For Connecticut's Hamlet, to Run or Not to Run?

When it comes to running for higher office, Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's popular five-term attorney general, often is described as being as indecisive as Hamlet. ...
by | April 13, 2009

Hamlet-48 When it comes to running for higher office, Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's popular five-term attorney general, often is described as being as indecisive as Hamlet. That analogy does a disservice to Hamlet who, after all, did end up killing Polonius, Laertes and Claudius. Blumenthal never once has run for higher office and, thankfully, he's never killed anyone either.

The only reason that Blumenthal, a Democrat, has a reputation for inaction and indecision is that he decided not to run for governor in 1994 and 1998 and 2002 and 2006 and, recently, in 2010. In many of these years, Connecticut Democrats waited expectantly for his decision.

But, Blumenthal doesn't really deserve the blame for not running for governor. Circumstances -- specifically strong Republican incumbents -- conspired against him year after year. Finally, Blumenthal may have the perfect office for which to run: the U.S. Senate in 2010. For that, he can thank a fellow Democrat, Sen. Chris Dodd, for committing a series of missteps.

Before I get to that, allow me to recount Blumenthal's electoral history because I find it so fascinating and, in a way, tragic. This is, after all, someone who many observers thought had the brains, political skill, connections and ambition to be president.

Early this year, just days before Blumenthal ruled out a 2010 bid, I was speaking with Kevin Rennie, a former Connecticut state legislator, who told me that Blumenthal's best chance would have been to run for governor in 1994.

I can see his point. Incumbent Gov. Lowell Weicker declined to run again in 1994, creating an open seat. Blumenthal had only one term as AG under his belt, though, and may not have wanted to risk his budding political career on this sort of gamble. Ultimately, Republican John Rowland prevailed with only 36% of the vote in a four-way race.

Richnew Quickly, Blumenthal became one of the most popular politicians in America. He's like Eliot Spitzer with more media savvy (and no sex scandal). He's made a name for himself by busting corporate wrongdoers and standing up for consumers.

Still, a popular challenger usually loses to a popular incumbent. Rowland was a popular incumbent in 1998, so Blumenthal passed. Connecticut has no gubernatorial term limits, so Rowland was a popular incumbent again in 2002. Blumenthal passed.

Surely, Rowland couldn't stay governor forever. And, he didn't. He was convicted of fraud in 2004 and later went to jail.

But, that allowed his lieutenant governor, Jodi Rell, to come into office and clean up the mess. Rell did that and, as a result, was highly popular when she ran for a full-term in 2006. Blumenthal decided to run for a fifth term as AG that year. Rell is still popular today -- and thinking about running in 2010 -- which is probably why Blumenthal passed once more, despite an approval rating of 81% according to one recent poll.

All of this time, Blumenthal couldn't run for Senate because Connecticut already had two popular Democratic senators in Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman. Now, that's changed.

Lieberman, of course, was elected as an independent in 2006, though he still caucuses with the Democrats. Blumenthal has appeared to be gearing up for a run for his seat in 2012.

More recently, Dodd's popularity has plummeted, for a combinations of reason -- his quixotic presidential bid, the refinancing of his mortgage by Countrywide and his role (real or imagined) in the A.I.G. bonuses controversy. One poll shows Dodd getting trounced by Republican challengers.

So, this is the time for Blumenthal to announce that he's challenging Dodd in the Democratic primary, right? That wouldn't quite be his style. Here's what he told the Hartford Courant:

Potential Democratic stand-in Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's popular attorney general, said Thursday that he would consider running for the seat -- but only if Dodd decides on his own to step aside.

"If Sen. Dodd really changes his mind and there is an opportunity, I would very definitely," Blumenthal said. "I would be interested because [serving in the U.S. Senate] has been a long-term, in fact, lifetime, public service goal ... but for right now, I'm focused on being the best possible attorney general I can be."

This move by Blumenthal is actually fairly aggressive. He's telegraphing to Connecticut Democrats that he'll run if Dodd doesn't. If Dodd's numbers don't improve, his own party may begin clamoring for him to step aside. Without getting his hands dirty, Blumenthal may have the open seat he's always wanted.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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