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Another political office is up for grabs in Connecticut.

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty LAW ’85, D-Conn., announced on April 2 that she would not seek re-election in Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District, setting the stage for a heated competition akin to this year’s gubernatorial race. Esty was expected to easily win re-election, but her announcement — which followed the revelation that she covered up sexual misconduct allegations against her chief of staff — has freed a seat no one thought would be available.

Now, the question is who will fill her position.

“I think the boring, general answer is that this [race] is going to be contested on both sides,” said Colin McEnroe ’76, local radio host and political analyst. “There is no consensus candidate in either party.”

But McEnroe, who is teaching a political journalism course at Yale this semester, said the potential Republican candidates may be easier to identify. He singled out state Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville/New Britain, as the strongest potential candidate. Petit, who became a widely known figure after the 2007 murder of his wife and two children, considered competing for the 5th District in 2014 but ultimately decided against a run.

Petit confirmed last Wednesday that he may enter the fray this time around.

One Republican candidate may shift her campaign for governor toward the congressional seat. New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart has been discussed as a potential candidate by politicians in the capital, according to media reporters — an assessment that McEnroe said he shares. Still, with her gubernatorial campaign having raised more than $100,000 in contributions, it remains to be seen whether she will jump into the race.

Stewart has publicly stated she is not interested in pursuing the 5th District seat, but McEnroe cautioned against accepting that demurral at face value at such an early point in the campaign.

An April 2 article in the Hartford Courant highlighted other potential Republican candidates, including state Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, businessman Mark Greenberg, state Rep. Rob Sampson, R-Southington, and Clay Cope, who was defeated by Esty in 2016.

Republican Manny Santos, former mayor of Meriden, announced his candidacy in February 2018, before Esty decided not to seek re-election.

On the Democratic side, the picture is even more unclear — primarily because the party assumed Esty would run. Mary Glassman, the first selectman of Simsbury from 2007 to 2014, declared her candidacy right after Esty made her announcement, making her the first Democrat to enter the race.

“She declared around the time Esty put the last period on the last sentence of her announcement,” McEnroe said.

Dan Roberti of Kent, who ran for the Democratic nomination against Esty in 2012, has also been mentioned as a potential candidate. The April 2 Courant story listed Neil O’Leary, the mayor of Waterbury, state Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, and Dante Bartolomeo, a former state senator, as other possible Democratic contenders.

Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley, who both lost their sons during the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, are also reportedly considering a run, according to a Tuesday Stamford Advocate article. The two, who are co-founders of the nonprofit organization Sandy Hook Promise, have said only one of them would run and that they will make a decision soon.

Whoever succeeds in securing the Democratic and Republican nominations will enter a race that has national implications. In addition to holding on to all of their 192 seats in the upcoming election, Democrats need to flip 24 Republican seats in November to regain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. So, if they are unable to hold on to their seats, like Connecticut’s 5th District, the task will become much more difficult.

Republicans, on the other hand, would gain a voice in the state’s seven-person congressional delegation, which has been entirely Democratic since Republican Christopher Shays lost the 4th District in 2008.

The situation in the House may bring national attention to the race, said Communications Director for the Connecticut Democrats Christina Polizzi. She predicted greater voter mobilization as a result of the national spotlight, but emphasized that the party will focus on grassroots support.

McEnroe expects the national focus on this race to attract party money. In the gubernatorial race, another up-in-the-air election, the Republican Governors Association announced Monday that it would reserve $1.7 million for television advertising during the final six weeks leading up to the election. Although it’s still early, McEnroe said, a similar injection of funds could be on the way in this race.

The composition of the 5th District is conducive to a partisan battle. Although Esty won re-election by 16 points in 2016, the district, located in the northwestern portion of the state, is almost equally split between Democrats and Republicans, with a large bloc of unaffiliated voters. Two of the district’s largest cities — Danbury and New Britain — are both run by Republican mayors.

“This is a district which is truly a tossup,” said J.R. Romano, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, in a televised interview with Fox 61 on Sunday. McEnroe described the 5th as Connecticut’s “ground fighting district.”

Still, Polizzi noted that most experts say the district leans Democratic. The Cook Political Report, a widely respected, nonpartisan organization that analyzes U.S. elections, still has the race pegged as “likely Democratic.”

“The Democrats have so much energy on their side, and the momentum we have is going to continue until election day,” Polizzi said.

McEnroe sees two potential scenarios in the district: Either a big blue wave, fueled by anti-Trump sentiment, will rise up and carry the Democratic candidate to victory or widespread dissatisfaction with Gov. Dannel Malloy and other Democrats in the state will put a Republican in power. Based on special election results in Connecticut and across the country, however, McEnroe said he believes the first scenario is more likely.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy represented the 5th District in Congress between 2007 and 2013.

Conor Johnson |