James H. Maloney (D) vs. Gary Franks (R) – 1996
If a challenger unseating a congressional incumbent is rare, a two-time challenger unseating an incumbent is almost unheard of. Charlotte Koskoff, Ed Munster and many others know this. Once in a while, though, the impossible happens.
Former State Senator James H. Maloney had survived a contentious primary to win the Democratic nomination in the Waterbury-centered 5th District in 1994, but had lost to Republican incumbent Gary Franks by a few percentage points. In 1996 he returned, and captured the nomination without a primary. With the Democratic Party united behind him, he was free to go on the attack against Franks.
Franks, on the other hand, was an extremely divisive and prickly figure. He had been elected to the seat in 1990, succeeding Rep. John G. Rowland, who was running for governor. Franks was the first black Republican to be elected to Congress in fifty years, but his stands against liberalism and affirmative action drew the ire of the Congressional Black Caucus. Democrat William Clay, who had tried to block Franks’ entry into the caucus, accused him of being something of an Uncle Tom:
…Fellow black House member William L. Clay (D-Mo.) ripped into Franks (R-Conn.) for promoting a "foot-shuffling, head-scratching `Amos and Andy' brand of `Uncle Tomism,' " and damned him as a "Negro Dr. Kevorkian" who "gleefully assists in suicidal conduct to destroy his own race."
"It's a dispute I have with black people who have sold their race out," said Clay, a liberal from St. Louis. He lumped Franks, a suburban moderate, together with black conservatives like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom he described as "a snake." (Gugliotta)
Franks also made enemies on the Republican side:
He also annoyed powerful allies, once calling House Speaker Newt Gingrich a liar after a parliamentary dispute, alleging in a controversial book that Rowland committed election-law improprieties, and talking openly about running for the Senate in 1998 -- before Tuesday's election was even over. (McIntire)
Election law impropreties? Rowland? Never. Still, an October poll showed Franks 19 points ahead of Maloney—at which point the National Republican Congressional Committee shut down some of his funding.
Maloney clawed his way back into the race, with the help of organizations like the AFL-CIO and Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, which poured millions into anti-Franks “issue ads” (Noel). Maloney’s campaign also aired negative ads, including one which portrayed Franks as a slumlord owning rat-infested buildings. Franks, for some reason, was slow to respond to the many attacks against him.
One factor that can’t be ignored in the race is Bill Clinton’s strong showing in Connecticut, which, combined with all of these other factors, resulted in a Maloney victory. After the election, Franks railed against all those who he felt had let him down—not once pointing the finger at himself.
McIntire, Mike and Michael Remez. “Franks Blames GOP, Liberals, Labor and Rat Ads for his Loss.” Hartford Courant Nov 7, 1996.
Noel, Don. “Costly ‘Issue Ads’ Tilt the 5th District Playing Field.” Hartford Courant. Oct 4, 1996.
Gugliotta, Guy. “Defeated Rep. Franks Accused of `Uncle Tomism’.” The Washington Post Nov 21, 1996.
Rob Simmons (R) vs. Sam Gejdenson (D) – 2000
Rep. Sam Gejdenson was no stranger to tough races. First elected to Congress in 1980, he never seemed to have a comfortable margin of victory. He had survived especially close shaves against the hilariously-named Ed Munster during the 1990s—including one race that came down to only a handful of votes. Gejdenson was an excellent fundraiser and a strong campaigner.
His toughest challenge came in the form of State Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Stonington), a former CIA officer whose no-holds-barred style of campaigning would be Gejdenson’s undoing in 2000.
Simmons started out at a serious disadvantage. Early polls showed him trailing by 28 points, and his fundraising always lagged behind Gejdenson’s. Simmons, a tenacious fighter by nature, took the fight to Gejdenson and closed the gap. His contention that Gejdenson actually lived outside the district struck a nerve with 2nd District voters:
Television ads played a key role in the campaign. Against the advice of Washington consultants, Simmons aired an ad in September that introduced him to voters. At the time, Simmons trailed Gejdenson by 28 percentage points according to internal GOP polls.
A poll taken after the commercial ran showed Simmons had closed the gap by 11 points. His new standing was enough for him to convince his supporters to give him the financial support he needed to run more ads.
He followed with a commercial showing an ornate iron gate swinging shut as an announcer accused Gejdenson of living outside the district, in Branford, where his wife owns a shoreline home. (Dee)
In the end, it was Simmons’s contention that Gejdenson had lost touch with his constituents that finally put the longtime congressman away.
Asked to name the biggest change in Gejdenson in 20 years, U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd replied: "His hair."
It was meant as a compliment, the idea that Gejdenson could remain true to his beliefs, even as the country grew more conservative. But it also had a second meaning: Gejdenson in recent years stopped letting his hair fall across his forehead. He began brushing it back, a trivial matter that voters actually seized on during the campaign.
Sam had become slick.
The jibe resonated, perhaps, because of the humble image Gejdenson had when he was elected at age 26 to the state legislature in 1974, the post-Watergate election. Unable to afford a car, he used to regularly hitchhike to the state Capitol. (Pazniokas)
Gejdenson attacked Simmons in turn, but voters, apparently, were finally ready for a change. Gejdenson lost 51%-49%: a narrow loss in a year of close races.
Dee, Jane. “Simmons Ousts Gejdenson in Bitterly Contested Race.” Hartford Courant Nov 8, 2000.
Pazniokas, Mark. “The Rise and Fall of “Just Sam:” Gejdenson’s Long Incumbency Defied Laws of Politics.” Hartford Courant Nov 12, 2000.
Gejdenson, Franks, Ratchford and DeNardis all had one thing in common: they never saw it coming. Each man felt a certain complacency, although of all of the candidates perhaps Gejdenson felt it least, since his district was such a contentious one.
Each challenger, from Morrison and Rowland to Maloney and Simmons, fought intense, tough, relentless campaigns against their opponents. None of them were particularly afraid to go negative and expose the faults—real or perceived—of the incumbent.
How will Chris Murphy, Diane Farrell and Joe Courtney run their campaigns this year? Will they be like the successful challengers have been? Will they always be on the offensive, always on the move, finding the weaknesses of their opponents? Or will we see yet another year in which all incumbents are safe?
Of perhaps more importance is the mood of the voters. Will this actually be a Democratic year? Or will it be an anti-incumbent year? People are fed up with the GOP, but they have yet to embrace the formless, unispiring Democrats. Maybe the rallying cry this year will be “Kick the bums out!” If that’s the case, Shays, Johnson and Simmons ought to start worrying.
No matter what, it ought to be great fun to watch. Connecticut, as illustrated above, does have a history of contentious, interesting congressional races. This year ought to be no different.