Commentary Magazine


Is the Connecticut Senate Front-runner “Martha Coakley in Pants”?

If there were any Senate seat up for election this fall that was considered completely safe for the Democrats, it appeared to be the one that Chris Dodd is vacating in Connecticut. While the scandal-plagued Dodd looked vulnerable to any Republican challenger, once he promised not to run and Richard Blumenthal, the Nutmeg State’s popular attorney general, threw his hat into the ring, there seemed no doubt the Democrats would hold on to the seat.

Little attention has been paid to this race since Dodd’s withdrawal. But, according to the New York Times, perhaps Blumenthal isn’t quite as much of a shoo-in as expected. He still has a double-digit lead in all the polls but, as the surprisingly unsympathetic feature in the Times shows, the Democratic front-runner isn’t doing as well as expected. According to the article, Blumenthal “flopped” in a debate against an obscure primary rival and has now categorically ruled out any other such confrontations. As the Times tells it:

He appears almost incapable of offering concise answers to even the most predictable questions, like why he is running for the Senate. And his reliance on prosecutorial parlance and legal arcana has raised unflattering comparisons to another attorney general in a Senate race who seemed a sure winner only to lose in spectacular fashion. Some Democrats are calling him “Martha Coakley in pants,” referring to the candidate who lost the Massachusetts Senate election in January.

The Times puts most of the problems down to the 64-year-old candidate’s inexperience in dealing with competitive politics. Though he has won five consecutive statewide elections for his current office, the last time he faced serious opposition was in 1990. Though always rumored to be interested in various other offices (as one Democratic bigwig told me in the mid-1990s when I was working as a journalist in the state, “There’s nothing that guy doesn’t want to be”), Blumenthal always found a reason not to run. What quickly emerged was that while he longed to be a senator or a governor, he wasn’t willing to fight for it. It was only when Dodd ended his re-election bid earlier this year that Blumenthal figured he could safely glide into a higher-ranking job without getting his neatly combed hair mussed up. But as the Times piece shows, it isn’t proving to be as easy as he thought.

Along with describing this former athlete’s physique in terms that are hardly flattering — “at 5-foot-11 and a gaunt 155 pounds, [Blumenthal] wears his dark suits like a wire hanger” — the story detailed the would-be senator’s awkward “Rip Van Winkle” campaign as he hemmed and hawed his way through a litany of bland and confused responses to questions about his positions. Moreover, his 20 years as attorney general, in which he often aped the Elliot Spitzer pattern of attacking private businesses, may also now come back to haunt him as his former victims surface with tales of misleading and false prosecutions.

The point is, the former wunderkind of Connecticut politics — he was appointed a U.S. attorney at age 31 — may no longer be ready for prime time. Given the overwhelming advantage the Democrats have in registration in the state and Blumenthal’s personal popularity, it’s hard to believe that the seat is really in play. Yet with a spirited and well-funded Republican challenge certain to come from professional-wrestling mogul Linda McMahon, the state may find out whether, as Gov. Jodi Rell said in 2006, Blumenthal is a candidate with a “glass jaw.” McMahon may be no Scott Brown, but so far, Blumenthal is giving every indication that the comparisons with his Massachusetts counterpart Coakley are completely not off base. If 2010 turns out to be a “wave” election in which even the safest Democrats are swept out in an anti-Obama landslide, Blumenthal may be in for a far tougher ride than he ever imagined.