GOP hopes to weaken Democratic hold on Connecticut General Assembly
Ceci Maher was not surprised to find one freshly transplanted New Yorker after another as she campaigned door to door on a tree-lined street leading up a hill away from the Saugatuck River in Westport.
It’s been a trend.
“Brooklyn, mostly,” Maher said.
Maher is a Democrat running for the open seat in the 26th Senate District in Fairfield County, a region that has been shifting from Republican to Democratic for more than a decade, a consequence of demographic and political change.
On Tuesday, when the races for governor, U.S. Senate and Congress will dominate the news, the results in 187 General Assembly contests will provide a more granular snapshot of Connecticut’s evolving political identity.
It’s an imperfect measure, to be sure. Political advantages wax and wane, pushed by national political currents, but also offset by the relative strengths and weaknesses of candidates.
“It’s kind of hard to sort of say what’s permanent, because in legislative seats a lot of it really does come down to the personality,” said Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican political consultant.
Results will be closely watched in the districts that have changed hands in recent cycles, raising questions from opposite sides of the same coin: Has a swing seat become safe? Is a once-safe seat in play?
The 26th Senate District of Darien, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Stamford, Weston, Westport and Wilton is a case in point.
Demographics and redistricting favor Maher in the 26th, a Republican seat flipped in 2018 by Sen. Will Haskell, a young Democrat from Westport. Rather than seek a third term, Haskell is opting for law school and marriage.
But the Republican candidate is Toni Boucher, the senator unseated by Haskell after a decade in the Senate and 12 years in the House.
Boucher has name recognition, giving Republicans reason to hope that Haskell’s solid wins in 2018 and 2020 were about him, not lasting changes in the district. Republicans say that Boucher’s early gubernatorial explorations in 2018 contributed to her defeat.
There are 22 House members and eight senators not running again, half Democrats and half Republicans. Not all the open seats are competitive.
The broad consensus is that Democrats, who hold majorities of 23-13 in the Senate and 97-54 in the House, will comfortably remain in control of the General Assembly.
Republicans have hopes of gaining between five and 12 seats in the House, meaning that a best-case scenario for the GOP appears to be starting next year on the short side of an 85-66 split.
The GOP is targeting Democrats in House districts flipped two years ago, including Reps. Aimee Berger-Girvalo of Ridgefield, Christine Goupil of Clinton, Jaime Foster of Ellington and John-Michael Parker of Madison.
GOP gains will be harder in the Senate, a body that was evenly divided until Democrats capitalized on former President Donald J. Trump’s unpopularity in the midterm election of 2018, flipping four seats.
Four of the 13 Republican senators are not running again, and three of the four won with less than 52% of the vote last time: Dan Champagne of Vernon, 50.6%; Paul Formica of East Lyme, 50.6%; and Kevin Witkos of Canton, 51.4%.
Democratic challengers who lost the two closest Senate races in 2020 are running again: Lisa Thomas of Coventry for Champagne’s seat in the 35th, opposed by Jeff Gordon of Woodstock; and Martha Marx of New London for Formica’s seat in the 20th, opposed by Jerry Labriola of Old Saybrook, the former GOP state chair.
Republicans suggest that Democratic Sens. Julie Kushner of Danbury and Jorge Cabrera might be vulnerable. Kushner unseated a Republican in 2018, as did Cabrera in 2020, beating George Logan, 52%-48%.
Kushner’s election and reelection were not close.
With inflation at a 40-year high and recession threatening, polling in Connecticut shows that pocketbook issues are topmost on the minds of voters — a disadvantage for Democrats, the party in power in Connecticut and in Washington, D.C.
But the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the likely prospect of Trump running again for the White House have both energized the Democratic base and contributed to a nationalization of politics — judging candidates on their party affiliation.
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, the Democratic nominee for state comptroller, said that branding has upended the old saying, “All politics is local.”
“I now believe that all politics is national,” Scanlon said. “And if you’re Democrat or Republican, in a swing-ish seat, you’re doing everything in your power to bring it back to ‘all politics is local.’ And even the best candidates, I think, struggle to do that more and more.”
Kim Healy, a Republican selectwoman from Wilton running for an open House seat, and Boucher both described encountering hostility at the doors over the incorrect assumptions they are supporters of Trump and opponents of reproductive rights and gun control.
“Guilty by association, that’s a tactic,” Boucher said.
Boucher said redistricting and demographic changes are also challenges for her comeback. Like Maher, Boucher encounters New Yorkers who relocated during the COVID-19 pandemic. They tend to be liberal and Democratic.
These migrations are different from the corporate relocations of the past that contributed to Fairfield County’s growth, Boucher said.
“They brought in a lot of people from the Midwest with a lot of different backgrounds and political leanings,” she said.
Even before COVID, the district’s voter rolls were going bluer.
Boucher and Maher both live in Wilton, a town that reflects the political evolution of the region.
In 2006, the last time a Republican won a gubernatorial election, Republicans outnumbered Democrats there, 4,325 to 2,647. Democrats now are dominant in Wilton and even more so in Westport.
Redistricting is a bipartisan exercise in Connecticut, one in which the leaders of both parties take care of incumbents. Republicans made a choice to help Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, in the neighboring 36th District rather than make the 26th more competitive.
The 36th of Greenwich, Stamford and New Canaan is one of those districts that went from safe to swing in 2018. Democrat Alex Kasser stunned Republicans by unseating Republican Scott Frantz, then won reelection in 2020 with a 51%-49% win over Fazio.
Fazio won a special election after Kasser resigned amid a difficult divorce.
Redistricting this year gave him a district with less of Democratic Stamford and more of Republican New Canaan. But the district still is competitive, and he is facing a strong challenge from Trevor Crow, a Democrat who has made reproductive rights and local control of zoning her priority issues.
Maher was the beneficiary, picking up a Democratic slice of Stamford and jettisoning Bethel and portions of New Canaan.
By Maher’s count, the district has gone from 57% to 61% Democratic.
Similar things happened in House districts.
Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, who won by less than half a point in 2020, now has a solid Democratic seat after redistricting. Her neighbor, Rep. Craig Fishbein of Wallingford, who won by just seven votes, now has a safer Republican seat.
While they are safer, at least they have opponents. In 38 House and three Senate races, there is only one candidate.
There is nothing new about some districts being uncompetitive. But legislative leaders say the higher-than-normal numbers could be signs of a newer sensitivity to work-life tensions arising from irregular hours and so-so pay, combined with political factors such as polarization and districts newly drawn to discourage competition.
“I just think there’s a lot of personal turmoil and uprooting that have gone on and volatility over the last few years, so that the last thing in the world people are thinking about is jumping into public service,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.
“We’ve made the pay better,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “Maybe that will attract a broader pool.”
Some day, perhaps, but not this year.