Long Island-born political reporter Christopher Keating has been The Hartford Courant’s capitol bureau chief since 1995. He’s never been busier than this year, covering one of the nation’s most fascinating midterms and some of its most colorful primaries—think Chris Dodd’s fall, a candidate’s lies about his service in Vietnam, and Linda “WWE” McMahon. CJR Assistant Editor Joel Meares spoke with Keating yesterday, as he prepared for primary day today. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How does this current political season compare to others you’ve covered in your years at the Courant?
I would say that this year is the best political year in Connecticut in forty years. There’s an open seat for governor, an open seat for U.S. senator, attorney general, secretary of state, comptroller; most of the statewide constitutional offices are all open seats. There’s never been a year like this since 1970, which was the year when Lowell Weicker got in in a three-way race to the U.S. senate against Chris Dodd’s father, who had been censured, and ran as a third party candidate, splitting the vote three ways. There’s been nothing like it up here, of this magnitude, in forty years.
Was it a surprise to you that Dodd pulled out?
Maybe not at the end. But yes, if you had told me say eight months before Dodd got out that he was going to get out, I would have said “no.” If you’d asked me the day before, was it a surprise? Not really. There was a build-up of stories about him, AIG bonuses and a series of things involving his cottage in Ireland and mortgages with Countrywide. They just built up and ran all the way to January 2010 when he finally did get out.
What do the people of Connecticut think of the Democrat who stepped in to run for Dodd’s seat, attorney general Richard Blumenthal?
Blumenthal has been attorney general for twenty years and he is on television just as much as the governor. He covered the span of three governors in that twenty year period, and I think the average Connecticut voter would say that if he wasn’t on television just as much as the governor it would be a very close second. Whether he’s filing lawsuits or talking about consumer product safety issues, Blumenthal is constantly in the public eye. In the first poll with McMahon, he was ahead by 41 points. Blumenthal was one of the most popular officials in Connecticut state history, the longest serving attorney general, and probably or possibly the most popular attorney general.
Did that change when The New York Times published its May article, which showed Blumenthal had lied about his service in Vietnam, saying publicly he had served when he never had?
Yes, that article brought a lot of attention to Blumenthal. Initially, there was very little change in the polls. But that was a big story, because it was The New York Times and covered by all the other national media, including Chris Matthews and all the other national cable programs; probably because it was in The New York Times. If you had the exact same story in a Connecticut paper, it might not have had the national traction that it did.
And now McMahon is within ten percentage points, according to a Quinnipiac poll this week.
Some of that press contributed to that, but you have to keep in mind that McMahon is constantly on television. She’s spent over $20 million already. She has sent huge brochures into people’s homes. This week alone she sent a sixteen-page brochure into people’s homes. I measured it, and it is larger than Newsweek magazine, larger than Fortune magazine, and larger than Money magazine. It’s about 8.5 x 11 inches or even bigger than that—sixteen pages and color photos everywhere. It wasn’t quite the Lands’ End catalog, but it sure looked like it.
Have you seen this kind of spending in Connecticut politics before?
No, this is the biggest spending year we’ve ever seen in Connecticut politics. I would say by far. The 2006 Lieberman-Lemont race was very expensive. Each person spent over $20 million in that race by the time it was over. But we’re still fairly early in the cycle here, and McMahon herself has spent over $20 million already, and is on her way to what she says could be $50 million. Some people tell me it could be even more than that.
But McMahon hasn’t locked up the GOP primary yet, she’s still got to beat Rob Simmons, who left the race for about two months before coming back into it at the last minute. Were you surprised when he dropped out after the convention?