WASHINGTON – The 5th district House race in Connecticut has all the makings of juicy political showdown: contenders Nancy Johnson and Jim Maloney are both incumbents from the opposite sides of the political aisle, and so far, insiders say, neither has the edge to win.
"Right now, we have the race as a toss up," said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Report, a campaign-tracking newsletter that picks Connecticut's incumbent vs. incumbent race as the one to watch this year.
Johnson, a Republican who has been representing the 6th Congressional District for 10 terms, saw her constituency rolled into the 5th Congressional District this year. That district, held by Democrat Maloney since 1996, is now trending Democrat, if only slightly, 52 percent to 48 percent of total registered voters.
"The redistricting commission made this as much of a 'fair fight' as they could," Gonzales said.
But will it be? In Washington, it has been called a "race of the moderates," as neither has shown compunction towards the hard-right or hard-left of their respective parties. But the buzz from both camps and in the state parties indicates that both will try to paint the other as the untrustworthy or inexperienced, lazy or extreme. In other words, the enemy.
Maloney spent Thursday attacking Johnson for standing idly by while The Stanley Works, one of the largest oldest toolmakers in the country, shipped jobs and contracts overseas. The tool maker sits in the heart of "The Hardware City," – New Britain – one of the Democratic strongholds in Johnson's old home turf.
Stanley Works announced Thursday that it was moving its corporate headquarters to Bermuda.
"Where was she? Nowhere to be seen," said John Olsen, the head of the state Democratic Party, as well as the head of the state AFL-CIO. "I think people have watched Nancy Johnson preside over the loss of good-paying jobs long enough."
Johnson declined an interview for this story, but Republicans say the congresswoman has been quite successful in the last two decades in "bringing home the bacon" to the 6th district, which like Maloney's territory is a patchwork of rich and poor, conservative and liberal, urban and rural communities.
"This race is very competitive as you can well imagine. But one of the incumbents has a significant advantage," said Chris DePino, chairman of the state Republican Party. "Nancy Johnson has much more experience, she is much more adept at passing legislation than Congressman Maloney."
DePino said that Johnson's position on the House, Ways and Mean Committee, as well as her past endorsements from traditionally Democratic special interests like the League of Conservation Voters and the National Education Association, underscore her centrist standing and ability to represent the district well in Washington.
DePino said Maloney, who touts himself a moderate, is virtually a tool of big labor.
"The DNC is subsidiary of the AFL-CIO," he said. "A lot of moderate Democrats in this district are not involved in labor unions and they don't like what's on their agenda."
He and other Republicans are making hay of the fact that Maloney signed a term limits pledge that would force him to quit in 2004.
"He would be a lameduck congressman," said DePino.
"If that's the case, I'm waiting for them to say that Bush shouldn't run for re-election because he will be a lame duck," scoffed Maloney, who served as state senator for four terms before coming to Washington.
Maloney said he does support terms limits and will "keep my word" when the time comes.
He would rather focus on Johnson's votes with "the right wing leadership" on cutting taxes, hurting the environment and with the pharmaceutical companies against seniors. He also accuses Johnson, who was chairwoman of the House ethics committee, of delaying until after the 1998 election the investigation of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who admitted misleading the committee about his use of tax-exempt organizations to advance his political goals.
But Johnson, having fought two nasty fights of her own against the Democrats in 1996 and 1998, has mainly stayed the course in moderate waters, voting against the Contract with America crime bill package and more recently voting against drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge.
"You aren't going to get 63 percent of the vote if people think you are a right-wing conservative, so it's not realistic," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, referring to her 2000 re-election.
Whether that is true or not, Democrats in Johnson's old district see a winner in Maloney after years of unsuccessful challengers from the party. Unlike Johnson's previous opponents, Maloney has the ability to raise a lot more cash. And both are reported to have already broken the $1 million contribution range.
"Maloney has proven himself at winning close and tight races. If there is any Democratic wave – or even breeze – in this election, Johnson could be one of the first incumbents to lose in November," said Gonzales.