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Connecticut Senator Emerges in the Anti-Trump Movement: Chris Murphy’s Surging Popularity

I’m Francesca and I would like to ask you a few questions,” a seven-year-old girl asked Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy at a recent Yale event. “How are you able to be standing up when so many things are pushing you down?” Francesca was referring, of course, to the actions of the Trump administration which Murphy has become increasingly vocal against. Murphy responded as a true politician would: He manages to fight back against the President’s actions because he wants a better life for his own kids, who are both under ten years old.

In 1998, at age 25, Senator Murphy began his official political career when he successfully challenged 14-year-incumbent Republican State Representative Angelo Fusco. He won reelection in 2000 and, after two terms, decided to run for Connecticut State Senate at age 29. When he defeated Ann Dandrow the seat became occupied by a Democrat for the first time in sixteen years. In 2006, he sought a seat in the House of Representatives and six years later, at age 39, secured a seat in the Senate where he has sat on the Appropriations, Foreign Relations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. At the time of his election in 2012, he was the youngest sitting member in the Senate.

Senator Murphy has received national attention for his precocious political success. The New York Times ran an article on him in 2012 titled “A Young Star Rises Again, to the Senate,” saying that “some Democrats say climbing a hill so fast does not guarantee [Murphy] will stay on top of it. But most agree that if he does not, it will not be because of a lack of brains, drive and hard work.”

More recently, however, Murphy’s name has reached headlines because of his active role in anti-Trump opposition. Immediately after Trump introduced an executive order to bar travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Murphy introduced a bill to block the order, and tweeted a photo of a drowned Syrian boy with the caption: “To my colleagues: don’t ever again lecture me on American moral leadership if you chose to be silent today.” He has vehemently opposed Trump’s cabinet appointees and nominee for the Supreme Court. And when asked about U.S.-Russia relations, Murphy told CNN: “This is as scary as it gets.”

On April 7, 2017 Murphy launched a peer-to-peer voter operation in Connecticut called Fight Back Connecticut, a unified effort to promote grassroots groups working in opposition to the Trump administration. “This only works if people like you are willing to take action to pull it off,” Murphy wrote in an email forwarded to The Politic by his Press Secretary, Laura Maloney. “But if we do, I think that we can change the course of the Trump presidency and stop the damaging policies he and his administration are attempting to put into place.”

Fight Back Connecticut will be funded by surplus money raised for Murphy’s 2018 re-election campaign. “The most frequent question I get asked in Connecticut is ‘What more can I do to help fight back?,’ and this new organization with real resources and staff dedicated to it is an effort to answer this question,” Murphy told The Hartford Courant. While speaking at Yale, Murphy stressed the importance of action versus dialogue. “Speaking out against Donald Trump is not enough,” he said. “Your words don’t matter if your actions don’t match them.”

Murphy’s prominence in the anti-Trump movement has also raised speculations about his future in the Democratic Party. Josh Hochman ’18, President of the Yale College Democrats, spoke highly of Murphy: “He is uniquely suited to serve as a central player in the Democrats’ opposition to Trump,” he said. “And now, he is a rising star on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, well-versed in and passionate about the US’s role as a bulwark against autocracy, revisionism, and revanchism around the world.”

Nicholas Girard ’19,  a Connecticut resident active in the College Democrats and Connecticut politics, echoed Hochman’s praise of Murphy: “I think Senator Murphy has a bright political future ahead of him. He has proven to Connecticut and the nation that he is a fighter, a champion, for all of us and that he’s not afraid to take on the fight to build a better future,” Girard said. “Throughout his tenure in the Senate, Senator Murphy has led the way for practical progressive ideals, and in the Trump era, I see Senator Murphy continuing his fight.”

While Murphy is generally well-liked among Democrats, some–particularly those who supported Senator Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton for the Presidential Democratic nomination–are not entirely sold on him. Shaun Radgowski ’20, a resident of Montville, CT, said, “My one hesitation with him as a Senator is he isn’t as receptive to the populist movement (i.e. Bernie Sanders ideas, more equal-opportunity policy) as some of his colleagues.”

The unexpected outcome of the 2016 election left the Democratic Party in a precarious situation; many heartbroken Democrats blamed the party for allowing such an upset to occur. Radgowski’s complaint about Murphy is one that was often directed at Hillary Clinton during her campaignthat she was too stuck in the establishment of the Democratic Party; too closed off from the sentiments of the populist movement .

“I would hope that after the 2016 election, the Democratic Party moves toward a more grassroots approach of politics,” Radgowski said. “This could manifest itself as the party being more responsive to their voter base, especially younger voters who might have a more progressive agenda than middle-aged Democrats.”

Fight Back Connecticut certainly aims to focus on grassroots efforts that Radgowski prefers. “Fight Back CT will take another cue from Sanders’ campaign, Murphy said, by bringing in professionals to work with progressive activists who have already been organizing on their own,” reported The Hartford Courant. “In Connecticut, for example, a grass-roots Sanders group was active for months before his campaign spent its first dollar in the state.”

Overall, Radgowski has a “positive view” of Murphy, “especially on his insistence for Gun Control policy.” In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting which occurred in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 and the Orlando shooting in 2015, Murphy took to the Senate floor to deliver a 14-plus hour filibuster, one of the longest in Senate history, fueling further debate on gun control and means of addressing gun violence. Though his efforts have not yet produced legislative change, Murphy’s name has risen to national discourse as a leading proponent of gun control.

Amid talk of a possible 2020 Presidential run, Murphy will continue to be an important and vocal figure in rebuilding the Democratic Party. Hochman, who has dedicated significant time to thinking about the state of the Party as President of the College Democrats, posed a question: “How do we articulate our values and win not in spite of those values, but because of them?” he asked. “Unlike in today’s Republican Party, our most closely-held values are not subject to compromise for electoral advantage.”

Republicans disagree, arguing that Democrats–and the Party–are not devoid of this type of compromise or exploitation of values for political gain. In an interview with The Yale Daily News, J. R. Romano, the chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, called Murphy a “political opportunist” who is “using the dissatisfaction amongst Democrats and liberals who still cannot get over the fact that they lost to raise his political profile.”

What’s the Left to do?

Lean into emotion, says Hochman. “Republicans don’t have a monopoly on anger and frustration. The left is passionate, and the left is angry. And Democrats need to channel that in order to return a progressive internationalist, not a reactionary unilateralist, to the White House.”

Girard is also hopeful, particularly for 2020. He sees Murphy at the forefront of the constituency of Democrats who can ring in success. “Young Democratic leaders, like Senator Murphy, recognize the challenges of the party as it currently operates as well as the growing ‘independence’ among young people to not join parties,” he said. “Senator Murphy and the next generation of party leaders will bring strong policies that speak to folks and bold, innovative leadership that challenge the conventions of the Democratic Party and progressivism”  

On February 12, 2017, The New York Post reported that Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, asked consultants to look into four Democrats who are potential candidates for 2020. Murphy was one of them. When asked about this during the Q&A session at Yale, Murphy laughed and assured the audience that he was not running for Presidentbut the fact that his name has come up speaks promisingly of where he headed – and of how rapidly his political career has flourished.

“He’s focused on his 2018 re-election as of right now, but I see him as a strong leader for the 2020 election, in whatever capacity he wants to servesurrogate, Vice Presidential candidate or Presidential candidate,” said Girard. “I personally would like to see him on the ticket in 2020, but there is a strong group of young Democrats who will have the opportunity to step up to the plate. I think Murphy, in whatever capacity he decides to serve in, will bring a new, fresh, and bold approach to governing.”