Murphy challenger Cappiello draws potential GOP primary opponent

A former Connecticut state House member is forming an exploratory committee and is expected to enter the race for freshman Rep. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: Trump, Erdogan confirm White House meeting | Public impeachment hearings set for next week | Top defense appropriator retiring Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward Senate Democrat: Colleague was working on fantasy football trade instead of listening to Schumer MORE’s (D) seat, setting up a primary battle with a candidate who has earned the early support of national Republicans.

Former state Rep. Tony Nania (R) served three terms in the state House beginning in the 1980s, but he has not run for office since stepping down in 1991. He would face state Sen. David Cappiello, who has been the only candidate in the GOP race for months and was seen as his party’s likely standard-bearer.

Nania said he will launch an exploratory committee Tuesday.

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In a letter to potential donors, Nania casts himself as an independent-minded politician who wants to restore people’s faith in Congress. In an interview, he said he would be running to the right of Cappiello and suggested the state senator’s politics closely align with Murphy’s.

“There is no choice,” Nania said. “The Democrat and the current announced Republican are essentially peas in a pod politically. … We’re going to have the choice of a real Republican for the first time in a long time in Connecticut.”

While Nania has been out of the public spotlight for 15 years, state party Chairman Chris Healy said he has remained involved in party politics and would be a formidable opponent to Cappiello.

He said that primary challengers often hurt the party when facing an incumbent, but added that he hopes Nania and Cappiello will focus on Murphy instead of each other.

“Either one will be exponentially better congress-people than Chris Murphy,” Healy said. “That’ll be very obvious to any voter in the 5th district, mostly because Cappiello and Nania are grown-ups and understand the world as it really is.”

Nania said he is lining up support at all levels of the state party and suggested that party operatives have not been impressed with Cappiello’s candidacy. But he declined to offer any possible endorsements at this point.

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Cappiello has been in the race since the middle of the year but saw his fundraising drop off significantly from the second quarter to the third quarter, when he raised only $70,000. His campaign explained he was busy surrounding the birth of his child.

The $200,000 he raised in the second quarter, however, helped put him on the national Republicans’ radar, and they eventually made him one of 10 beneficiaries of the Challengers Helping Obtain the Majority Program (CHOMP), which is run by House Republican members.

Murphy, meanwhile, raised more than $1 million in the first nine months of the 2008 cycle.

Cappiello is already benefiting from an information-sharing agreement signed by state party leaders when they thought he would be the only candidate in the race. Nania will not have that luxury.

Cappiello spokesman Adam Bauer called his boss “the only credible candidate” to beat Murphy.

“This doesn’t change our campaign strategy at all,” he said.

Sacred Heart University political science Professor Gary Rose said Cappiello appears to be making a renewed effort to raise money around the state in recent months. Cappiello is a member of his party’s state Senate leadership.

Rose said Nania would suffer from a lack of name recognition.

“How many people really know him?” Rose said. “At the same time, I would say this is still a swing district and anyone … could still pose a challenge to Murphy.”

Nania has not been recruited by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which has appeared content with Cappiello’s candidacy. But he does fit one of the committee’s top criteria for prospective candidates: the ability to supplement his campaign with his own money.

The NRCC has a policy of not endorsing before a primary.

“We trust local Republicans to nominate who they believe will make the best possible candidate in the general election,” said NRCC spokeswoman Betsy Andres.

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Carrie James, called Cappiello a less-than-impressive candidate and added, “It’s not surprising he is now facing a possible primary opponent.”

Nania went into business in 1989 and served as an executive at The Geer Corporation until December 2006. He said he was fired after he and the management went “nose to nose” over managerial issues but that he expects all of the company’s board members to support his candidacy.

He said he thinks he will need to put together $1.5 million through donations and self-contributions. If he can do that, he added, he believes he can attract enough support to double that amount.

The primary is in September — among the latest in the nation — and is preceded by an endorsing convention of the state party. Nania said he expects the primary to be well sorted out at the convention, likely held in May, at which point he says the party likely needs to start choosing sides if it decides to.

“[Cappiello] was the only kid on the block, and he went early, and he got some support; I think that’s fine,” Nania said. “If I can prove to them I’m a better candidate, they might change their mind.”

Murphy defeated Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) 56-44 last year. His office declined to comment for this story.