Democrats caught one of their few lucky breaks of the young midterm election cycle when Sen. Chris Dodd — officially “D-CT” but often affectionately designated as “D-Countrywide” — announced his retirement in January. Dodd’s favorability ratings were atrocious, especially for an entrenched incumbent. He was mired in scandal. Polling match-ups with the Republican candidates usually showed him losing to all comers.
So when Dodd decided not to run for reelection this year, he instantly flipped his Senate seat from a likely Republican takeover to a near-certain Democratic retention. Ever since Joe Lieberman sent Lowell Weicker packing in 1988, Connecticut voters have liked their senators to have the letter “D” appearing next to their names. Even in what could shape up to be a good Republican year, it generally takes a pol as unpopular as Dodd to alter that basic fact.
Unfortunately, Dodd’s replacement as the Democratic standard-bearer, state attorney general Richard Blumenthal, is no walk along the Connecticut River either. Blumenthal is an overzealous Eliot Spitzer imitator with a duller social life but a no less acute sense of his office’s activist potential. The Hartford Courant once editorialized that Blumenthal “has elevated activism to an art form, figuratively beating the ambulance to the accident almost every time.” The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) labeled him the nation’s worst state attorney general.
None of this has stopped Blumenthal from turning around the Connecticut Senate race. As soon as he announced his candidacy, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey showed him trouncing his potential Republican challengers by better than 30 points. Blumenthal led former congressman Rob Simmons 59 percent to 28 percent, ex-wrestling executive Linda McMahon 60 percent to 28 percent, and financial guru Peter Schiff by 63 percent to 23 percent. The same poll showed Dodd losing to Simmons by four points, tied with McMahon at 43 percent apiece, and leading Schiff by just seven points. Other polls — PPP is a Democratic firm — found Dodd in even worse shape.
One might assume that the voters would be repulsed at the sight of a Greenwich limousine liberal chasing ambulances, but the key to successful crusading — Blumenthal has been in office for five four-year terms — is to convince people you are really looking out for the little guy. Blumenthal picks unpopular targets and says he is wielding his considerable power on behalf of the downtrodden. He entered the race with a 40-point net favorable rating and led his nearest Republican rival by a two to one margin in the most recent Quinnipiac poll. His job approval rating hovered near 80 percent.
Blumenthal built his popularity on the backs of such easy prey as tobacco companies. In the 1990s, he negotiated the Master Settlement Agreement by which state attorneys general agreed to drop their litigation against cigarette manufacturers if the coffin nail-makers were willing to pony up. Nobody likes Big Tobacco and everybody loves the anti-smoking efforts the national tobacco deal was supposed to fund. But the end result was a transfer of $14 billion from disproportionately low-income smokers to the bank accounts of wealthy trial lawyers.
CEI senior attorney Hans Bader pointed out in the Washington Examiner that “in many years, Connecticut spends nothing at all on preventing smoking, while much of the money has gone into lawyers’ pockets.” Among those who benefited from the deal were Blumenthal’s own former law firm, one of his old law school buddy’s, and the law firm that represented former governor John Rowland.
Blumenthal has an almost uncanny knack for expanding the powers of his office in creative ways that will endear him to the public. One of his early crusades was getting rid of ATM fees at Connecticut banks. He went after Midwestern power plants he maintained were dirtying the Nutmeg State’s air. Blumenthal brought his power to bear against Microsoft and HMOs. HMOs and polluters are about as popular as Big Tobacco.
In 2002, the Connecticut Supreme Court concluded in a unanimous decision that Blumenthal had overstepped his legal authority when he went after the administrator of an academy for mis-use of funds. The court held that it was actually Connecticut’s education commissioner who should have brought the case forward and that one of the statutory purposes of the office Blumenthal held was to avoid the problem of state agencies suing one another. Blumenthal claimed he had broader powers.
“In just 12 years, under state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s desire to increase his authority,” American Enterprise Institute resident scholar John Lott wrote in a local newspaper at the time, “his office has ballooned in size, more than doubling its budget from $13 million to almost $27 million and increasing the number of cases completed by 65 percent.”
“Blumenthal is so ubiquitous, in fact, reporters joke there must be a cardboard cutout of the attorney general that simply gets moved around from event to event,” reported Elizabeth Hamilton in the Courant. “Whether it’s a funeral for a former state official, a press conference, or an election-night victory party, you can count on seeing Blumenthal’s face in the shot if there’s a camera present.”
Or as David Plotz put it in a generally favorable profile for Slate, Blumenthal “turned consumer advocacy into high art and helped lead the nationwide trend of AG activism. According to Yale legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar, Reagan-era deregulation and congressional gridlock left a power vacuum….AGs, always trolling for power and press, rushed to fill it. Blumenthal proved a master.” Lott charged, “Blumenthal has gone so far into actions previously reserved for other parts of the government that he often neglects the real duties of his job.”
As in Spitzer’s case, however, it hasn’t been all fun and games for those targeted during Blumenthal’s crusades. “I just think he’s evil. He acts always for himself, with complete disregard for the public,” a lawyer who represented industries sued by Blumenthal told the Hartford Courant. “Like everybody else in the business world, I’m scared to death of this guy. He can wreck careers.”
WHY IS SOMEONE AS ADEPT at self-promotion as Blumenthal still attorney general after nearly 20 years? State Democrats complain that he has looked out for his own self-preservation first rather than the needs of their party. He has repeatedly taken a pass on races for Senate and governor. “He’s intelligent. He’s a decent guy. He just doesn’t have the fire for a tough run,” New Haven Advocate political columnist Paul Bass memorably observed.
“He wants it to be handed to him, and it never was.”
That may be about to change. Dodd’s retirement sets Blumenthal up for a fairly easy Senate race. Rob Simmons, a quintessential New England moderate, was a safe Republican to run against a scandal-tainted incumbent. He almost certainly lacks the star power to go up against Blumenthal for an open seat. Alas, Peter Schiff, the prescient apostle of financial doom, appears unlikely to make it out of the primary.
The Republicans’ best chance may be with Linda McMahon, who has recently taken a narrow lead among GOP primary voters. McMahon, the only Senate candidate currently on the air with television ads, at least has the money to self-finance and expose Blumenthal’s record. But Republican operatives worry that her career with World Wrestling Entertainment will provide fodder for opposition researchers. It will be difficult to run against a limousine liberal while she sails around on a 47-foot yacht named Sexy Bitch.
This leaves Blumenthal, however undeservedly and however indistinguishable from Sen. Dodd, the heavy favorite to win in November (he faces only token opposition in the Democratic primary). Barring an astonishing upset in a year of 1994-like proportions for Republicans, the country may get to see Blumenthal take his crusading to Capitol Hill. But Blumenthal’s rivals would have this consolation — at least a trip to Washington would finally get him out of the attorney general’s office.