What’s next for Chris Murphy?

Connecticut Democrat focuses on the art of the possible

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy seems to understand that politics is the art of accomplishing the possible, and he's the kind of candidate Democrats should be looking to recruit, columnist Stuart Rothenberg says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy seems to understand that politics is the art of accomplishing the possible, and he's the kind of candidate Democrats should be looking to recruit, columnist Stuart Rothenberg says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 6, 2022 at 2:40pm

ANALYSIS — According to my 2006 calendar, I met Connecticut Democratic candidate Christopher S. Murphy on Feb. 28. I had a breakfast speaking engagement in Florida that morning but still got back to Washington, D.C., for a midafternoon interview about his run for the state's 5th District seat.

I don’t remember a lot about that meeting. I do recall that I thought Murphy looked quite young — he was 32 at the time — and seemed very liberal. He understood campaigns, and he was serious about matters of public policy.

I’m certain I also figured that it would be difficult for any Democrat to oust the entrenched GOP incumbent, Rep. Nancy Johnson, who represented the northwest quarter of the state, including some of Hartford’s upscale western suburbs and blue-collar New Britain.

A pragmatist who supported legal abortion, Johnson “became one of the most active and productive legislators in the House,” according to the 1998 edition of "The Almanac of American Politics."

But 2006 was President George W. Bush’s second midterm, and the combination of the administration’s slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq and the GOP’s complete control of the House, Senate and White House created Democratic opportunities where they previously had not existed.

So I wanted to interview Murphy, who had almost pulled a rabbit out of a hat a decade earlier.

Murphy, who was then in his early 20s, had managed Charlotte Koskoff’s U.S. House race in 1996, when she challenged the seemingly unbeatable Johnson.

Johnson had clobbered Koskoff two years earlier, 64 percent to 32 percent, so the rematch didn’t initially appear to be a great opportunity for Democrats. 

But Johnson was close to Speaker Newt Gingrich, even though the two Republicans had very different ideological approaches. During the 1996 race, Koskoff’s campaign successfully linked Johnson to Gingrich, who was unpopular in the district and a polarizing figure nationally. The Connecticut congresswoman’s support plummeted.

On election night, Johnson trailed and looked headed for defeat. But she eventually was declared the victor, winning a 50 percent to 49 percent squeaker. Though his candidate had lost, Murphy had made a name for himself managing Koskoff’s campaign. 

Murphy, whose only government experience had been two years on the Southington Planning & Zoning Commission, was elected to the Connecticut House in 1998 (when he defeated a Republican incumbent), the Connecticut Senate and, then, in 2006, to Congress, when the young Democratic legislator defeated an entrenched Republican incumbent, Johnson, by 13 points. 

Murphy undoubtedly benefited from the 2006 midterm environment, which produced a Democratic political wave that swept the 71-year-old Johnson from office. Democrats took back both the Senate and the House, and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi became the speaker of the House. 

Six years later, Murphy won the Democratic nomination to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman. That November, he defeated wealthy Republican nominee businesswoman Linda McMahon by 12 points, almost the same margin by which the state’s other senator, Richard Blumenthal, beat McMahon two years earlier.

I don’t know Murphy well, though I have watched him on TV often and we did an event on Capitol Hill for the University of Connecticut, where I went to graduate school. I remember thinking as he spoke to students and alumni at that event how well he connected with the audience. 

Some of it, of course, stemmed from his youthful appearance. But more than that, he sounded smart, well versed in issues and sincere. 

These days, the now 48-year-old Democrat is in the news often, most frequently about guns. He seems to understand that politics is the art of accomplishing the possible, not merely aiming for the impossible and blaming the opposition.

Yes, he is still personally liberal, but he seems to want to legislate, not merely complain. And a bipartisan compromise on guns could be quite a feather in his cap.

As CQ Roll Call’s "Politics in America 2014" put it, “Part of Murphy’s appeal as a politician is his lack of ideological rigidity. His views on the environment and social issues align with those of most liberals, but as a House member he belonged to the business-friendly New Democratic Coalition. The mold that most reliably shapes his interests is Connecticut.”

All of this raises the obvious question: What is next for Chris Murphy

Apart from a former lobbyist friend of mine, I rarely hear Murphy mentioned as a presidential hopeful, a potential party leader or even merely as the kind of Democrat who, like Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, is just the kind of politician Democrats need to recruit, run and elect around the country.

That’s at least something to think about.