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.”
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.