Vivek Suri

When Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-New Britain, resigned in April, few expected the race to fill her seat to yield much drama. But the primaries, which took place in August, grabbed national attention when a charismatic newcomer claimed the Democratic nomination.

The 5th congressional district winds through northwestern Connecticut, encompassing New Britain, part of Waterbury and a corner of New Haven County. Esty stepped down in April after she was found to have mishandled complaints of sexual harassment against her chief of staff. In their respective primaries, Republicans nominated former Meriden Mayor Manny Santos, while Democratic candidate Jahana Hayes, a former national “Teacher of the Year,” won the nomination in an upset against establishment pick Mary Glassman, a longtime local officeholder.

But Hayes, who has never held a public office, ended up winning decisively with her energetic campaign style and inspiring personal stories.

“Nobody thought she would be able to win at first,” said Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University. “She is really a sensation.”

Hayes was born in a Waterbury housing project, weathered homelessness in her childhood, worked her way through community college to become a history teacher and was recognized by President Barack Obama as the teacher of the year in 2016. If Hayes wins, she will become the first black woman to represent Connecticut in Congress.

The three Republican primary candidates were not widely known and generally flew under the radar in the primary, according to Rose. Santos, a mechanical engineer who immigrated from Portugal and become mayor of Meriden, won with the party’s endorsement despite raising very little money.

Hayes is widely considered the favorite to win in the fall election. Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight rated the race as “safe Democratic,” while Sabato’s Crystal Ball offered a “likely Democratic” rating. Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said Santos still has a chance to win, considering the district’s relatively competitive electorate, but the national pro-Democrat climate as well as Hayes’ personal charisma will tilt the race heavily to the left.

“You would not expect the president’s party to win an open seat [in the midterm] which the president did not win in the last election,” Kondik said. “Hayes also has significantly more resources than Santos.”

Still, J.R. Romano, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said that the voters will respond positively to the rapid economic growth in recent months and recoil at Democrats’ habitual resistance to President Donald Trump’s policies. Voters will come to prioritize policy issues over personality, Romano said, and they will not support a Democratic candidate bent on “higher taxes on the middle class” and a more lenient stance on illegal immigration.

Nick Balletto, chair of the Connecticut Democratic Party, cautioned that Democrats cannot be lulled by favorable polling results, as they can sometimes be inaccurate, as they were in the 2016 election. Still, he said that the party is confident Hayes will win the race come November with her “energetic and refreshing” personality.

Other factors may also swing the race. Romano noted that the outgoing Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy is unpopular in the state, which may feed discontent at liberal policies and work to undermine Hayes. But Kondik cautioned that Malloy’s lack of popularity, as well as the scandal that forced Esty’s resignation, may not end up playing a major role in the election, as House races are mostly influenced by the national climate rather than state-level politics.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 carried the 5th Congressional district by 4 points in 2016.

Malcolm Tang | jiawei.tang@yale.edu