Unable to afford a major advertising campaign, Republican Sean Sullivan tried to maximize the free exposure of a public broadcasting debate in Enfield Tuesday night by scuffing up the record of freshman U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney, D-2nd District.
Sullivan said Courtney supported the Democratic leadership 98 percent of the time and was too partisan to represent the district. Courtney replied that those votes saved Medicare, produced a new G.I. Bill and set the first new fuel efficiency standards in 32 years.
Time is the enemy of every challenger — especially one trying to win in the sprawling 2nd Congressional District of eastern Connecticut.
"The clock is always ticking," Sullivan said after the debate. "I'm not running against Mr. Deshefy, I'm running against Congressman Courtney."
With two weeks to Election Day, Sullivan trails badly in a district that Republicans had high hopes for two years ago, when Courtney unseated three-term Republican Rob Simmons by just 83 votes.
Courtney, 55, a lawyer and former state legislator from Vernon whose margin of victory was the smallest in the nation, has had an unexpectedly easy time.
Republicans failed to recruit a candidate with name recognition, elective experience or fundraising ability.
Into the breach stepped the 49-year-old Sullivan, a retired U.S. Navy captain and lawyer from Ledyard who had been considering a challenge to state Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia.
Sullivan was the commander of the Groton submarine base before retiring in 2006. He also commanded a Los Angeles-class submarine, the USS Jefferson City, and was a Navy liaison to the U.S. House of Representatives.
But instead of campaigning in fewer than a dozen towns against a state legislator who was committed to spending no more than $100,000, Sullivan enlisted for a run in Connecticut's most challenging congressional district — 65 towns covering nearly half the state.
"By virtually every standard, it is a difficult district for a challenger," said Jonathan Pelto, a consultant who helped Democrat Sam Gejdenson capture the open seat in 1980.
The district lacks a geographic anchor. Its most populous town is Enfield, a community of 46,000 people and a suburb of Springfield. Other portions of the 2nd look to Worcester and Rhode Island for jobs and news.
"You have this very fractured series of mini-media markets," Pelto said.
On Tuesday night, Courtney, Sullivan and Deshefy debated a wide range of issues raised by Fermi High School students in Enfield. The debate was carried live on Connecticut Public Radio and will be broadcast Sunday at 1 p.m. on Connecticut Public Television.
Deshefy, 56, a retired biologist from Lebanon, said he offers the only real change.
"We are a stricken nation in a world in ecological peril. Our dysfunctional government is corporatist and it's militarist with two interchangeable parts to maintain that status quo. And those two interchangeable parts are the Democratic and Republican parties," Deshefy said. "It's time for a change."
"We do need to make some very serious decisions in this country," Sullivan said during his closing remarks. "And what we are going to need is leadership, confidence and courage. Those are things that are sorely lacking in Washington, D.C."
Sullivan acquitted himself well in the view of Ken Dautrich, a politics and public policy professor at the University of Connecticut, who described the GOP challenger as an articulate fiscal conservative.
"He's the type of Republican who historically has done well here, but not this year," Dautrich said. "This is a 10-point Democratic year in this district."
Unable to afford television advertising until this month, Sullivan trailed Courtney by a 2-1 ratio in a University of Connecticut poll.
Courtney had raised $2.15 million and had $1.12 million left to spend as of the financial quarter that closed Sept. 30. Sullivan had raised $377,095 and had $133,334 on hand.
Only two 2nd District challengers have won in nearly 30 years: Simmons unseated Gejdenson in 2000, when the 20-year incumbent had seemed to lose touch with the district; and Courtney beat Simmons two years ago, riding a Democratic tide.
"It has been a challenging environment, but every vote and every act has been focused on what is best for this district," Courtney said during his closing remarks Tuesday.
As the only member of Congress from Connecticut to vote against the $700 billion financial rescue bill, Courtney said after the debate that he does not feel the need to prove his independence.
Courtney well understands the difficulties of being a challenger in the 2nd. He first ran and lost to Simmons in 2002. Asked if he felt any sympathy, Courtney laughed.
"No, it's hard," Courtney said. "But it comes with the decision that you make when you decide to run in this district."
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2nd Congressional District Candidates Meet For Debate
2nd Congressional District candidates meet at Enrico Fermi High School in Enfield. (JOHN WOIKE)