Now in the 5th, the former campaign manager who helped nearly topple Johnson in 1996 is thinking about challenging her himself.
Since running college professor Charlotte Koskoff’s campaign nine years ago — and coming within a point of beating Johnson — Murphy has been elected to the state House of Representatives and the state Senate. He recently won a second Senate term.
“It’s certainly something that people have talked to me about and, quite honestly, something I have talked to other people about,” Murphy said. He added that the only reason he moved was that he had been looking for a home and found one that was in his price range and in the center of his state Senate 16th District.
Privately, a handful of leading Democrats familiar with the 5th District said Murphy is “seriously” looking at the congressional race.
Connecticut Democrats praised Murphy, a 1996 graduate of Williams College, for what they called his intelligence, maturity and willingness to take principled stands in the state Legislature — for example, backing a death-penalty moratorium and gay rights.
“He has not played it safe,” Koskoff said. “He’s not a flaming liberal. He’s not a flaming anything. But he’s kind of taken quiet, principled stands.” Calling Murphy “smart, well-focused and full of personal grace,” Koskoff said she would back his House candidacy.
Murphy said that, of all the legislation he had worked on, he was proudest of a statewide smoking ban and a law that helps those lacking health insurance. He also said he had supported civil unions for gays two or three years before it was “politically popular” to do so.
But before he can begin plotting a general-election campaign against Johnson, he may have to fend off a few fellow Democrats — including Demetrios Giannaros, a state representative and University of Hartford economics professor; Terry Gerratana, who ran unsuccessfully against Johnson last year; and Bill Curry, a former gubernatorial candidate.
While Murphy’s youthful idealism should help galvanize Democrats, he may not have the stature to clear the field. Also, Democrats say, they would prefer to run a woman against Johnson, a mother and grandmother who backs abortion rights and other “women’s issues,” such as high-quality mammograms.
Further complicating matters are Connecticut’s 2nd and 4th districts, now held by Republicans Rob Simmons and Christopher Shays, respectively. Democrats believe they have a shot at picking off at least one of those seats and may not be keen on diverting precious resources to the riskier 5th District.
“Certainly, those two, the 2nd and the 4th, are targets,” said Leslie O’Brien, executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party. “But I don’t think the 5th should be any less of a target.”
Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said only that he knew Murphy’s name.
Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, shrugged off Democratic hopes of picking up the 5th District.
“Nancy Johnson defeated her toughest opponent back when she beat Jim Maloney in 2002,” Forti said, referring to the incumbent-versus-incumbent race that took place after Connecticut lost one of its congressional districts due to the census. “That’s why Democrats haven’t targeted her since.”
Should Murphy snag his party’s nomination, he would face a well-heeled 12th-term incumbent who has portrayed herself as a team player — with a senior spot on the House Ways and Means Committee — while also being a centrist often at odds with party leaders.
In the 2003-2004 election cycle, Johnson raised nearly $2.3 million, spending only $1.2 million to win 60 percent of the vote, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Nearly $1.3 million of the money she raised, or 56 percent, came from political action committees.
Some of Johnson’s biggest backers are PacifiCare Health Systems ($40,250), Kindred Healthcare ($15,500) and Blue Cross Blue Shield ($11,250). Democrats say this proves that Johnson is a wholly owned subsidiary of the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry.
They also say the 2003 prescription-drug bill, which Johnson played a key role in crafting, shields drug companies from normal market forces. And they say they plan to make a lot of noise about that in 2006 — even though it apparently didn’t hurt the congresswoman that much in 2004.
Aware that the prescription-drug bill may not be an albatross to drape around Johnson’s neck, Democrats are trying to tag her as a conservative zealot, even though many in her party regard her as a centrist whose politics makes it unlikely that she’ll ever land the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee.
Koskoff said Johnson had used the abortion issue to veil her conservative leanings. “You will see a voting record that is very right-wing on everything but abortion, and she has really, really pushed the abortion thing,” she said. “I defy anybody to find a vote in which she has voted against her party and made a difference.”
Yesterday, Johnson, with 12 other Republicans, sent a letter to House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) urging him not to include anticipated revenues from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the budget process. Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.), Michael Castle (Del.), Jim Leach (Iowa) and Shays also signed the letter, among others.
Brian Schubert, Johnson’s spokesman, could not be reached yesterday for comment.