Will Haskell, a Democratic hopeful for the Connecticut State Senate, has gotten more support and money than most first-time candidates.
WESTPORT, Conn. — When Will Haskell began his campaign for the Connecticut State Senate, he had not yet graduated from college. He was 22, the same number of years that his Republican opponent has been in state office.
But for Mr. Haskell to win, he would need to succeed where many young challengers fail: It’s not enough to draw curiosity and attention; donors, party leaders and, ultimately, voters, must follow.
Mr. Haskell, a recent graduate from Georgetown University, is two-thirds the way toward accomplishing his goal.
Donors immediately got behind Mr. Haskell: He qualified for public financing in less than a week, raising more than $29,000 from more than 450 donors; the state then gave the campaign $96,000 in election grants.
Democratic leaders followed suit. Endorsements have come from Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, and Representative Jim Himes; all three have campaigned on Mr. Haskell’s behalf.
And last week, Mr. Haskell was among the 16 Connecticut Democrats included in Barack Obama’s second wave of 2018 midterm endorsements.
The momentum behind Mr. Haskell is all the more surprising given the stature of his opponent, Senator Toni Boucher, 68, a Republican who flirted with running for governor this year.
Even his age has become an asset and a selling point, as the so-called blue wave has catapulted young Democrats over more seasoned incumbents across the country.
Mr. Haskell’s campaign manager is his college roommate at Georgetown; many of his volunteers — inspired by the advocacy by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — are still in high school.
“Those students were so eloquent, I think they paved the way for a lot of young people to get involved,” Mr. Haskell said of the Parkland students.
Despite his age, Mr. Haskell is no political neophyte. He interned for Mr. Murphy and Mr. Himes, studied government at Georgetown, and worked for the Democratic National Committee’s voter protection team.
Ms. Boucher, who serves in the Republican leadership in the Senate, would seem like an unlikely target for Democrats seeking to break the chamber’s tie between Democrats and Republicans. She has captured at least 58 percent of the votes in her past three elections in the 26th Senate District, which covers much of wealthy Fairfield County.
But Hillary Clinton won the district by more than 20 percentage points in 2016, and the number of registered Democrats and Republicans is almost a tie.
“It is shocking that the race is in play,” he said, citing Ms. Boucher’s one unassailable advantage: her record of constituent service.
“That is something he cannot claim,” he said. “That’s what often sustains an incumbent is that they have built up a reservoir of good will among the residents of the district.”
But, he added, “I think there’s very little question that she feels challenged in a very big way.”
At a recent opening of a Republican field office in Ridgefield, Ms. Boucher certainly seemed like a candidate feeling the competition. She characterized Mr. Haskell as a “privileged, wealthy kid from a wealthy family in Westport” who only had opportunities to work in the offices of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Himes because of his family’s political donations to Democrats, according to a recording of her remarks obtained by The New York Times. But F.E.C. filings show Mr. Haskell’s parents have never made political donations.
Ms. Boucher has also accused Mr. Haskell’s campaign of stealing lawn signs and conducting a push poll. Mr. Haskell has denied both accusations, pointing to his limited campaign resources and campaign finance records that show his campaign has not spent any money on polling.
Ms. Boucher and her campaign dodged numerous requests for comment over the course of several days, asserting that the senator did not have the time to speak.
Last week, when The Times approached Ms. Boucher after her first candidate forum with Mr. Haskell, she said she had no time to talk because of another event she had to attend that evening. Ms. Boucher then lingered at the forum for at least another 15 minutes, chatting amiably with constituents and the other Republican elected officials who appeared at the forum.
Over the last week, phone calls from The Times to Ms. Boucher’s aide routinely went to voice mail. When calls were placed from non-Times phone numbers, Ms. Boucher’s aide answered and said the candidate was not available.
Mr. Haskell said he had planned to attend law school at Georgetown, where he was accepted as a junior as part of an early admissions program for Georgetown undergraduates.
Donald J. Trump’s election changed that.
“I woke up after Trump’s election, and like a lot of other people felt like I had to get involved in the fight against Trump’s agenda,” Mr. Haskell said. “That fight starts at the local and state level.”
So, he examined the positions of his local representatives, and worked his way up until reaching Ms. Boucher. Mr. Haskell said her voting record on issues of gun control, voting rights and paid family leave alarmed him.
“I really believe that there once was a Connecticut Republican and it was different than a Donald Trump Republican,” he said. “I know because my grandparents were once Connecticut Republicans, but that has faded away year by year.”
So he’s focused his campaign on Ms. Boucher’s voting record. He sends out an email every other week highlighting Ms. Boucher’s past votes, showing how he would vote differently, and at the first candidate forum last week in Ridgefield, Mr. Haskell routinely criticized her record.
Mr. Haskell said he knows he needs to show his fluency on the many issues plaguing the state. A fiscal crisis with severely underfunded pensions. Major companies like General Electric leaving the state. Crumbling infrastructure.
For Sue Scannell, a registered Republican who has lived in New Canaan for almost 40 years, Mr. Haskell has shown his worth. Ms. Scannell, 75, said she has consistently voted for Ms. Boucher in the past, but she will support Mr. Haskell next month. She said it was time for a generational change in Hartford.
“He seems to be really attuned to what’s happening around him,” Ms. Scannell said. “He seems to understand what needs to be done.”
Other Republicans disagree, saying Mr. Haskell’s policy proposals would exacerbate the state’s fiscal woes.
“Every policy that he wants has led us to this ditch that we’re currently in,” said J.R. Romano, the chairman of Connecticut’s Republican Party. “If we are going to be honest about putting the state on a path to fiscal and economic prosperity, Will Haskell’s more interested in pushing the interests” of the Service Employees International Union, which represents a large swath of workers, such as nurses, janitors and security officers.
Part of Mr. Haskell’s success, observers of the race say, is his aggressive ground game. He’s knocked on nearly 4,000 doors and held 115 meet-and-greets in the district. As for days off, he only recalled one since he graduated in May: helping his girlfriend move into Harvard Law School.
“We spent the day building Ikea furniture,” he said.
Mr. Murphy, who won his first race to serve as a state representative at the age of 25 and was elected to the United States Senate when he was 39, said Mr. Haskell’s age should not inhibit his candidacy. Mr. Haskell, he said, has “tremendous energy and is whip-smart.”
“I think that voters in Connecticut don’t pay a lot of attention to age,” Mr. Murphy said. “If they did, I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate. They want to know whether you’re experienced, whether you have the energy and whether you have good ideas, and Will has all of that.”