It's a brilliant September Sunday, and U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy is striding across driveways in Tariffville, trawling for votes one door at a time, like a guy running for small-town selectman.
Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut's 5th District, tells a woman in a Red Sox T-shirt that he wants to bring "new blood" to Washington, and repeatedly invokes the idea of "change," this season's political watchword.
He surged into office on the strength of the same mantra two years ago. But it's a lot easier to paint yourself as a change agent when you're the brash newcomer battling a 12-term incumbent, instead of the sitting congressman who belongs to the party that holds the power in the House.
"I'm still a reformer at heart," Murphy says. "That doesn't stop after you've been in office two years. ... I don't think anyone expects a first-term congressman to change the entire world."
At 35, he continues to project the image of a baby-faced wunderkind. Two years ago, he did what many had deemed not doable: He dislodged Nancy Johnson, a well-liked, moderate Republican who was first elected to Congress when Murphy was in grade school. A confluence of factors played a role in Johnson's defeat, including her decision to go negative in campaign ads, the decreasing hold of the Republican Party in the Farmington Valley and an unpopular war in Iraq.
Now Murphy is the incumbent, albeit a fragile one.
"What we know from political science literature is that candidates are most vulnerable the first time they run for re-election," says Douglas C. Foyle, associate professor of government at Wesleyan University. "Statistically speaking ... if he gets past this election, he's likely to be in a fairly safe seat for a while."
The 5th District sprawls from Hartford's western suburbs to the New York border. Voters here are tough to characterize, says Christopher Kukk, a political scientist who teaches at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. "There's a strong streak of independence here, both in the political and social realm."
Murphy's Republican opponent, state Sen. David Cappiello, a rising GOP starfrom Danbury, has hammered him on energy policy, for missing a couple of key votes in Congress and for collecting campaign contributions from lobbyists. Canton attorney Harold Burbank, a member of the Green Party, is also running.
In the all-important money-raising part of the campaign, the most recent records show that Murphy has $1.9 million on hand, compared with $710,000 for Cappiello. Those numbers are sure to rise in mid-October, when updated campaign finance reports are due.
"The Chris Murphy of two years ago would likely not vote for the Chris Murphy of today," says Adam Bauer, Cappiello's spokesman.
Bauer says he understands that it's "not reasonable" to expect a freshman congressman to change the world. "But what you can do is expect your congressman to take a stand and follow through within his capacity to do so ... to live up to the promises he's made," Bauer says. "He criticized Nancy Johnson for collecting money from special interests. This is a guy who has raised close to a million dollars from the very same types of sources that Johnson did."
Murphy counters that he has made 99 percent of the votes in Congress, "the exact same percentage Cappiello has in the state legislature." Murphy says he didn't "flip-flop" on energy, as Cappiello asserts, but rather agreed to a compromise on offshore oil drilling because he didn't want to hold up the energy bill.
As for the campaign contribution criticism, Murphy says he has taken money from political action committees, just as Cappiello has. "But the vast majority is from individuals, and that will continue to be the case," he says. "Johnson was taking record amounts of money from industries she was doing favors for."
He cites his efforts to shepherd federal money toward open-space preservation and the establishment of a citizens' review board to monitor congressional ethics as cornerstones of his freshman term.
It's The Economy
No one answering the doors in Tariffville wants to talk about those issues. There's really only one thing on voters' minds this year.
"The war was No. 1, but now the economy has stepped over it," says Dorothy Cohen, a retired data entry technician. Cohen, an unaffiliated voter, initially supported Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. She now intends to vote for Barack Obama — and Murphy.
In this Tariffville neighborhood known as The Heights, ranch houses and capes predominate: This isn't the Simsbury of McMansions and big money.
Murphy says he loves going door-to-door, even though he will only meet a fraction of the district's voters. It's such a key part of his public persona that he made a television ad about it.
"We've tried to reinvent the way a congressional office works. That's why we've been out knocking on doors, that's why virtually every weekend I set up a card table outside a supermarket," he says. "People fundamentally want to know their member of Congress is listening."
People like Len Bergeron. "I've got really mixed feelings about this big buyout," says the 57-year-old engineer. "I pay my mortgage, let them pay theirs."
But Bergeron realizes that the situation is more complicated. "If these big institutions fail, we all sink," he says. "I really don't know what the answer is."
Murphy, a member of the financial services committee, says he, too, is struggling. "Your head is where mine is," he tells Bergeron.
Murphy joined 262 other House members Friday in voting for the economic bailout bill that passed.
Bergeron says he isn't sure who will get his vote for Congress. He's a registered Republican with a strong libertarian streak: "On a bunch of issues, I don't think the Republican Party is conservative enough."
He doesn't know enough about Cappiello to commit to him yet. "The presidential election is sucking up all the oxygen right now," Bergeron observes.
The strength of Barack Obama should boost Murphy's prospects, says WestConn's Kukk. Perhaps that's why most of the national political handicappers have the district going Democratic this year.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times