Aundré Bumgardner ousted a four-term Democratic state representative in Connecticut’s closest legislative race of 2014. Now, Democrats are trying to win back his House seat and several more to offset expected Republican gains elsewhere in November.
Bumgardner, now 22, won by 39 votes in the 41st House District, which includes most of southern Groton and a sliver of southeastern New London. Republicans attributed his victory to the power of retail politics. He knocked on thousands of doors, and his supporters turned out on Election Day.
Those 39 votes are still fresh in the minds of Democrats, who saw their majority in the state House of Representatives shrink by 10 seats after the 2014 elections. They are hoping higher turnout in the presidential election this year will be enough to swing Bumgardner’s seat back into their column.
“It’s exactly the type of district that we’re profiling – hard-working folks in eastern Connecticut who have a history of voting Democratic, concerned about the direction of the economy,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “If we can show that there’s a path for Connecticut to grow jobs and continue to be an economic innovator, then we’re going to win there.”
While only a handful of seats in the state Senate are considered competitive, dozens of the 151 seats in the House appear in play.
To turn an 87-64 Democratic advantage into a slim 76-75 GOP majority, Republicans need a net gain of 12 seats to capture the House for the first time since 1984, when they won with the help of a Ronald Reagan landslide and a party lever that encouraged straight-ticket voting.
The Democratic candidate for president has won Connecticut in every election since 1992. But the party-lever is long gone, shortening presidential coattails to the point where Democrats picked up no state House seats in 2012, despite Barack Obama’s crushing of Mitt Romney with 58 percent of the vote.
With nearly two-dozen open seats, an unusual presidential election and an unpopular governor and legislature, potential exists for higher-than-normal churn in the House this year. Strategists are predicting as many as 30 or 40 new state representatives could be on their way to Hartford after this election.
Democrats are relying heavily on their ability to pick up Republican seats to offset gains the GOP could make in vulnerable rural and suburban districts. Republican leaders believe their message will resonate with the state’s voters.
“The Republicans are holding the Democrats accountable to their record, that being the stagnant economy, job losses, our children moving out of the state of Connecticut,” said Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, a deputy leader of the House Republican Caucus. “And that’s been met with increased taxes.”
Candelora said another tax increase after the election would be inevitable if Republicans don’t win a majority in the House or Senate. But Lemar said the Republicans’ negative outlook on the state’s economy is what will keep them from making significant gains.
“It’s in their interest to make things look bad and get their folks elected,” Lemar said. “But that hurts them in some places, too.”
Candelora said the appearance of negativity is unavoidable when talking about the state’s Democratic leadership.
“The problem is that when you talk about the Democrats’ record, it naturally is negative, because they haven’t done anything good for this state in the last 10 years,” Candelora said. “To try to paint a rosy picture is not being honest with the electorate. And they know they’re being lied to when they’re told everything is fine.”
In an unprecedented move, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the state’s largest business trade group, is planning to spend $400,000 on state legislative races this cycle. On the House side, the CBIA is backing nine Republicans and two Democrats, all of whom have been deemed business-friendly. The group has not made independent expenditures in elections before this year.
CBIA officials say they are not backing candidates to give either party a majority. However, if all CBIA-backed candidates won, the Democrats’ 12-seat margin in the House would be cut in half.
GOP sees opportunity
No corner of the state was untouched by a spate of legislative retirements this year. Twenty state representatives announced they would not seek re-election to the House, and two more incumbents, Reps. Ernest Hewett of New London and Louis P. Esposito of West Haven, lost in August’s primaries.
Lemar said the number of open seats is higher than normal, but not entirely unusual. Since 2008, he said, legislators primarily elected in the 1990s have retired in waves of 10 or 15 each year.
Of the 22 open seats, 12 are held by Democrats and 10 by Republicans. Both parties acknowledge that historical voting trends suggest that more Democratic open seats are likely to flip than their Republican-held counterparts.
“We’ve got a lot of retirements on our side, and a lot of vulnerable seats, of course,” Lemar said. “But we’ve got great candidates who are speaking to local issues and can take their local issues to Hartford and ensure that our statewide policy matches their needs.”
Two Democrat-held rural open seats – the 45th District along the Rhode Island border and the 64th District in the northwest corner – are top pick-up opportunities for Republicans.
