, right?), he's doing more damage to himself than to her

anonymous said...

Murphy offers the energy and new ideas we so desperately need in DC right now. His leadership in the Senate, in particular his work as chair of The Public Health Committee highlight are impressive. The fact that he almost matched his opponant with in-state fundraising tells you what voters are thinking, they are ready for a change.
My gut tells me Chris is the one to watch.

Anonymous said...

Young Murphy did a great job as Chair of Public Health in the debate on Plan B. Especially when he compared the Catholic church to new age religions that use marajuana and heroin as part of their 'workship'. That should be popular in the 5th CD.

Anonymous said...

don't forget "peyote"...he threw that in there, too