Editorial: Connecticut needs a viable Republican Party

The unsettling saga of Robert Hyde, a Connecticut resident who may or may not have been involved in a plot against a U.S. ambassador, has raised questions about the president and his associates’ actions in Ukraine. Closer to home, it’s put a renewed focus on the Fifth District congressional race, where Hyde calls himself a candidate even as virtually no Republicans claimed to know anything about him.

Whether that would matter is an open question. It’s not hard to imagine an otherwise unknown candidate who seems to have entree to the highest levels of Trumpworld — see his selfies with the president and members of his inner circle — could ride that notoriety to a primary victory. The rules changed in 2016, and it would be naïve to think a candidate with Hyde’s credentials — or lack thereof — shouldn’t be taken seriously. Of course he would be a viable candidate for the Republican nomination.

But that’s a far cry from winning. First-term U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes is theoretically the most vulnerable House member in Connecticut, and a number of more-legitimate Republican candidates are preparing to challenge her. But “most competitive seat in Connecticut” isn’t saying much. In looking ahead to the U.S. House races for this fall, it’s hard to find a single national prognosticator that has CT-5 on a map of key races. Every prediction has it as safely Democratic, along with the other four Connecticut House districts. (The state has no U.S. Senate race this year.)

Anything could happen, and it’s too soon to say any race is a sure thing. But people who follow politics for a living have all but given up on a Republican winning a U.S. House seat in Connecticut for another cycle, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The Republican Party has some known names in the state, but they rarely if ever challenge for federal seats.

Nearly every one of them, from Len Fasano to Themis Klarides to Bob Stefanowski, appears to view state government as their ceiling, and the effect is to cede to one party a generation of representation at the federal level. Potential candidates including Erin Stewart, the mayor of New Britain, have stayed unconvinced that they should jump into higher-profile races.

The 2018 race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination included a spate a candidates with wider potential, including Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst and entrepreneur Steve Obsitnik. Of that group, only Obsitnik has taken on a congressional campaign.

This can’t go on.

The last competitive House race in Connecticut might have been in the Fifth District in 2012. The seat was open because the incumbent, Chris Murphy, ran for Senate, leaving a little-known Democrat, Elizabeth Esty, to emerge from a scandal-plagued primary process to face a well-liked Republican, Andrew Roraback. Esty nonetheless won 51 percent of the vote, and that was it for major competition. When Esty did not run in 2018 following a scandal in her office, Republicans were unable to find a viable candidate to oppose Hayes, and the race was never seriously in doubt.

That’s the case around the state. John Larson, Joe Courtney and Rosa DeLauro, who represent Districts One, Two and Three, respectively, have gone unchallenged for years. Jim Himes, in the Fourth District, beat long-term incumbent Christopher Shays in 2008 and eked out his re-election in 2010, but it’s been smooth sailing since then.

The only Republican to put up a fight in Senate races lately has been Linda McMahon, who poured $100 million of her own money into two races at the start of the last decade. Neither attempt came all that close, possibly scaring off other Republicans from even trying.

This isn’t a healthy situation. Connecticut is well-represented by its delegation, including Hayes as its newest member, but legitimate competition is essential to maintaining a vital democracy. Whether it’s a change in leadership or a commitment to taking on difficult challenges, the state Republican Party needs to find a way to compete on the national level.

If Robert Hyde is the best known Republican congressional candidate in the state, and he is, it’s a sign of a party in deep distress.