Questions lingered before Tuesday’s election about whether the “Trump effect” or “Malloy effect” would carry more weight at the polls in the minds of Connecticut voters.
After a night of big gains in the state legislature, Republicans say the answer is clear: The unpopularity of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy outweighed any negative effects from President-elect Donald J. Trump at the top of the ticket.
State Republican Party Chairman J.R. Romano went as far as to say Trump was a net plus for Republican candidates. (See the town-by-town Trump – Clinton analysis graphics at the end of this story.)
Many towns across the state saw higher-than-expected turnout, a testament to a national mood that transcends socioeconomic boundaries – one that is deeply dissatisfied with the country’s direction and demands change from political leaders at all levels of government.
The scope of this year’s Republican wave came into full view as results poured in Tuesday night.
At the national level, a wave of enthusiasm for Trump swept through the Rust Belt and dealt Democrats their worst electoral defeat since 1988. And that support trickled into the Northeast, where Trump competed closely with Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Maine.
Much of southern New England, including Connecticut, voted firmly for Clinton, however. Despite that, Trump drew broader geographical support across the state than Mitt Romney did four years ago.
In state legislative races, Republicans picked up three seats in the state Senate and another eight in the state House – though that number could increase after two pending recounts are resolved. As it stands, the Senate will be tied 18-18 in the next session, while Democrats are expected to hold a slim 79-72 majority in the House.
But when asked Wednesday whether he saw the election as a repudiation of his agenda, Malloy shrugged off the suggestion.
“There are more Democrats serving in the House than there are Republicans, and there’s apparently an equal number serving in the Senate,” Malloy said. “They clearly did not reach the goal that they aspired to reach. That says as much about the argument as anything else.”
What Malloy did not shrug off was implication of the election results, however.
State Republicans campaigned on winning a seat at the table, and Malloy has responded with an invitation to legislative leaders from both parties to “sit together around a table and have a frank discussion of our goals” and determine how to “move forward together.”
The message of moving forward together only extends so far, however.
Senate President Pro Temp Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven reasserted Wednesday morning that his party retains a working majority by way of Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who has ability to break tie votes as the Senate’s presiding officer.
Trump broadens map, Clinton underwhelms
Republicans made gains in the General Assembly even though early numbers suggest Trump only marginally improved upon Romney’s performance in the state.
While, overall, Clinton won nearly as decisively as Obama did four years ago, the Democratic margins of victory in most towns decreased from 2012. When everything is tallied, Clinton’s vote total is likely to fall tens of thousands of votes short of the 905,000 votes Obama received in his reelection campaign.
Trump, on the other hand, is poised to finish with several thousand more votes than Romney did.
Trump won in two counties – Litchfield and Windham – and came within 10,000 votes of winning two more, Middlesex and New London. For comparison, Romney won Litchfield County in 2012, but only by 3,500 votes. He struggled to tighten the margins anywhere else in the state.
Demographically, Connecticut’s towns were more likely to vote for Trump if they had larger white populations. National exit polling data shows Clinton struggled to win among white women, and lost by a wide margin among white women without a college degree.
Geographically, Clinton saw the most success in urban centers while Trump won in rural areas. Suburban areas were split nearly evenly.
While Trump made gains in most of the state, Clinton expanded on Obama’s margin of victory in Fairfield County. She won a half-dozen wealthier towns that Romney claimed four years ago – the traditionally Republican-leaning towns of New Canaan, Darien, and Easton as well as Greenwich, Ridgefield and Wilton, which tend to be more competitive.
Trump’s effect neutral on most state races – with exceptions
For most Republicans, there were no presidential coattails to speak of. Some candidates were quick to point out they outperformed Trump in their districts, though the reverse was true in a handful of rural towns.
One notable coattail beneficiary, however, was George Logan of Ansonia, the Republican who unseated Sen. Joe Crisco, D-Woodbridge, in the 17th District. Romano said Trump’s appeal in the Naugatuck Valley was a boost to Logan.
“I absolutely think that helped George take that seat,” Romano said.
But despite the boost Trump may have offered, that was not a consideration for Logan during the campaign.
“My focus has been on the 17th District, not on the presidential race,” Logan said. “As I told folks in the 17th who asked me that question, ‘Who are you voting for, George? Who are you supporting?’ I told folks, ‘Listen, my focus was never about the presidential election or any other election.’”
“The issues throughout the seven towns in my district were the state budget, the economy.”
Crisco’s was one of three Democratic Senate seats won by Republicans. Len Suzio of Meriden defeated Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, and Heather Somers of Groton won an open seat held by retiring Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington.
Somers and Suzio said they ran ahead of Trump in their districts.
But for John French of Windham – the Republican challenger to Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly – Trump might have made his path to victory more difficult.
“Trump’s campaign, if it weighs me down, it will be in Willimantic and Mansfield,” French said Tuesday afternoon at a polling station in Windham. “But then it’s going to probably be a huge benefit from Windham Center to Thompson. When you gauge it that way, it’s probably a balance.”
French’s assessment might have held true if turnout in heavily Democratic Mansfield, home of the University of Connecticut, had not exceeded even the most liberal expectations. Early numbers show Hillary Clinton received more total votes in the town than Barack Obama did in 2008 or 2012, much of that increase driven by student turnout.
While not all students who voted for Clinton are guaranteed to have voted against French, the vast majority of French’s wider-than-expected margin of defeat can be attributed to the uptick in Mansfield turnout.
The unpopularity contest: Trump vs. Malloy
Despite his improvements on Romney’s performance, Trump still is expected to lose Connecticut by more than 10 percent once the vote tally is certified – a clear indicator his message was not well received by the majority of the state’s voters.
That expectation led many Democrats in competitive state legislative races to try to tie their Republican opponents to Trump. It was perhaps best exemplified in the 33rd Senatorial District, where Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, cruised to reelection despite a strong Democratic push to win his seat.
Linares worked to tie his opponent, Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman, to Malloy’s unpopularity throughout the campaign. But Linares questioned Needleman’s decision to make Trump a major issue.
“I’m surprised he did that,” Linares said Tuesday. “I think that it was sort of a Hail Mary pass. We knew they would be throwing Hail Mary passes, but we didn’t know how. When he chose that route, I thought it was interesting because a lot of people in this district support [Trump].”
But heading into the election, Needleman did not necessarily see that same level of enthusiasm for Trump. He said he thought the Trump issue would overtake any of the rest, including Malloy’s unpopularity.
“Believe it or not, I honestly think at this point that the Trump issue has drowned out any issues about Dan Malloy,” Needleman said Tuesday afternoon outside Essex Town Hall.
“When Art decided to not back away from his endorsement of Donald Trump … we made it an issue. He made me and Dan Malloy an issue, and I made him and Donald Trump an issue,” Needleman said.
Linares defeated Needleman by about 8,200 votes, a 15-point margin, and outperformed Trump in the district’s towns. Linares said that while some voters may have taken issue with Trump, he thinks “people understand that the vote for state Senate is different than the vote for president.”