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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Murphy has $9M million in campaign coffers. Critics say it’s overkill

    Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

    With less than seven months remaining until Election Day, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy holds a commanding lead in the money race for reelection with more than $9 million in the bank.

    The two-term Democrat has been developing a national profile on issues like gun control, immigration, and the Middle East war in Gaza, but he is simultaneously focusing on a bid to win a third term representing Connecticut.

    Murphy announced last week that he had raised $1.4 million in the just-concluded first quarter, which boosted his cash on hand beyond $9 million. Of that, 97% of the contributions were $100 or less.

    “Abortion rights, gun safety, the future of our democracy – it’s all on the line in November,” Murphy said. “Representing the people of Connecticut in Washington is the best job in the world, and I’m grateful for their generous support.”

    Murphy’s three potential opponents, Republicans First Selectman Gerard “Gerry” Smith of the small town of Beacon Falls, former portfolio manager John J. Flynn of Norwalk, and landscaper Robert F. Hyde of Simsbury, do not have widespread name recognition and have never held statewide office.

    In the same way, many voters would be unable to recall the name of Murphy’s 2018 opponent. The answer is Matthew Corey, a hard-working Republican restaurant owner and high-rise window washer who lost to Murphy by about 60% to 40%.

    Saying that he raised $34,000 in this year’s first quarter, Smith conceded that collecting money is difficult without the Republican nomination that he is seeking at the party’s convention in New Britain on May 13. He is also trying to capture at least 85% of the delegates in order to block an August primary so that he can focus exclusively on Murphy, who has a war chest that Smith said is not necessary in a small state like Connecticut.

    “I definitely think it’s overkill,” Smith told the Courant in an interview. “Money is not going to win this election, and money won’t lose the election. Do I need $9 million? No. But I need significantly more than I have. … It’s tough enough to raise money as a Republican in this state, and if I need to raise money to fight another Republican [in a primary] before I can even raise the money to fight a Democrat, it just would be insane.”

    In a blue state where Republicans have not won a U.S. Senate race since Lowell Weicker in 1982, Murphy said he still needs to fundraise in case a wealthy millionaire or billionaire decides to run at the relative last minute. He won his first Senate race in 2012 against professional wrestling entrepreneur Linda McMahon, who spent $50 million of her own money in a losing effort.

    “I just never take any election for granted,” Murphy told the Courant in an interview. “I’ve had the experience of running against someone who had an unlimited personal war chest, and you always have to be prepared for that reality or the potential for anonymous, outside corporate groups to come in and spend lots of money on your race. My responsibility is to be ready for any potential infusions of money into the race.”

    Murphy declined to comment on his opponents or criticize any Republican as he sits on the huge campaign cash advantage.

    “I think I’ll probably run a race very much like the race I ran in 2018: focused on the work I’ve done and not likely focused on my opponent,” Murphy said.

    Murphy, 50, has rocketed to national attention as one of the leading advocates of gun control in the U.S. Senate after helping negotiate the most far-reaching, bipartisan gun bill in the past three decades.

    After 10 years of fighting unsuccessfully for gun safety laws, he was skeptical in 2022 that anything would change after 19 children and two teachers were killed in a shooting massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, by a gunman with an AR-15 rifle.

    Murphy delivered an impassioned speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate that gained nationwide attention, and he then headed into closed-door talks that led to a major, unexpected, bipartisan compromise.

    “We had a breakthrough in 2022,” Murphy said. “After 30 years of inaction, we finally broke the deadlock and passed legislation that has saved a lot of lives. Urban gun crime is down 12% in the country since we passed the gun bill in 2022. That’s something to be really proud of, but it makes me very eager to continue the work. I feel like we’re finally on the other side of this mountain, where we can now regularly pass legislation at the state level and the federal level that tightens our gun laws.”

    The new law largely closes the “boyfriend loophole” to block those convicted of domestic violence in the future from legally buying a gun, makes more sellers register as federally licensed firearms dealers so that they must conduct criminal background checks on potential buyers, and allows more time to check the mental health and juvenile records for those under 21 seeking to buy a gun. The bill law also cracks down on illegal gunrunners, earmarks money for community violence prevention and provides $15 billion for addressing mental health issues, often cited as a reason for mass shootings.

    Along with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, Murphy is credited with helping mold the bipartisan coalition that voted 65-33 with 15 Republicans breaking with their party to vote for the bill with the Democrats.

    The anniversary of the new law was commemorated when Murphy invited President Joe Biden to the University of Hartford in June 2023 for a national gun summit, where Biden renewed his call to ban assault weapons.

    Concerning the future, Murphy said, “I know our work isn’t done until we pass universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. I think that can happen in the next five years, and I’m determined to continue to play a leading role on making it happen.”

    Smith takes a sharply opposite view, saying that no additional gun regulations are needed.

    “I’m a pro-Second Amendment guy, and I believe everybody should have the right to bear arms,” Smith said. “If there was a deterrent when you commit a crime with a gun, and if we were actually prosecuting criminals the way we used to, and not defunding the police and promoting this Wild West attitude out there, I think people would be a whole lot less quick to commit violent crimes with guns. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of crimes done with weapons that were duly licensed by the handler. Your Second Amendment, permit-carrying resident of the state of Connecticut is not out there committing the violent crimes with their weapons. We just need to enforce the laws.”

    Besides guns, Murphy played a major role in striking a deal on immigration, even though the bill was later rejected by Republicans after opposition by former President Donald J. Trump.

    “I certainly find myself now in a place in the Senate where I can help get some big, bipartisan compromise deals done,” Murphy told the Courant. “Nobody thought we could get a bipartisan compromise on guns, and we did it. Nobody thought that we could get a bipartisan compromise on immigration, and we did it. … That work product still stands as maybe the most significant, bipartisan compromise on border security in a generation.”

