Q & A: Christopher Keating, The Hartford Courant

“I would say that this year is the best political year in Connecticut in forty years.”

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?

Well he had announced, before the primary, that if he did not win the convention endorsement in May he would not run in the primary. He probably announced that a time when he thought that he would not lose at the convention. But it turned out that he did lose at the convention to McMahon. He initially said that he was still going to be in the race. And then a day or two later, he had a press conference and said that he was getting out. Then, two or three weeks before the primary, he got back in. He’s had many television ads running up to the primary; he’s on television seemingly just as often as anybody else in the race, in the final two or three weeks. But he was not on television at all for a two-month period about May 25 to July 25. All of June, he was never on TV at all and not that many people were talking about him.

Is the new exposure helping?

He’s moving up in the polls. But in the most recent Quinnipiac poll on Monday, McMahon is still ahead of Simmons by twenty-two points. There is seven percent undecided, and that’s not a very big undecided. You have McMahon in the lead, Rob Simmons in second, and Peter Schiff, a nationally known investor, author, and Wall Street pundit, in third.

How has Schiff positioned himself?

Well, Schiff has a semi-large national following. So he has a lot of supporters outside of Connecticut, and that’s probably why he’s in third place in Connecticut. He has been running some negative ads about McMahon, showing footage of McMahon from her wrestling days. He is known among the CNBC crowd, and is on television on a regular basis making prognostications about the economy. But, he’s never really been involved in Connecticut politics at all. He didn’t have the start; he didn’t have a huge base of support because he’d never held public office in Connecticut. I think he was viewed more as a national figure as opposed to a Connecticut figure.

The Courant endorsed Simmons in the Republican Senate primary. What can you tell us about the paper’s approach to endorsements?

The good thing is I don’t get involved in any of the endorsements. They don’t ask me and I don’t ask them and so I stay out of it. But, as you can imagine, there’s a whole group of people all the way up to the publisher who get involved in the endorsements. I did not go to any of the editorial endorsement meetings. To my knowledge they did have separate meetings with McMahon and Schiff and Simmons.

How has McMahon handled the media as such a newcomer?

She has not had a traditional relationship with the media. In other words, she does not call general press conferences to answer questions from ten or twelve different reporters at the same time. She’s never done that, to my knowledge. She does go to editorial meetings, she does agree to interviews. But she doesn’t travel around the state and call press conferences. To my knowledge, she has never been at the state capitol for a press conference. It’s a traditional venue; would-be candidates come to the state capitol and hold press conferences on various issues. That’s just never happened.

Does Simmons have a more traditional relationship with the media?

Before the two months when he wasn’t campaigning, when the Blumenthal-Vietnam situation hit, Simmons came to the capitol and held a press conference about it outside the doors of the state capitol. That’s more of the traditional way of going about it.

Speaking of scandal, how has McMahon’s past as the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment played out?

There have definitely been stories about wrestling and some people in Connecticut don’t like wrestling and some people do. There have been stories about steroids and the death of some wrestlers, and McMahon is starting to address that in her commercials. She has an ad running with two middle class women in a car, talking about it and asking each other, ‘Well, what do you think about the wrestling?’ And by the time it’s over, they both like McMahon, as you can imagine in a McMahon commercial. It’s been an issue, but it certainly didn’t stop her from winning the convention endorsement, that’s for sure. But I would say by now, if you don’t know that Linda McMahon is involved in wrestling, then there’s probably no chance you’ll be voting in the primary or the election. Anyone who’s not aware that McMahon is the wrestling person who’s running for the U.S. Senate has not been paying attention.

In the gubernatorial primary, The New York Times wrote Monday that Democrat Ned Lamont, taking on former Stamford mayor Dannel P. Malloy for the party’s nomination, has changed stripes from a “darling of the left” anti-war candidate, which he was in the 2006 Senate primary, to a centrist in his 2010 contest. Is that a fair characterization?

It’s a very different race. The 2006 race was almost totally about the Iraq war. Iraq has never been mentioned, basically, in this campaign, and Lamont is presenting himself as a business executive as opposed to an anti-war activist. It is true that Lamont has changed but it’s a completely different race, completely different issues, completely different opponent.

He’s the same guy that he was in ’06, he’s the same guy that I met twenty-five years ago and wrote about in the Greenwich Time as a young kid. He has not changed as a person; the emphasis has changed. In the ’06 race he owned the cable company that he still has, he was a business executive, he was the CEO of his cable company; all those things are exactly the same. But most people only knew three things about him when he came on the scene in ’06: he was a Democrat, he was against the Iraq War, and he wasn’t Joe Lieberman. And for a lot of liberal Democrats that was enough.

Lamont faced initial criticism for not wanting to debate. How did that refusal impact his campaign?

There was a three-week period when he did not debate. His position all along was that they had twenty-five or twenty-eight joint appearances. He did eventually debate after those three weeks were up. It was a debate that was shown on public television, simulcast on public radio, and shown on the CBS local broadcast. When you add all of those together it was a pretty heavily watched debate. Most Republicans and Democrats say that the delay did hurt him. I have asked him about that and he said he wasn’t sure. But many think it did because it became an issue that would not have been an issue if he had have said, “Okay, I will do the debate. “

What do you think of the national coverage of the Connecticut primaries so far?

Politico did a lot when Dodd was involved. The New York Times is The New York Times and they bring a lot of weight. They do not cover Connecticut the way they used to. They do not have a full-time person in Hartford the way they used to. Put it this way, they’re not covering this race the way they covered Lamont-Lieberman in 2006. Then, The New York Times had a full-time person in Hartford, and covered the Lamont-Lieberman race every day (it might not have been in the paper every day but they covered it every day). And they also had political reporters in Washington and New York keeping an eye on it. However, when they do cover the race, the story has impact.

And what about the local coverage?

If you have been paying attention in Connecticut, there’s been a tremendous amount of information on the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate race. The amount of copy inches and blog posts has been huge. Anyone who wants to get up to speed on this, it’s not very hard. Plus, if you’re an average voter, you’re getting this barrage of TV commercials. And if you’re a registered voter, you’re getting a lot of stuff in the mail. On the flipside, it’s a primary in August and people are at the beach.

Have you ever been busier in a primary?

No, I’ve been doing seven days a week. Hugely busy. Right now you have five people running for governor, a sixth person running as an independent. Three people in the U.S. senate primary. We only have five congressional districts in Connecticut and four of the five have primaries for the Republicans. There’s something like forty-four primaries today. You even have primaries in Connecticut for probate judges. Between the blog and the newspaper there’s been a lot of coverage, and a lot of work, as you can imagine. It’s a bit of around-the-clock lately, we’ve really got the whole staff working on this thing. But after the primary it’s a whole new world. I’ll definitely take a break and then we’ll do it all again in the fall.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.