NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Two weeks before election day, an unnamed outside Republican business group poured $1 million into vicious ads attacking Democratic incumbent Rep. Chris Murphy in the 5th Congressional District, claiming he voted for "Viagra for sex offenders."
Murphy, first elected in 2006 in a traditionally Republican-held district, made his mark in Congress as a leading advocate for healthcare reform. Despite the all-out attack, he won re-election to his third term in the sprawling district that includes former industrial cities and rural towns.
"This is about making sure no family ever has to make the choice between paying their mortgage or paying their medical bills again," he says, crediting volunteers who spent months going door to door to talk issues with their neighbors and co-workers for the victory. Many of the volunteers were part of the Labor 2010 program and a Connecticut group called Hilltop Brigade.
In the early morning hours on election day where Murphy was standing outside a polling place, a women ran from her car to go inside and vote before work. "I wasn't going to vote," she said, "but if someone thought it was so important to call me at 6:30 last night, I decided I better come."
At the end of the day, Murphy was declared a winner with 54 percent of the vote in a race that had moved from "likely Democrat" to "tossup."
For the first time in 22 years Connecticut voters chose a Democrat, Dan Malloy, for governor, and elected Democrat Richard Blumenthal to the U.S. Senate despite Tea Party-backed Linda McMahon's $45 million negative campaign. All five incumbent Democrats were re-elected to the House of Representatives, including first term Rep. Jim Himes in the 4th district, the most heavily Republican area of the state.
How did Connecticut buck the national trend? Many analysts credit the intensive door-to-door ground operation.
For months, union volunteers in the AFL-CIO's Labor 2010 program and in SEIU knocked on the doors of their co-workers and neighbors in each Congressional District to discuss the issues on their minds. They were able to spread the truth about who wants to give tax breaks to the rich, who wants to cut Social Security, who voted against extending unemployment compensation to workers who lost their jobs, and who is responsible for the deficit. They talked about what is needed to create jobs.
The Hilltop Brigade, founded in 2006, also carried out an extensive door-knocking campaign. They formed during the Bush years out of frustration over the fact that Rep. Rosa DeLauro was surrounded with so many Republicans in the state delegation that it hampered what she could win for working people's needs.
The idea of the brigade quickly spread as volunteers in districts considered safe for Democrats visited with their neighbors in surrounding towns to ask them to support a Democratic candidate. That year, two of the three Republicans were defeated. Joe Courtney won by 87 votes in the 2nd district, after recounts and a court case. In 2008, Courtney and Murphy were re-elected and Himes defeated the last Republican House member in New England.
When President Barack Obama came to Bridgeport just before election day, the city, a focus of union organizing for the election, was already at attention. An overflow crowd filled the arena. Mayor Finch detailed all the jobs created by projects funded with stimulus money in Bridgeport. Shouts of approval greeted Obama's statement, "2008 was not just about electing a President, it was about building a movement."
On election day voters streamed to the polls in Bridgeport. A crisis erupted because the City had not ordered enough paper ballot. But when ballots ran out, voters got calls from the labor phone bank and knocks on their doors, and they came back again to vote before the 10 p.m. extended deadline. Republican candidate for Governor Tom Foley did not concede for a week, but in the end, the Bridgeport vote put Dan Malloy and Congressman Jim Himes over the top, and gave Richard Blumenthal a 55 percent margin of victory.
Similar extraordinary efforts in Hartford and New Haven also brought large voter turnouts. In labor's New Haven campaign office a ward chart on the wall showed how many voters had turned out in 2006 and 2008 to keep the momentum to meet or surpass those numbers.
"In your conversations with union members, you cut through the overheated rhetoric and held tough, heartfelt discussions with our members about jobs, the economy, and fiscal spending – the things that really matter to voters in this election cycle," says a letter to Labor 2010 volunteers.
"As much as we may have pulled out all the stops in this election, it’s important to remember that the real work is just beginning," says the letter. "We want to build on the success of the Labor 2010 program and tackle the big fights ahead of us, over state budgets, contract negotiations, job creation, and more. Thank you for all your work."
Many unions are now in a stronger position internally as a result of the effort. One retiree union that had never organized before came out with a team of 100 volunteers that will make up a new legislative action component going forward. A union with 19,000 members made 70,000 member house visits and got 80 percent commitment to vote and choose the union endorsed candidates.
The Working Families party had endorsed the entire Democratic slate, which appeared on the ballot on both lines. Over 26,000 votes were cast on the Working Families line. In the governor contest, Malloy won by 5,600 votes. "If you voted Working Families, your vote also came with an unmistakable message that you want all our politicians to be more responsive to the needs of ordinary working families – and to stand up for policies that will make a difference in our lives," said Jon Green, executive director.
As in the rest of the country, the stakes were very high. Big decisions will have to be made about the huge state budget deficit. Officially the unemployment rate is 9.5 percent, but unemployment in the cities is a third or more. The Republican candidate for governor promised to lay off state workers and shut down services, following the same path as the Republican incumbent who vetoed legislation to tax the wealth concentrated in the top two percent of the population.
Tea Party-backed Republican Linda McMahon began campaigning a year ago. As election day grew closer her smear ads claiming that the respected Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was a liar clogged the airwaves. Her campaign created an atmosphere of fear that threatened to drive the election results. The door-to-door contacts and discussions were the only way to cut through the noise. It wasn't easy, there were lots of difficult conversations, but in the end enough voters became convinced that they would support the Democratic candidates and that they must come out to vote.
"Voters are upset with good reason," says Rosa DeLauro."The measures taken haven't been enough and people are out of work. Now we get up and dust ourselves off and continue the fight!"
Bridgeport, Conn. voters rally with President Obama days before the election. (Photo PW/Art Perlo)