Known as one of the House’s most ambitious young Democrats, Rep. Chris Murphy held off wealthy Republican Linda McMahon for the open Senate seat of retiring incumbent Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent. Murphy, 39, overcame attacks from McMahon about his poor attendance at congressional hearings as well as his failure to make timely rent and mortgage payments years ago.
Murphy grew up in Wethersfield, and his father is a prominent member of a Hartford law firm. He graduated from Williams College in 1996; the same year, at age 22, he became the campaign manager for Democrat Charlotte Koskoff, who fell 1,587 votes short of ousting veteran Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson. Murphy won a seat in the state House in 1998, got a law degree in 2002, and, later that year, won election to the state Senate. He served as cochairman of the public health committee.
In early 2005, Murphy moved into Johnson’s 5th District, announcing in April that he planned to challenge her. He was backed by the Democratic establishment and faced no primary opposition. Much of the debate focused on the Medicare prescription-drug benefit that moderate Republican Johnson had helped design in 2003 as chairman of the House Ways and Means panel’s Health Subcommittee. Murphy contended that the Republicans’ prescription-drug program’s enrollment deadlines penalized seniors, and he spotlighted drug-industry contributions to Johnson to portray her as a shill for the industry. Just before the election, a Johnson ad accused Murphy of voting to raise taxes 27 times. But even though she outspent Murphy by $5 million to $2.5 million, he won, 56 percent to 44 percent.
In the House, Murphy was a fairly loyal Democrat, and he allied with home-state colleagues Rosa DeLauro and John Larson, both senior leaders of the Democratic Caucus. Although his western Connecticut district is home to many insurance-industry employees, he backed a government-run public option as part of the health care overhaul to compete with private insurers. Murphy has been an ardent advocate for “buy American” requirements and introduced bills to require federal contracting officials to accept and solicit information from businesses regarding how many U.S. jobs would be retained or created if their bid was chosen.
As a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Murphy focused on increasing government transparency. In 2008, he won House approval for his bill requiring large government contractors to disclose the names and salaries of their highest-paid executives. He took a leading role in criticizing conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for his relationship with Republican-affiliated groups that fought the health care law.
When Lieberman announced his retirement, McMahon, a former professional wrestling magnate who lost the 2010 Senate race to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, decided to run again and easily won the 2012 primary over former Rep. Chris Shays. Murphy struggled despite being the odds-on favorite. Hartford Courant columnist Kevin Rennie revealed that Murphy had missed mortgage payments and was sued over his failure to pay rent. Murphy responded that he forgot to make payments due to a busy schedule. Murphy also was caught flat-footed when McMahon attacked him for missing a number of committee hearings in Congress.
Murphy criticized McMahon on issues affecting seniors, arguing that she would pose a threat to Social Security and Medicare. He also charged that her plan to cut taxes for the wealthiest earners wouldn’t stimulate the economy. McMahon’s personal finances were called into question after reports surfaced that she had been late on several property-tax bills.
But by tapping into her personal wealth, McMahon spent exorbitantly on her campaign, burning through $42.6 million by the end of October. She held moderate positions on some social issues and reversed course on a key gay-rights issue, saying that she would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Some questioned her true ideological leanings. “She says she will be an ‘independent’ Republican, presumably in the state’s moderate tradition, but it’s not obvious how,” the Courant said in endorsing Murphy.