Posted 6/11/12

Up Or Down?

Senate Candidate
Linda McMahon

Photo by Steve Kotchko

This past week saw the political fortunes of one major candidate in Connecticut go up while those of another well-known pol went down.  The lucky contender is Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Linda McMahon, the GOP convention-endorsed candidate. The unfortunate one is Democratic House Speaker Christopher Donovan, now running for Congress.

McMahon, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2010, has been the frontrunner in the GOP nomination fight for months, but past polls showed that despite her party backing, she did not do that well in hypothetical matchups with the likely Democratic nominee U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy.  And after all, it’s the November election that counts, not any popularity contest inside your own party.

Former congressman Christopher Shays, McMahon’s rival for the GOP Senate nod, lost the convention endorsement to her by a two-to-one margin, though he had more than enough delegates to force a primary.  Shays’ calling card has been that he is the stronger opponent vs. the Democrats.  Indeed in the March 2012 Quinnipiac University Poll, Shays lost to Murphy in a hypothetical matchup by just one percentage point—obviously a tossup, while McMahon lost to the Democrat by 15 points.

That was then, this is now.  The latest Quinnipiac Poll (June 6) flips things around.  McMahon still loses to Murphy but by just three points—again, a tossup, while Shays lost a lot of ground—and loses to Murphy by eight points.

House Speaker
Chris Donovan

Photo by Steve Kotchko

Why the change?  “McMahon’s improvement in the general election against Murphy is due to her better performance among independent voters,” according to Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.  “She (McMahon) is the only (Senate candidate) who is doing television advertising right now, so she is much better known (than her rivals),” he explained.

If the fizz has gone flat in Shays’ argument that he’s a stronger GOP choice against the Democrats, the news isn’t any better in-house.  The Q-Poll also shows McMahon has opened up a 29 point advantage over Shays when Republican voters were asked who they prefer to be their nominee.  In the March poll, McMahon had a thinner nine point lead on that question.

The McMahon camp has a reason to smile as they head for the August 14th GOP Senate primary, while the Shays team may need to find a new “hook” in their pitch to persuade Republicans they should back the ex-congressman instead.

As for the other pol in our spotlight, Donovan, the usually affable House Speaker has looked pretty grim at media appearances ever since the FBI busted his campaign finance director on charges that he tried to hide the true source of certain campaign contributions that may have been part of a scheme to buy influence with Donovan.

The arrest and its aftermath caused a political earthquake in the 5th District congressional campaign.  Many observers thought Donovan was on his way to Washington in that contest that includes two other Democrats and four Republican hopefuls all heading toward their respective primaries on August 14th.

Instead of quickly and publicly proclaiming his innocence, as many elected officials advised, Donovan fired the arrested finance chief Robert Braddock, as well as his campaign manager Josh Nassi, and a third employee who worked on campaign finances.  Donovan hired a personal lawyer, and a new campaign manager Tom Swan, and then asked Swan to address the media.

A few days later, Donovan did hold his own news conference, but declined to answer many questions claiming “I can’t and won’t speculate about the investigation.”  Donovan made a similar statement later in the week when he attended a labor rally on his behalf—held in Hartford, not in his own congressional district.

“Let me be clear about this:  At no time did I know that anyone might have been trying to funnel illegal contributions to my campaign,” said Donovan.  “No one ever made a deal with me as a quid pro quo,” he maintained.

The House Speaker said he was as “shocked” as the public about the allegations and arrest and said the troubling news felt “like getting punched in the stomach.”

While expressing surprise certainly is better than having to admit some guilt, Donovan is still wide open to criticism from all of his rivals that he is incompetent as a candidate, apparently unaware that key members of his staff allegedly were collecting contributions fast and loose with no respect for federal rules, and perhaps with an eye to using Donovan’s considerable power as House Speaker to lure contributors who wanted to kill a bill.  The legislation would have taxed roll-your-own cigarette businesses.  It was never voted on in the House or Senate.

When a candidate or elected official refuses to answer all pertinent questions in a brewing controversy, the strength of a campaign can erode in a dramatic fashion.  Investigative reporters are digging into the story and several details about contributors and operatives identified only by code names in the lengthy federal affidavit in the case already have surfaced.  One can only wonder if other “shoes” will drop.

This week, Donovan must participate and vote in a legislative special session.  While he claims he is moving full speed ahead in his congressional bid, Donovan did decide to step away from exercising his authority as Speaker, saying he would not negotiate with other legislative leaders and the Governor on bills to be considered in the session.  One of those measures could revive the measure to tax roll-your-own cigarette businesses.

So as McMahon’s prospects brighten, Donovan’s have dimmed.  As they say in the political trade, that’s why they have elections.  In the end, the people get to decide.

Follow Steve Kotchko on Twitter for news and insider tidbits on politics and government@CRN_News