Democrats retain advantages in state House and Senate

Democrats played defense on Election Day, retaining their advantages in both chambers of the General Assembly and narrowly escaping one scenario in which they would have lost significant control over the next state budget.

According to unofficial results, Democrats won 22 of 36 seats in the Senate, the same margin they held over Republicans for the past two years — though each party grabbed one district from the other in south central Connecticut.

Democrats also appeared to maintain their 99-52 lead in the House of Representatives, according to unofficial results, though three seats were embroiled in tight races whose outcomes still were uncertain early Wednesday.

And while one Democratic representative who had been the focus of a conservative Super PAC was defeated, three Senate Democrats targeted by the political action committee held their seats nonetheless.

“It’s a very important win because we’ve been through the toughest times folks have seen in a generation,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said late Tuesday night.

The last two-year term began with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his fellow Democrats in the legislative majority tackling a mammoth-sized budget deficit left over from the last recession, a gap they plugged with a combination of tax increases, cost-saving labor concessions and governmental consolidations.

“We had to make very tough choices,” Williams said.

Those tough choices left Democrats wary this fall, particularly after they learned that the political action committee funded by Thomas Peterffy of Greenwich — a political conservative whose fortune is estimated by Forbes at $4.6 billion — was financing ads aimed at a three caucus members.

Yet Sens. Stephen T. Cassano of Manchester, Edward Meyer of Branford and Andrew Maynard of Stonington, the targets of those ads, all survived the attacks. “We saw some vicious attacks on TV and in direct mail,” Williams said. “I sat down with our candidates months ago and I told them this was a distinct possibility based on what we’ve seen in other states. We talked about it and our candidates were ready.”

Some of the mailers funded by the Super PAC, as well as others funded by Republican candidates, tried to turn the election into a referendum on Malloy and more than $1.5 billion in the tax hikes enacted to help balance the budget.

“The Republicans were very clear in saying this election was a referendum on Governor Malloy, and now the results are in: Governor Malloy wins, the people of Connecticut win, and the Republicans lose,” Malloy’s senior policy adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, said late Tuesday. “Clearly, voters understand that Governor Malloy has worked hard to make the tough choices necessary to put Connecticut on the path to recovery.”

The top Republican in the Senate, Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield, said later, “I feel very good about the race we ran. We had some great candidates.”

McKinney noted that on a night when more than 70 percent of Connecticut’s voters cast ballots — according to unofficial results — Republican legislative candidates had to fight a tide that resulted in wide margins of victory for Democrats in the presidential and congressional contests. “Quite frankly to hold our own against an Obama landslide speaks to the quality of our candidates.”

Democrats in the Senate also had to deal with the retirement of two veteran incumbents, as well as the loss of a third — Bridgeport Democrat Edwin Gomes — who was defeated in an August primary.

Sprague First Selectwoman Cathy Osten scored a big win for the Democrats over Republican state Rep. Christopher Coutu of Norwich in the 19th District seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Edith G. Prague of Columbia.

Gomes was defeated in the primary by fellow Bridgeport Democrat Luis Ayala, who went on to win the general election.

According to unofficial results confirmed with both the Democratic and Republican Senate caucuses, only two district seats changed party control.

One of those switches involved the 33rd District slot vacated by retiring Westbrook Democrat Eileen Daily. That seat went to Westbrook Republican Art Linares, who scored a modest win over Democrat James Crawford. Linares also may have owed his win to Green Party candidate Melissa Schlag. Officials from both parties said the third-party candidate drew significant votes away from Crawford.

That switch would have left the GOP with 15 seats — had Meriden City Councilor Dante Bartolomeo not scored a narrow 13th District win over incumbent Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden. That district, which includes Meriden and western Middletown, as well as Middlefield and eastern Cheshire, has a strong urban component, and Democrats said beforehand that they had a strong chance to wrest control of the seat.

Democrats also had an advantage when it came to easy races. Four incumbents — Martin Looney and Toni Harp of New Haven, Beth Bye of West Hartford and Joan Hartley of Waterbury — all ran unopposed or lacked a major party opponent. Only two Republicans, McKinney and Kevin Kelly of Stratford, ran unopposed.

With Tuesday’s results, Democrats also stopped Republicans from gaining significant control over the next state budget.

Although Democrats still have a majority of seats in the legislature, early financial reports show that the budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year would have to be several hundred millions of dollars in excess of the constitutional spending cap in order to maintain all services at current levels.

But the cap, which is supposed to keep spending increases for most purposes in line with the annual growth in personal income or inflation, also can be circumvented if the legislature and governor see eye-to-eye.

If the governor signs a declaration of fiscal “exigency,” effectively declaring a budgetary emergency, the legislature can expend dollars in excess of the cap with a 60 percent vote in both chambers. That means 91 votes in the 151-member House and at least 22 out of 36 in the Senate.

Malloy’s two Republican predecessors, M. Jodi Rell and John G. Rowland, routinely teamed with Democrat-controlled legislatures to legally exceed the cap. Under those administrations nearly $3.8 billion in excess of the cap was appropriated between 1998 and 2009, according to state budget records.

And if Republicans had gained a 15th Senate seat, limiting Democrats to 21, they could have blocked any proposals to allow further cap exceptions in 2013.

In the House, Republicans managed to grab two seats under Democratic control.

According to unofficial results, Prospect Republican Lezlye Zupkus managed to oust veteran Democrat Vicki Nardello of Prospect in the 89th District. Nardello also had been targeted by the conservative Super PAC.

House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, blamed the outside money to the defeat of Nardello, a 9-term state representative.
“I think the third party money had a huge impact on that race,” he said, adding that the party intends to file a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

And the 34th District seat, which had been vacated by retiring Rep. Gail Hamm, D-East Hampton, Republican Melissa H. Ziobron of East Haddam defeated East Hampton Democrat Christopher Goff.

But Democrats matched Republicans by claiming two seats that had been under GOP control for the past two years.

In the 47th District, where Coutu had stepped down to wage his bid for the state Senate, Canterbury Democrat Brian Sear defeated Sprague Republican Noah P. Enslow. And in the 21st District, Farmington Democrat Mike Demicco defeated incumbent GOP Rep. Bill Wadsworth, also of Farmington.

Meanwhile, three other races were being labeled too close to call early Wednesday. Officials from both the House Democratic and Republican caucuses said they expected a recount in the 106th District race between Republican Mitch Bolinsky and Democrat Lisa Romano, both of Newtown. That seat is held by Newtown Democrat Chris Lyddy, who is retiring from the legislature.

The other two House seats that remained in political limbo early Wednesday were:

  • The 105th District race between incumbent Rep. Len Greene Jr., R-Seymour, and Democrat Theresa W. Conroy, also of Seymour.
  • And the 144th District race between incumbent Rep. Michael Molgano, R-Stamford and Democrat Michael Pollard of Stamford.

Sharkey called the Democrats’ ability to hold their majority a “huge victory.”

He noted that with 19 seats having no Democratic incumbent running, he worried his party would lose some seats. He also said the legislature has faced turbulence for some of the decisions they have made, from increasing taxes to reforming education laws in the state.

“That’s often times a recipe for losing some seats,” he said. “The people in Connecticut understand their government is working.”