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The Battle For Connecticut's ‘Flippable’ Fifth Congressional District

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., and Republican Candidate David Sullivan
U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., and Republican Candidate David Sullivan

Hackers hijacked a virtual campaign meeting for Democratic U.S. Representative Jahana Hayes. They hurled racist slurs at the state’s first Black congresswoman. Political observers view this "Zoom bombing" as an example of how hostile the upcoming election will be.

Connecticut Republicans condemned the racist attack, but have targeted the 5th Congressional District as flippable.

Hayes has taken it all in stride. She has kept her campaigning online even after the Zoom bomb.

The company set her up with better online security to block hackers. She said it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“I wanted these meetings to be an open space for even if someone was critical of me or disagreed with me, they would have the opportunity to ask me their questions,” Hayes told WSHU's Capitol Avenue podcast.

That has not been the only hardship in her campaign. She tested positive for COVID-19.

“The fact that my family has been affected by COVID, twice,” she said. “So it has been a really, you know, like the windstorm of the first of a first term.”

Her challenger, Republican David Sullivan, wished Hayes well, and condemned the bigoted Zoom bombers.

However, Sullivan said Hayes, a freshman in Congress, is out of step with the district — even though she has a huge warchest.

“She's got the money. But you know what, I've got my presence in these towns,” he said.

Sullivan is a longtime, now retired, federal prosecutor. He’s been teaching law and financial crimes at Connecticut colleges since the 1990s.

He said his conservative views are more aligned with the district than Hayes' and the Democrats' stances.

“We've had one voice representing all the people not just to the fifth district, but the entire state. OK, and that voice is only moved farther and farther to the left,” he continued.

The district is very rural and 80% white. Hayes, a one-time National Teacher of the Year, is Black.

“I think this is where my life experience as a teacher came in handy, because I went into these communities and you talk to people, diverse people, and many of them share my values, and we have the same ideas, and we want a better future for our children,” she said.

Hayes has served on Education and Labor, and Agriculture committees — areas that she said serve the interest of her district.

“We passed a $100 billion school infrastructure package to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure in our schools,” Hayes said. “During this pandemic, we saw how important that was because we have schools that don't even have HVAC systems that are properly functioning, or the water is not clean, or the windows don't open. All these things are important to our community.”

In a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, Sullivan accused Hayes of siding too often with progressives and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I voted for the Speaker of the House so that we can get to business and get working on the job we went to do all of it,” Hayes said.

“No, you went to Congress, and you made a pledge to the people that elected you at the time you were the one that represented,” Sullivan responded. “You wouldn't vote for Nancy Pelosi, no one was twisting your arm.”

Sullivan also accused Hayes, the wife of a Waterbury police detective, of not supporting law enforcement in the wake of protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Connecticut passed a sweeping police accountability law in response. Hayes said U.S. House Democrats also took action.

“The bill was done in consultation with police officers, chiefs around the country, law enforcement agencies,” Hayes said. “The bill that was passed at the state level is not a congressional bill. I am a congressional representative.”

“Well, I think it's also important to note that with the House bill, Nancy Pelosi did not seek any guidance, assistance of counsel from her republican counterparts, which has been a big problem in Washington and in the House of Representatives,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan does support police reform, specifically a bill sponsored by South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only Black Republican Senator. That bill never went to a vote.

Hayes pushes back on the idea that she has not delivered for her district. She said the HEROES Act, which she voted for in the House, is the best chance for her district to recover during the pandemic.

“We had a housing crisis, we had a homelessness crisis, we had people who couldn't get access to testing,” Hayes said. “So for the people who think that that's pork, I can tell you that the people that were calling my office every day begging for assistance in the middle of a global pandemic, if our federal government can't step in now, then what is any of our use as elected officials?”

The biggest problem for Sullivan might be the top of the ticket. He thinks he will do well because the fifth is the one Connecticut congressional district that Trump won in 2016.

“It was a war against socialism,” Sullivan said. “It's also a war against Marxism. And I believe that the future of the Republic is at stake in this election. Connecticut was suffering before this pandemic economically, and we need to find a way out of it. And we need a future that's brighter. I believe in the rule of law.”

The independent candidate is Bruce Walczak. He said he is running to try to bridge the gap between the parties in Washington. But he’s raised little money.

“Clearly bipartisanship is the biggest threat to our democracy right now,” Walczak said.

Hayes hopes she has the formula to hold onto her seat.

“I unify people, I bring people together and build things out,” she said. “I'm not asking you to choose a side to choose whether we support the police or the Black community. I'm not trying to scare people by saying, you know, your suburbs are going to be invaded. What I want you to know is that when we talk about health care, and the economy and schools, the social unrest, about jobs, about immigration, I'm somebody that's going to consider all perspectives.”

And she might be in the best position because she is the only one running television ads in the campaign. Sullivan’s plan is to hit the pavement door-to-door despite the pandemic.

Listen to the full episode of WSHU’s Capitol Avenue podcast to learn more about why Connecticut GOP are holding out hope to flip the state red this election.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.