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Republicans look to boost control of Connecticut General Assembly

Michelle Lee
Connecticut State Capitol.

Connecticut Democrats hold majorities of 23-13 in the state Senate and 97-54 in the state House. Their Republican counterparts are hoping to change that come Election Day.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Mark Pazniokas to discuss his article, “GOP hopes to weaken Democratic hold on CT General Assembly,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Mark, both houses of the Connecticut General Assembly are controlled by the Democrats. So, how are the GOP hoping to make a dent on that control?

MP: Well, the best case scenario for the Republicans would leave the Democrats with comfortable control of the General Assembly. The margins are pretty lopsided right now. In the house, the Democrats think they could lose between three and eight seats, the Republicans think maybe they can pick up between five and 12. But even if they pick up 12 seats, that means they're going to be on the short end of 85-66 Democratic majority in the House. And in the Senate, it's a very odd year in that normally in the midterm elections, the party in power loses seats.

But the four open seats that the Republicans have, in other words, four senate districts where Republicans are not running for reelection, in three of those four districts, it was super competitive two years ago. You had people winning with less than 52% of the vote, two of them with less than 51%. So it's even conceivable the Democrats could make a net gain. There, there are a bunch of seats that are certainly in play. So I mean, the Republicans ultimately could make some net gains. But it's a tough map for the Republicans this year to make significant gains.

WSHU: Now you profiled one of those open seats. That's the seat held by Will Haskell who's leaving the Senate, the seat is open. And what did you find as they were trying to canvas for votes in that district?

MP: That's an interesting district for a couple of reasons. One, it's a good place to measure the current state of play as far as political strength. There has been, as you know, there has been a shift from Republican to Democratic advantage in that part of Connecticut. The district is interesting for another reason, because it was one of the seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2018. And of course, the other factor is that it's an open seat. And for bonus points, the Republican who Will Haskell defeated in 2018 is running again, that would be Toni Boucher. She was a state senator for 10 years, she was a member of the house for a little bit longer than that.

WSHU: She was pretty well known and even had ambitions to run for governor.

MP: Yes. And in fact, that may have played a role in her defeat, at least the Democrats think so. They thought that she was a little distracted, because she spent the early part of 2018 exploring a run for governor and then ultimately ran for re-election. So that's why I took a look at that district because one of the things we try to divine during these general assembly elections is to what extent did they give us a sense of the political identity of Connecticut, which you know, which has certainly shifted over the years. As I note in the story, it's not a perfect measure, because it’s the relative strengths and weaknesses of candidates as well as is there a hot local issue?

Those things can overcome demographic advantages and overall political changes. And when we talk about demographics, one of the things we're talking about is, there have been a bunch of New Yorkers who have come into that part of Connecticut, and most of them bring their politics with them. And it tends to be liberal and Democratic. And that is one of the things that benefits the Democrats this time around. Another wrinkle is that we are using new maps that we had redistricted this year. Redistricting in Connecticut is a bipartisan exercise. So you have wheeling and dealing between the parties. Now the Republicans push to make an adjacent district, the 36th district, which is based around Greenwich to make that a little bit safer for a Republican incumbent Ryan Fazio, who won a close race.

WSHU: And that was a special election.

MP: It was a special election. And he had lost an effort before that. But yes, so, the Republicans are trying to make the Greenwich seat a little bit safer, although it is still certainly competitive. But one of the consequences of that is that Will Haskell’s District became safer for Democrats. The redistricting pushed some Democratic neighborhoods of Stamford into Haskell's district and removed them from Ryan Fazio’s senate district. So you know, those are simple political calculus if you move these lines around.

WSHU: Now, Boucher, as she's been going about canvassing, is discovering that national politics seems to be playing a big role, especially with a lot of the transplants that have come over. And she's having to answer for the overturning of Roe and other issues that are national issues. Could you just tell us a little bit about how she's been what she's dealing with?

MP: Sure. And she is not the only Republican who has told a story like this. And now Toni Boucher describes herself as a pro-choice legislator, and she has a voting record to back that up. She also supported the gun control bill that came out of the Sandy Hook shooting. But she said when she's at the door, there is sometimes an assumption because she's a Republican, that she may be hostile to reproductive rights. So she says that's a conversation she has to have at the door. And other Republicans have said the same thing.

You know, the Republicans who support reproductive rights, they have to overcome that national branding, as well as the folks, the Republicans who want to distance themselves from President Trump, that's another part of the conversation that they have to have at the door. So it can be an awkward thing, because you also have Republicans who are loyal to the former president. So they have to, you know, walk a fine line between those two camps in their own party.

WSHU: Now, another issue that's a problem for Republicans to overcome is the fact that there are 38 House seats and three Senate seats that are going to be opposed in this election. Why so?

MP: Well, there's a couple of things. There's always a significant number, because some districts simply are not competitive. And we even have two open seats in which the real battle was to win a primary. And that's in both parties we see that. There is a sense this year that there's a fatigue factor. Being a legislator doing COVID has been a different undertaking.

They've been under certain pressures. And as we all are well aware, America is very polarized when it comes to politics right now. And it can be difficult on a personal level. So the leaders of both parties indicated to me they think all of the above has been a factor in why there are more unopposed races this year than we've seen in some previous years.

WSHU: So it's been difficult getting people interested in running.

MP: In some cases, yes. It's very unusual to have unopposed Senate races, and we have three of them this year. They're all Democrats who are unopposed. But whatever happens Tuesday, we're going to have a very different legislature because there are 30 incumbents who did not seek reelection. So you have those two measures as to how difficult this part time job has become in that you had 30 people not run for reelection. And then you have a bunch of seats where there's no opposition.

WSHU: So improving the pay for legislators is not attractive enough?

MP: It should make it more attractive. But the problem is for most people, you still need to work an outside job and finding a job that can work well with the demands of being a legislator. You have hearings and committee work starting in January. A lot of the legislators, you know, need to take off the last two or three weeks of the session from their outside jobs.

But that's not always easy to do. Decades ago, there seemed to be a sense among many companies that they would support their employees if they wanted to run for public office and give them the time off to do so. Again, it's just become more difficult for a whole variety of reasons.

WSHU: So bottom line, the GOP might make some gains but control of the General Assembly Connecticut might end up in Democratic hands after the election.

MP: The most optimistic Republican I've spoken to still says at the end of the day, it's going to be a Democratic legislature. The question is by how big a margin.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.