To Read This Weekend

The Times’s Matt Bai’s Excellent Connecticut Piece

One of the problems with an election cycle like the current one, in which so many local races are fascinating to so many people at a national level, is the tendency for reporters and readers to dip rather than dive fully into the local stories.

There are only so many resources for outlets, and so much time for audiences. We get a generalized picture around primary day, discuss what the results mean, and move on to the next state or district. Some races break out from the pack along the way with colorful characters—Delaware, Kentucky, Nevada—or because they fit a national narrative, say, one about moneyed up candidates—California, Florida—or because a national figure is involved—see Arizona. Often they break out because of an upset—see many.

Mostly, though, we in the national audience learn a little about everyone and everywhere along the way. And most of what we learn seems to be about who’s winning, who’s losing, and what that means for that domed white building at the eastern end of the Mall. So it’s refreshing when a major national outlet sets aside 4,802 words to go beyond the polls to examine a local race by examining the historic underpinnings, both social and political, which are driving it.

The Times does that this weekend with Matt Bai’s pretty excellent examination of the contest for Christopher Dodd’s senate seat in Connecticut, a race that has it all: colorful candidates, a national figure, and plenty and plenty of pennies.

Writing for the Times magazine, which has developed a bit of a habit of publishing quality political profiles, Bai returns to the state in which he grew up to meet with candidates Linda McMahon and Democrat Richard Blumenthal. He’s relentless in parodying some of their parroted responses to his questions—“’The primary differences are career politician versus businesswoman,’ McMahon said, sounding very much like a human bullet point.”—and faithfully runs us through McMahon’s poll-climbing. But it’s Bai’s careful trek through Connecticut’s political history, and the demographic and economic shifts the state has experienced, that resonates.

The piece opens with a grabby bit of on-the-ground circus watching; having attended a McMahon victory rally at a Hartford Crowne Plaza Bai writes:

Just behind the lectern, alongside other family members, loomed McMahon’s ponytailed, R.V.-size son-in-law, the wrestler known as Triple H. Then a state senator, Len Fasano, delivered one of the more bizarre political orations I had ever heard, getting himself so worked up that he apparently forgot which state he served and introduced the crowd to “the next U.S. senator from the great state of New York!”

The 61-year-old candidate herself walked onstage in a pink suit and pearls, looking for all the world like the president of the Fairfield P.T.A., and proceeded to deliver a victory speech that was sort of amazing for its amalgamation of clichés and a complete, almost defiant, lack of substance.

And there is some colorful contrast between McMahon’s campaign offices—“brand new iPads, still in their packaging, lay scattered on desks… Upstairs, where the press aides sat, a dozen or so flat-screen TVs hung from a futuristic grid of metal rods…”—with Blumenthal’s—“…faded dingy walls and industrial-strength carpet to match.” And though the interviewees who occupy those offices don’t give Bai much to work with, he is happy to saw through the spin.

In other words, this business of governance was too serious to be discussed in any detail during a campaign, which McMahon seemed to regard more as an exercise in theater, like “Saturday Night’s Main Event.” Instead, she returned, once again, to the value of her business experience.

The piece succeeds most where Bai draws on history and his own experience to capture in some dense but sharp grafs the nature of Connecticut politics, and to answer the questions he asks himself early in the piece: “when, exactly, did genteel Connecticut become Louisiana? And if politics could get this weird here, then what did that mean for the rest of the country?”

He begins by explaining that for most of the last century two particular groups ran politics in the state: “the urban ethnic, machines that dominated the Democratic Party and the patrician Republicans… who considered it their duty to serve.” They coexisted until, along with much of the country, the ‘80s came along.

Things started to change in the 1980s, for reasons both cultural and economic. A new generation of politicians ascended to power — liberals and conservatives with sharply moralistic approaches to politics. At the same time, the manufacturing decline that was beginning to erode the nation’s economic base, along with the “white flight” that began in the 1960s, hollowed out Connecticut’s cities and weakened its governing establishment. Outsiders tend to think of Connecticut as a collection of wealthy suburbs and rural horse farms, as portrayed in books and movies like “The Ice Storm.” That side of things does exist, particularly on the “gold coast” that runs along the southwest edge of the state, where many hedge-fund managers and movie stars live. And yet much of the state is heavily industrialized, or at least it was until the 1970s. According to data compiled by the Brookings Institution that looks at the core cities of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, two of Connecticut’s largest cities — Hartford and New Haven — are now among the dozen poorest in the country. Hartford, the capital, is the poorest in America.

There is a lot more of this, including a look at corruption in the state, and the effects of the current recession; a one-two combo that saw Dodd leaving flee the race. (A chairman of the banking committee, “Dodd was blasted as a sellout to his state for championing the interests of what had always been, up to now anyway, a crucial constituency.”)

This kind of historical underpinning informs the entire piece, which is a rich and deep dive into a race that has been defined nationally by Blumenthal’s Vietnam blunder, McMahon’s WWE crotch-kicking, and her very strange lunchbox TV spot. It particularly informs his conclusion.

Connecticut in my parents’ day was the kind of state in which institutions really mattered — religious congregations and city newspapers and insurance companies, garden clubs and the Knights of Columbus, with their towering headquarters in New Haven. Connecticut voters, like voters in a lot of the country, trusted in an established order that seemed to be working pretty well for them, but then people saw their cities and their industries collapse, and even the Catholic Church was tainted by scandal, and elected officials started selling their services for home improvements.

And this is what makes a Linda McMahon possible here and in other parts of America — not just her millions of dollars or the crippled economy, but the sense that the establishment has lost its credibility. It is something McMahon, having built a megaentertainment business without the imprimatur of cultural arbiters, intuitively understood about politics. The more her party’s leadership tried to write her off, the more Democrats scoffed at her candidacy, the more viable she became.

What Bai and the Times have done here is what all national outlets with the resources should be aiming to do when covering local races: giving their audiences a sense of not just being there on election day, but having been there all along.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.