Incumbent Democrat Joseph P. Courtney broke the photo-finish hex in the state's 2nd Congressional District Tuesday, sweeping through eastern Connecticut in overwhelming fashion and crushing Republican challenger Sean Sullivan.
With 86 of 149 precincts reporting, Courtney had 152,266 votes, or 65 percent of the total, to Sullivan's 78,385 votes, or 33 percent. Green Party candidate G. Scott Deshefy had 5,223 votes, or 2 percent of the total. The trend late Tuesday put Courtney on track to win all 65 towns in the district.
"Today we have now won a great victory, from Ledyard to Putnam … and everywhere in between," Courtney told a cheering crowd at the Radisson Hotel ballroom in New London minutes after Sullivan conceded at 9:10 p.m.
Courtney was elected to Congress two years ago after defeating three-term Republican incumbent Rob Simmons by 83 votes, then the smallest victory margin in the nation.
Surrounded by campaign staff and family, Courtney thanked shipyard workers, fishermen, farmers, teachers, nurses, college students and all of the others who he said helped send him back to Congress.
"The vote that came out tonight and that is sweeping across the country is a vote for more change, and I'm going to get up every day for the next two years and make sure we finish that job," he said
Sullivan, who was encamped with family and supporters at the Holiday Inn in Norwich, conceded after televised returns showed that the trend was overwhelmingly against him.
"It wasn't the night we wanted," Sullivan said, "But it's the judgment of the people, and we respect that judgment. He was clearly on his way to election to another two-year term. I know there's a lot he will do to help our state and help our country."
Deshefy was trying to reach Courtney to concede. He said his vote total would enable future Green Party candidates for Congress in the 2nd District to qualify for ballot position without going through the "onerous" process of petitioning.
Courtney was a heavy favorite throughout the race. Unable to afford a major advertising program, Sullivan was forced to strike out against Courtney on the stump and at debates.
Sullivan, a 49-year old former Navy submariner, complained that Courtney's lock step support of the Democratic congressional leadership made him too partisan to reflect the diverse interests of a sprawling district that consumes nearly half of the state.
But Courtney, a 55-year old lawyer, said he didn't need to prove his independence: He is the only member of Congress from Connecticut to vote against a bill to appropriate $700 billion to bail out the nation's overdrawn banks. His congressional votes, he said, helped save Medicare, produced a new G.I. Bill and set the first new fuel efficiency standards for automobiles in 32 years.
Courtney had the advantage of two prior campaigns, both challenges, in the 2nd District, which runs from Enfield to Stonington and has neither a clear urban center nor a unifying population demographic.
Only two challengers have captured the 2nd District in nearly 30 years. Simmons unseated Democrat Sam Gejdenson in 2000 after constituents became convinced that the 20-year incumbent had lost touch with eastern Connecticut. Courtney rode the mid-term Democratic tide two years ago to beat Simmons. Courtney first challenged Simmons — and lost — in 2002.
This year's campaign was more lopsided than most in a district known for tight races. Sullivan trailed Courtney in October by a 2-1 ratio in a University of Connecticut poll, and Courtney had eight times as much money to spend as the campaign entered its final month.
Courtney, a former state legislator from Vernon, seemed to have a clear path to re-election when Republicans couldn't recruit a candidate with name recognition, elective experience or fundraising ability.
Sullivan, a 49-year-old retired Navy captain and lawyer from Ledyard who commanded the submarine base in Groton before retiring in 2006, accepted the challenge. Earlier, he commanded the USS Jefferson City, a nuclear powered Los Angeles-class attack submarine, and was a Navy liaison to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Courtney campaigned on his vote against the financial bailout and his work to use the federal budget to stimulate job creation — including the construction of additional submarines at Electric Boat. He also promoted his support for legislation that would create affordable health insurance for small businesses.
Sullivan also promised to push for health care for small business. But he promised to fight to reduce taxes across the board and hammered Courtney for supporting legislation that he said will increase taxes on eastern Connecticut families.
Courtney and Sullivan promised to support spending to develop energy alternatives. But Sullivan distinguished himself with a plan to boost nuclear generation of electricity by standardizing plant design.
Deshefy, a 56-year old retired biologist, said he was the only real departure from indistinguishable Democratic and Republican agendas.
But his own agenda may have doomed him in one of the most defense industry-dependent and nuclear power-savvy districts in the country. The 2nd District is home to the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics, which builds nuclear-powered submarines for the Navy; the Navy Submarine Base in Groton, home to significant parts of the Navy's attack and ballistic missile submarine fleets; and the Millstone complex of nuclear power plants.
If elected, Deshefy promised to fight for withdrawal within 10 months of U.S. troops from Iraq, to work to cut the national defense budget by 20 to 25 percent and to lead an effort to phase out nuclear-generated power.
Courant Staff Writers David Funkhouser and Peter Marteka contributed to this story.