Republicans also have an opportunity to bring open seats in Enfield and Windsor into their column. The 59th and 60th districts were both close races in 2014, and are certain to be close again in November.
The CBIA has endorsed the Republican candidates in the 45th, 60th and 64th districts. The group also is backing the Republican candidate for the open 103rd District, which has been held by Republicans in recent years.
The 90th District, in Wallingford and Cheshire, is another potential GOP pickup. Democrat Mary Fritz, who had represented the district since the mid-1980s, announced her retirement earlier this year before dying of cancer in July. Her district had grown increasingly Republican, but she defied voting trends as she continued to win re-election.
Even the 37th District, which includes East Lyme and Salem, is a potential Republican pickup, strategists say. The district has not elected a Republican since 1990, and its last close election came in 2004, when Ed Jutila won his first term. Jutila’s retirement now puts it in play.
The 56th District in Vernon is another GOP opportunity, but strategists think Democrats still hold the edge.
Democrats also have potential pickups on the open-seat map. The 14th District, centered on South Windsor, and the 74th District, in eastern Waterbury, are both in play. The race in northeastern Connecticut’s 50th District could be close as well.
But making inroads in other districts – like Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Carter’s open seat in the 2nd District, which was held by a Democrat before Carter was elected in 2010 – will be a more difficult proposition, strategists say.
|District||Incumbent||Party||Previously Held||First elected|
|88||J. Brendan Sharkey||Democrat||Republican||2000|
|97||Robert W. Megna||Democrat||Republican||2000|
|116||Louis P. Esposito||Democrat||Democrat||1992|
Districts in eastern, suburban CT in play
This election’s battleground map extends beyond the open seats, however. Party leaders and strategists say eastern Connecticut and the suburbs of Hartford and Fairfield County will have their own close races.
In eastern Connecticut, Bumgardner’s bid for re-election may prove to be the closest. The other vulnerable incumbents are Kathleen McCarty in the Waterford-based 38th District and John Scott in the Groton-based 40th District, who both faced close contests in 2014. The CBIA is backing Bumgardner and McCarty.
A number of suburban towns across the state also could have tight races, which Democrats hope – in combination with wins in eastern Connecticut – will offset Republican gains in open seats.
Lemar said he believes the Republican-held 134th District, which includes parts of Fairfield and Trumbull, has the potential to change hands. But Candelora says Democrats will struggle to make any inroads in Fairfield County and the surrounding region because of General Electric’s decision earlier this year to move its headquarters from Fairfield to Boston.
One of those nearby seats is in West Haven, where CBIA-backed Republican Charles Ferraro is working to keep his seat in the 117th District. He narrowly won his first term two years ago.
In the suburbs around Hartford, Democrats see additional opportunities to pick up seats.
A rematch in the 13th District, which straddles the border of Glastonbury and Manchester, is a top target for Democrats. Rep. Mark Tweedie, a Republican, is again Joe Diminico, the one-term Democrat he unseated two years ago. Democrats believe higher turnout in Manchester could cause the seat to change hands again.
The Newington-based 27th District, held by Republican Gary Byron, could be close as well.
The CBIA is not working against all Democrats, however. The group is backing two vulnerable Democratic incumbents: Jonathan Steinberg of Westport and John Hampton of Simsbury.
Republicans expect to make gains in suburbs as well. Candelora said Republicans are working to win the 105th District in the Naugatuck Valley and Hampton’s seat in the 16th District.
CBIA is supporting Republican Nicole Klarides-Ditria in the 105th District in Seymour, Beacon Falls and Derby. She is the sister of House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.
One of the races garnering attention this cycle is Plainville’s 22nd District, where Democratic incumbent Betty Boukus is facing Republican William Petit, a physician who became an activist on crime issues after the murders of his wife and two daughters in a notorious home invasion in Cheshire nine years ago.
Republicans also see opportunity in the 58th District in Enfield, where the Democratic incumbent, David Alexander, has been charged with two DUIs in the last year and a half.
The final CBIA target is in Torrington, northwestern Connecticut’s largest community, where it is backing the Republican challenger in the 65th District, a swing district with a history of drama. Democrat Michelle Cook won re-election two years ago by 52 votes. Her Republican predecessor, Anne L. Ruwett, won by 62 votes in 2006, and her margin in 2002 was a single vote.
|117||Charles J. Ferraro||Republican||Yes|