5TH DISTRICT RACE Hayes vs. Santos; stark differences
On paper, the contrast couldn’t be greater between the two candidates for Connecticut’s most competitive congressional seat.
Democrat Jahana Hayes is a charismatic first-time candidate who raised the most money in the 5th District primary and has the support of top Democrats, who have promised to help her raise money for the Nov. 6 election.
In contrast, Republican Manny Santos is a reserved Marine veteran and former mayor of Meriden who raised the least money in the primary race, and whose support from the GOP stops short of offers to help with fund-raising.
Santos’ comfortable primary win Tuesday as the endorsed candidate over two challengers earned him regional media attention, but it hasn’t been enough to land him on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s three-tiered preferred candidates program called Top Guns.
In contrast, Hayes’ upset victory over the endorsed Democrat last week has earned Hayes national media attention, and landed her on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top-tier candidates program called Red to Blue.
To voters in the 5th District, who are often characterized as more conservative than anywhere else in the state, the biggest difference between the candidates may be that Hayes is a traditional Democrat and Santos is a Trump Republican.
“There is a reason the 5th is a swing district,” says Scott McLean, a professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. “Anything can happen.”
Washington insiders will believe it when they see it. Election forecasters predict a solid win for Democrats in Connecticut’s 5th District, which stretches from greater Danbury to Massachusetts, and which has seen more Democrats register to vote since 2012 than Republicans and unaffiliated voters combined.
Hayes and Santos had little time last week to savor their primary victories, and began planning for the midterm elections three months away.
As much as the primary season was a proving ground for Hayes, who would be Connecticut’s first African-American Democratic Congresswoman, and Santos, who would be the state’s first Portuguese-born Congressman, the real test is ahead.
The reason: 45 percent of eligible voters sat out of Tuesday’s primaries, because they are not registered with either party.
Although Hayes and Santos admitted having their work cut out for them - Hayes because she’s a first-time candidate and Santos because he can’t keep up with Hayes’ aggressive fund-raising - neither candidate plans to make drastic changes.
“One thing my campaign has proven is my message doesn’t change with different audiences,” said Hayes, who was campaigning on Friday with U.S. Sen. Chris Hayes, who encouraged her to run. “I present myself in a way that both Republicans and Democrats can identify with what I am talking about.”
Santos said there is no reason to upgrade his low-key campaign, because what wins elections is not money but the right candidate with the right message.
“Jahana Hayes has Chris Murphy supporting her ... and I am a guy trying to make a difference who doesn’t have the big money or the big political support,” said Santos. “I am going to continue to run a grassroots campaign with volunteers and rely on word-of-mouth.”
Washington meanwhile is watching with interest the race for Connecticut’s only open seat in the House of Representatives. The seat is being vacated by three-term Democrat Elizabeth Esty, who dropped re-election plans in April after revealing that she covered up an office abuse scandal.
Esty’s exit raised the stakes in a election year that has seen a surge in voter registration. Young voter registration in Connecticut is up 200 percent compared to the same period after the 2014 presidential election, for example.
“We support Manny,” said Chris Martin, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, who would not say what help the NRCC would lend Santos. “As the first Republican-elected Mayor of Meriden, he’s running on a strong record of working across the aisle to solve problems.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is so sold on Hayes that it added her to its “highly competitive and battle-tested” candidate promotion program, Red to Blue. The program offers Hayes fundraising support, strategic guidance, and candidate training.
“It’s clear the energy and momentum is behind Jahana’s powerful bid for Congress,” said DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan in a prepared statement. “I know this open seat will remain in Democratic hands come November.”
Although Hayes and Santos don’t foresee major campaign changes, they each plan to make adjustments.
Hayes, who is weighing a leave of absence from her job as supervisor of talent and professional development at Waterbury schools, wants to move the focus off her story as a teenage mom who rose to become the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, and put the spotlight on the leader she has become.
“All of those experiences helped inform my decision-making and my work ethic and my problem-solving capacity and my tenacity and my grit,” Hayes said.
Santos, an engineer who works as a business capacity analyst, will talk more in his campaign about the forces that made him a leader - his service in Operation Desert Storm, and his early childhood in rural Portugal, growing up in a home without electricity or running water.
“We will make a more concerted effort to do that,” Santos said of plans to tell his story.
Quinnipiac’s McLean said Santos’ story is as compelling as Hayes,’ but it will be hard for Santos to tell it if he can’t reach voters.
Before the primary, Hayes raised more than $500,000, which was spent on CNN and Facebook ads. Santos raised $26,000 and relied on social media posts.
“The money is something you can’t deny,” McLean said. “Voters see the money in the form of ads.”