U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy says he isn't thinking much about running for president in 2020, but that hasn't stopped the Twitter-savvy senator from rising quickly up the list of potential Democratic candidates.
Progressive fervor over President Donald Trump's election has catapulted Murphy's standing among Democrats, who are looking for energetic young leaders as they recover from a humbling electoral defeat.
In recent weeks, one Washington news story had Murphy, 44, searching for campaign staff for a presidential run — a report the senator denied. Another, in The Washington Post, ranked Murphy as No. 3 among Democratic contenders for the White House, behind only former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Earlier this year, Murphy started hiring field organizers and began contacting voters — for a re-election campaign in 2018 where he faces only token opposition. Meanwhile, his fundraising machine turns on a dime, sending out frequent appeals focused on Trump and generating millions of dollars in contributions.
"He's a fighter. I like his positions," said Bill Shute, a 71-year-old Danbury Democrat who arrived at a mid-August gathering in the city marking the end of Murphy's recent walk across the state with a sign that read "Murphy for President! 2020."
Shute said he feels that "everything is going so wrong" and the Democratic Party needs new, younger leaders.
A popular senator from a small and generally liberal Northeastern state faces long odds, however.
Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics' nonpartisan newsletter on American campaigns and elections, said Murphy's greatest hurdle may be breaking out from among a pack of progressive Democrats in the Senate who have a made a name for themselves by attacking Trump's policies.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll in June found that 19 potential Democratic presidential candidates, including Murphy, remain largely unknown to voters. For Murphy, 54 percent of respondents said they had never heard of him.
'Not Interested' In White House?
Breaking with Senate tradition that freshmen should be seen and not heard, Murphy's star has risen quickly as he takes a lead role in debates over gun control, foreign policy and health care. In between, he's traveled the Arctic Circle in a submarine, been invited to appear on "Late Night with Seth Meyers" and twice walked across Connecticut, chronicling his journey on social media.
The growing national profile has led to much speculating about what's next for Murphy, who is up for re-election next year. His name has appeared in a number of publications as a possible presidential candidate in 2020, but so far he's brushed aside calls by supporters for him to run for higher office.
"I don't give it much thought," Murphy said. "I understand that I'm on some of these lists, but the lists are very long when you run down the potential candidates for president in 2020 and I've been pretty clear that I'm not interested in that right now. My focus is on this job."
JR Romano, chairman of the state Republican Party, said Murphy is a carefully calculated "political opportunist," eager to climb on the national stage and collect political donations.
"He's not about what's best for Connecticut families, what's best for our economy," Romano said. "He's about what's best for himself — how is he going to raise the most money and raise his profile."
Despite his professed indifference, Murphy has fueled the White House gossip in emails to his thousands of supporters, citing a New York Post report that Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief political strategist, had asked consultants to scour Murphy's background should he decide to run.
Much of the more than $5 million Murphy has raised for his re-election campaign has come in the form of small-dollar donations he solicits through emails, often linked to his efforts to fight the Trump administration in a variety of areas.
Ben Shaiken, the 29-year-old Democratic Town Committee chairman in Mansfield, said he thinks part of Murphy's appeal is his command of the issues.
"Whenever he talks about Medicaid and mental illness and disabilities he knows what he's talking about," said Shaiken, who works for an organization representing nonprofits that serve the developmentally disabled.
Howard Dean — the former Vermont governor and Democratic national chairman whose 2004 presidential campaign invigorated young liberals — tweeted recently that Murphy "could be our next president."
Dean said it doesn't matter now that people don't know who someone like Murphy is. During the 2004 campaign, Dean went from unknown to the apparent front-runner in a matter of months.
"Murphy, I think, is a top-tier candidate if he wants to run," Dean told The Courant in an interview. "He's the perfect Democrat to respond to Trump."
Building A Following
Murphy has become skilled at mixing resistance to the Trump administration with advocating for Connecticut's interests in the Senate — which includes more military spending. In a Congress paralyzed by inaction, Murphy wants to be seen as someone working to get past the gridlock.
He's said he's willing to sit down with Trump to discuss strengthening "Buy America" laws. Murphy supports increased defense spending, which boosts the bottom line of companies like Pratt & Whitney and Electric Boat.
A member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, Murphy repeatedly called for bipartisan health care hearings, which Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the committee, agreed to hold after Senate Republicans failed to pass legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The effort failed to produce a compromise.
Many of the bills Murphy has introduced this year track with his attempt to take a more pragmatic approach in what has become an increasingly divided Congress where little gets done. There's legislation to make it easier for individuals to invest in startups, offer mental health treatment to veterans who receive less than honorable discharges and the American Jobs Matter Act, which requires the Department of Defense to consider the impact on U.S. jobs when awarding defense contracts.
Matt Canter, a senior vice president at Global Strategy Group, a Washington-based political consulting firm, said Murphy has "staked out ground as a leader on a number of key issues nationally and he's built quite a following ... in those areas."
"Whenever you do that sort of thing people start to speculate, this is the favored political pastime in Washington," said Canter, whose previous work includes a stint with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Murphy said taking the lead on national issues benefits the state.
"I am interested in being a national voice in part because that's good for Connecticut," he said. "If I'm helping to lead the national effort [on health care or infrastructure] that's good for the state. To the extent that I do appear on national TV or radio every now and again, I think that's in pursuit of an agenda that's important for the state."
The organizers Murphy has begun hiring are part of an effort he's called "Fight Back Connecticut," aimed at building upon the grass-roots progressive activism that Trump's presidency has created. An estimated 2,000 people turned out for house parties in May. Volunteers have been knocking on doors and calling, not asking for votes, but to educate voters on Trump's policies in areas like health care, education and immigration.
A Lifetime in Politics
Republicans portray Murphy as a political opportunist who is using Trump's presidency to further his own political career, which started in the state House when he was 25.
"His actions add up to that conclusion," said Dominic Rapini, a Branford businessman who was the first Republican to step forward to challenge Murphy for his Senate seat.
Rapini said Murphy is popular with Democrats, but Republicans and independents he talks to "do not like his brand of politics," and Rapini is hoping to tap into that.
Murphy's brand is often on display. Two of his good friends in the Senate are fellow young Democrats Cory Booker, 48, and Brian Schatz, 42. In June, the three men livestreamed on Facebook a "scavenger hunt" to find the Republican health care bill, which was being drafted in secret.
Like the walk across Connecticut, it was a moment for Murphy shared on social media to his 321,000 Twitter followers and the more than 233,000 people who like his Facebook page.
A town hall meeting in West Hartford earlier this year was so packed that even those who showed up an hour early were turned away. During his walk across the state this month, supporters tracked him on social media and showed up to chat or walk alongside him.
"I see a lot of presidential qualities in him," said Sean Lavery, a 21-year-old from New Milford who showed up at Rogers Park in Danbury to see Murphy complete his trek across Connecticut.
"He's got the fact that he's a younger senator on his side. He can engage the millennial audience, but he's well-spoken, passionate and holds firm to his beliefs."