Up close and personal in 5th District
Candidates’ stories resonate — more or less
The October debates represented Manny Santos’ best chance to close ground on front-runner Jahana Hayes by showing 5th District voters that he too has an inspiring personal story of success from humble origins.
Going into the debates, Santos said his story of Marine Corps service and business achievement as the son of poor immigrant farmers from Portugal was not getting anywhere near the national attention being paid Hayes — who went from being a pregnant high school dropout to the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.
How well the GOP’s Santos shared his story during three debates this month for Connecticut’s only competitive congressional district may not be answered until Nov. 6, when voters in central and northwest Connecticut decide who will replace three-term Democrat Elizabeth Esty.
But if Santos fell short, one reason may be because he didn’t make the personal universal.
“I don’t know how Jahana Hayes has been able to make her personal story everyone’s story,” said Scott McLean, a professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. “But Manny Santos hasn’t been able to make his story everybody’s story.”
For Santos, a one-term mayor of Meriden who is running as a Trump Republican, the need to get his story out to voters is pronounced because he cannot match Hayes in campaign momentum or in fundraising.
Hayes has piled on her lead over Santos, raising $830,000 in the most recent five-week reporting period to Santos’ $29,000, and spending $580,000 to Santos’ $18,000. Hayes ran her first 30-second television ad last week.
“The challenge for Manny has not changed — he needs to get on the air with something, and to do that, he has to be able to raise the money,” said Mark Boughton, Danbury’s longtime GOP mayor who lost the Republican primary for governor in August. “There is still time, but the window is closing.”
Hayes, a Democrat making her first run for office, is part of a national wave of minority female candidates running as progressives. She raised her profile by sharing her struggles growing up in a Waterbury housing project with her grandmother, because her mother was a drug addict. Hayes earned her degrees while working as a single mom and incurring huge student debt.
Hayes has made her personal plight relatable in part with social media videos that use visual storytelling techniques to make emotional connections. For example, her “Truth to Power” video got 10 million hits and brought in $300,000 in contributions, her campaign said.
The video was remarkable not only for its reach but for its message, a key Hayes supporter said.
“In that video she says, ‘When Congress starts to look like us, no one can stop us,’ and Manny Santos accused her of playing identity politics,” said Ken Curran, the Waterbury Democratic Party chairman. “But what he is missing is she is identifying with everybody.”
Observers say both candidates have personal appeal, even if their personalities are distinct.
But in Hayes’ story there is more continuity between the vulnerability she experienced as a poor minority child and her progressive principles for constituents in need than there is continuity in Santos’ story between the vulnerability he experienced as a poor immigrant child and his conservative principles of law-and-order and personal responsibility for constituents in need.
The difference may be that Hayes is willing to share the trials that shaped her character while Santos is more comfortable sharing the conservative principles that guide him.
For example, Santos drew the only boos of the debate season on Wednesday when he told a crowd at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain “The student debt issue is something that frankly a lot of students bring on themselves.”
A political observer said Santos’ hard line on illegal immigration, repealing Obamacare and opposing gay marriage could be a barrier for Democrats and unaffiliated voters trying to identify with his story.
“While there is a portion of voters in the 5th District who would agree with Santos on those issues, his messaging has been very difficult to locate in this campaign,” said Gary Rose, a political science professor and the chair of the Government, Politics and Global Studies department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. “I don’t think these debates elevated his campaign very much.”
Republican Manny Santos, right, and Democrat Jahana Hayes, candidates for the 5th Congressional District in Connecticut, debate in Danbury on Tuesday.