    Looking ahead, Murphy said, “I feel very lucky that I’ve gotten to a point in the Senate where I’m seen as somebody who can get compromise done. I’m trusted by both Democrats and Republicans, and I think that will be a role I’ll continue to play in the Senate.”

    One of the hottest issues facing the Senate is the ongoing war in Ukraine and whether the United States will continue sending billions of dollars to help push back troops sent by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

    “I don’t want Connecticut men and women to be fighting Russia in Europe,” Murphy said. “It is not a certainty that Putin will move beyond Ukraine if he wins this war, but it’s a distinct possibility. We need to listen to what Putin says. He claims he is trying to reestablish some version of the old Soviet Union. We need to learn from history. Megalomaniac dictators normally don’t stop once you hand them a big chunk of territory. I care about Ukraine and Ukraine’s sovereignty, but I care mostly about the young men and women that I represent, and I don’t want them fighting and dying in Europe. Ukraine isn’t asking us to fight and die for her. They’re asking us to send them a little bit of money to help them fight for themselves.”

    The problem, Murphy said, could be resolved if a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives is permitted by Speaker Mike Johnson, “who doesn’t seem to know what he is doing on a day-to-day basis.”

    Smith agreed about the need to send money to Ukraine as long as the money is spent properly.

    “If we don’t support them and Russia does roll through there, they will continue to roll on and then we will have a bigger issue that we have to deal with,” Smith said. “Yes, I support the war effort in Ukraine because they are a NATO partner, not a member.”

    As first selectman of Beach Falls, Smith, 62, is little known outside his hometown of less than 7,000 people in the Naugatuck Valley. A father and grandfather, he also runs an insurance agency and is a partner in construction projects. But he is putting his businesses on hold as he runs for the Senate.

    Once an unaffiliated voter, Smith has won four terms as first selectman through the force of his personality, rather than a political party. He registered as a Republican in 2011 only after winning the first selectman’s seat, but he later lost. He returned as a petitioning candidate in 2019 and won, and then created his own party, the Beacon Falls First Party, to win again in 2021.

    Regarding the top issues in the race, Smith rattles them off

    “Obviously, the biggest one is the border with the migrant issue,” Smith responded. “I thought my biggest issues would be inflation and the economy, which they still are, so I would say it’s inflation, the economy, the border, energy independence. But housing is a big issue with higher interest rates, and jobs.”

    Former state Republican chairman Chris Healy is strongly backing Smith and is not ruling him out against a two-term Democratic incumbent in a blue state..

    “Gerry Smith rejects the whole woke, DEI culture which Chris Murphy embraces,” Healy said in an interview. “We’ll see what happens. Anything is possible in politics. The last eight years has proven that.”

    Healy said Murphy has been spending too much time on issues like loneliness, which he has made a key issue as many Americans battle social isolation and its emotional impacts.

    “We didn’t hire him to be our shrink,” Healy said of Murphy. “We hired him to keep our country safe. How about not borrowing trillions of dollars? I’ve heard nothing from him other than we are lonely. … I don’t hear Chris Murphy saying ‘why can’t we have more school choice?”’

    Murphy declined to comment on Healy, saying that he works in conjunction with both national and state Republicans and wants to keep doing so.

    “I want to make sure that I get through this campaign in a way that preserves my relationships with Republicans that I trust and I regularly work with in Connecticut,” Murphy said.

    Another potential candidate is John Flynn, a former portfolio manager who holds an MBA in finance and lost two races for the state House of Representatives in 2018 and 2020. He was defeated by Democrat Travis Simms by at least 50 percentage points each time in a Norwalk district that has been held by Democrats for nearly 35 years.

    Like Hyde, Flynn ran briefly in the 2022 race against U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, but he was eclipsed by better-known Republicans like Greenwich fundraiser Leora Levy and former state House GOP leader Themis Klarides in a race that Blumenthal eventually won. In the final tally at the convention, after the delegates were allowed to switch their votes, Hyde finished with 0.33% and Flynn had one delegate that represented 0.08%.

    Hyde is best known for being involved in a national controversy over the possible surveillance of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, but he has denied involvement in any surveillance.

    Hyde posed for a photo in the “war room” in a Washington, D.C., hotel suite before the Jan. 6 insurrection while wearing a “Keep America Great” cap and later posted pictures to his Instagram account. The pictures in the room also show former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and strategist John C. Eastman, a conservative lawyer who wrote key strategy memos on how to reject electors in seven states in an attempt to swing the election to Trump.

    On the anniversary of Jan. 6 this year, Hyde texted a Courant reporter and wrote, “J6 was not an insurrection.”

    While Hyde has spoken to The Courant previously, he did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

    At the national level, political insiders are predicting that Murphy will win due to high name recognition and a wide fundraising lead in an increasingly blue state. The well-respected Cook Political Report has rated the race as “Solid D” for Democrats, and the Crystal Ball by longtime political science professor Larry Sabato places the contest as “Safe D.”

    With Murphy expected by supporters to win by a wide margin, political insiders say that a large turnout could spill over and help U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes against Republican George Logan in a tense rematch that was decided two years ago by less than 1 percentage point.

    Murphy is looking forward to being on the ticket with Biden, who defeated Trump in 2020. Democrats have won every statewide and Congressional race in the Nutmeg State since 2006.

    “Biden is going to crush Trump in Connecticut because most Republicans in Connecticut cannot stand Trump,” Murphy said. “You look where Biden does the best in Connecticut, and it’s often in places where the Republicans just a generation ago would clean up. I think Biden is going to win by 20-plus points in Connecticut. Trump is more ridiculous, more reckless, and more dangerous today than he was four years ago, and I think people in Connecticut know that.”

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