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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    France’s Trump card to drag Courtney into a fight

    Republican candidate Mike France needs to do two things to have any chance of succeeding in his second attempt to unseat the incumbent Democrat, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney.

    France must erode Courtney’s popularity, which means turning the conversation to other things besides submarine construction, given the incumbent’s success in bringing defense dollars to the Second Congressional District. To go on the attack France must do the second thing, raise substantial campaign funding.

    In other words, France wants to drag Courtney into a fight and make him stop ignoring him, as the incumbent did in their 2022 contest. To accomplish that, France has decided to tightly align with the Trump power center that now dominates the Republican Party.

    A couple of weeks back France named Justin Clark, a Connecticut native, to serve as his chief campaign strategist. Clark worked as Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2020. Clark served in the Trump administration as director of intergovernmental affairs and director of public liaison.

    Arguably, a Republican candidate, to win a congressional seat in Connecticut, should run away from Trump, not toward him. This is a solid blue state. Trump lost Connecticut in both his presidential elections. Winning as a Republican candidate in Connecticut means attracting moderate independent voters and even some Democrats. Associating with Trump’s election denying, xenophobic approach would seem a good way to push those voters away.

    France has made a different calculation.

    To begin with, France is no moderate. During his service as state representative for the towns of Preston and Ledyard, France built a record as a staunch conservative. He believes a pro-Trump conservative can win in the Second District, which consists largely of the eastern half of the state.

    Demographically, the congressional district is hardly a lock for Democrats. It is true that Courtney has won his past eight re-elections with relative ease. But prior to his winning streak, the district was known for its extremely close elections. Courtney won the seat in 2006 by 91 votes, unseating Republican Rep. Rob Simmons.

    In 2022, Courtney won his ninth term, defeating France 58% to 40%.

    Solid Democrat or solid Courtney?

    The Cook Political Report considers the Second District as “solid Democrat,” meaning the election is “not considered competitive.” A closer look, however, shows that assessment is due more to Courtney’s own strength as a candidate, rather than the demographics of the district.

    Courtney is a likeable guy. He has positioned himself with committee assignments that help keep submarine construction dollars flowing into Connecticut. His office is good at constituent service, particularly veterans’ affairs. The incumbent keeps a high profile, showing up frequently for events across the district. Courtney brings home the bacon.

    The Cook Report gives the district a plus-3 Democrat rating using its Partisan Voting Index, meaning all things being equal it tilts slightly Democrat. Interestingly, the Fifth Congressional District carries the same plus-3 Democrat PVI. But there the Cook Report considers the district competitive, concluding the election only leans in favor of incumbent Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes in her rematch with Republican George Logan.

    Why the difference? Courtney is the better politician and, unlike Hayes, he is associated with the moderates in his House caucus, rather than the progressive wing.

    France wants to link Courtney to President Biden and, especially, to the crisis of illegal crossings at the southern border. In a June op-ed published by The Day, France connected the record number of illegal crossings to a crisis that has hit hard here in eastern Connecticut, the alarming number of overdoses and deaths caused by fentanyl. This is a GOP strategy nationally.

    The connection doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. While fentanyl is certainly crossing the border, and seizures are up, the evidence points to it being transmitted by trucks and passenger vehicles at ports of entry, most often by U.S. citizens, not carried in by migrants seeking asylum. Still, given perceptions, it could be an effective issue for France.

    In the June commentary, France criticized Courtney for joining his fellow Democrats in voting against the Secure Border Act, backed by the Republican House majority. That legislation focused exclusively on enforcement by calling for the building of more wall, more border agents, tougher penalties and severe restrictions on the right to seek asylum in the U.S.

    Since then, a compromise was reached in the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan bill would have balanced increased enforcement with speeding up the process for those who have a legal right to entry, while more quickly rejecting the claims of those who don’t. When House Republicans voiced their opposition, GOP support in the Senate quickly eroded, with Republican lawmakers taking directions from Donald Trump. Trump did not want to hand Biden any legislative immigration victories in an election year.

    Courtney can now counter that it was Republicans who stood in the way of addressing the border crisis.

    Can France make it rain?

    One would think Republicans would want to focus campaign dollars on the 22 House seats expected to be tightly contested and on the half-dozen that lean Republican but remain vulnerable. Why waste money on a Connecticut congressional district seen as a Democratic lock?

    But Trump and those marching in lockstep with him have shown they prioritize loyalty over electability when it comes to handing out primary endorsements and candidate support. The Trump wing is now dominant and firmly in control of the Republican Party. Trump disciple Michael Whatley, chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, was recently chosen to be chair of the Republican National Committee and Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law, was installed as co-chair.

    It remains to be seen if France’s decision to genuflect in the direction of the former president by picking a Trump insider to help direct his operation will seed the clouds and produce campaign dollars.

    In 2022, Courtney outspent France $2.5 million to $872,000, according to Federal Election Commission records.

    Concerning campaign spending, keep an eye on Old Lyme businessman J. David Kelsey. He is the founder of Hamilton Point Investments, owner of thousands of apartments across the country. Kelsey is also the primary funder of the CT Examiner, an online news site.

    According to FEC filings, Kelsey seeded the France campaign with $9,100 in January 2023 as it was getting the candidate’s second run off the ground. That was chump change for this conservative big spender. The Connecticut Mirror reported that Kelsey, via political action committees, spent $2.2 million in 2022 in support of Republican Bob Stefanowski in his Connecticut gubernatorial rematch with Ned Lamont. The Democrat handily won re-election.

    Will a Kelsey-backed PAC surface for France?

    Watch to see if Courtney, or PACs backing him, go on the attack against France. That will show whether France is being viewed as a serious threat to Courtney’s incumbency. In 2022, Courtney’s commercials and campaign materials were strictly positive, focusing largely on submarine construction in the district. The incumbent saw no need to give his opponent any attention by attacking.

    If Courtney chooses to attack this time, he has plenty of material. There is France’s now tighter ties with Trump. There is France’s WFSB interview in which he stated he would support a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks, stripping Connecticut of control on the issue. And there is France’s opposition when in the legislature to popular state laws that boosted the minimum wage and provided family leave support.

    Will France’s gambit make this race competitive? My expectation is it will not. But it might make it uglier.

    Paul Choiniere is the former editorial page editor of The Day, now retired. He can be reached at p.choiniere@yahoo.com.

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