Connecticut Democrats are approaching the pivotal election year of 2018 with distinct advantages in money, organization, voter registration and a base energized in large measure by the backlash against Donald J. Trump, as was demonstrated last week in municipal elections.
But beneath those advantages runs a deep current of dissatisfaction with the state’s Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy, and its General Assembly over the state’s chronic fiscal struggles and its inability to fully rebound from the Great Recession of 2008, an economic and psychic shock resonating a decade later.
Both parties are trying to learn the right lessons to draw from last week, when Democrats won control of local governments in Republican suburbs of Connecticut, races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, and county executive contests in New York. In Maine, voters repudiated their GOP governor’s opposition to Medicaid expansion.
“The Democratic enthusiasm is real. It’s not a flash in the pan,” said Mark Bergman, a Connecticut consultant to the victorious gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Ralph Northam in Virginia. “The people who are turning out are affluent, college-educated women. That is changing the nature of the electorate. They were punishing Republicans for Donald Trump.”
Some Republicans concede the election results are a short-term boost, at least, for Democrats dispirited since Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss — and a measure of what the GOP needs to do in Connecticut if it is to continue the steady gains made in the General Assembly, rising from near-irrelevance in 2008 to near-parity in 2016.
“They are going to use this to raise money and recruit candidates to run for legislative office,” Liz Kurantowicz, a former executive director of the Connecticut Republican Party, said of Democrats. “If we don’t put some elbow grease into rebuilding grass roots in the places where we lost this cycle, the results could be detrimental. It could be bad for us.”
Those places where Democrats either won or ran unusually strong include upscale Republican communities like Greenwich, New Canaan and Weston in Fairfield County, the Hartford suburbs of Farmington and Glastonbury and a smattering of communities in eastern Connecticut that have been friendly to the GOP in legislative races.
“I think we were well-organized,” said Malloy, who is not seeking re-election next year, but is leaving the party organization stronger than when he took office. “The state party here worked harder than they’ve ever worked on these local races. We made more phone calls, had more volunteers and earlier coordination of efforts than ever before. My hat’s off to them.”
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a Republican comfortably re-elected Tuesday and weighing a run for governor next year, said Republicans accustomed to turnouts of 25 percent in local races were unprepared for a surge encouraged by a get-out-the-vote effort by the state Democratic Party.
“The Democratic base — the hard left base, not the casual Democrat — is energized. I think state central worked very hard and spent money on key races,” Boughton said, referring to the Democratic State Central Committee. He said a Democrat in Danbury told him he had received 10 calls urging him to vote.
State and federal finance reports show the state Democratic Party outspent the GOP this year, $1.2 million to $492,000. Voter registration statistics showed that as of Nov. 1, Democrats outnumbered Republicans, 771,412 to 453,625. Unaffiliated voters remain the largest segment of the electorate at 861,766.
Connecticut is a state that is teetering politically. Reliably blue in presidential and congressional elections, it is a battleground at the State Capitol. Malloy’s election as governor in 2010 was the first by a Democrat since 1986, his winning margin of 6,404 votes was the smallest in 56 years, and he is ending the penultimate year of his final term with an approval rating higher than only one other governor, Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Christie’s lieutenant governor, Republican Kim Guadagno, won only 42 percent of the vote last week trying to succeed him. She lost to a Wall Street banker, Democrat Philip Murphy, who favors a $15 minimum wage, legal marijuana, higher taxes on millionaires, stricter gun laws and having New Jersey abide by the terms of the Paris climate agreement spurned by Trump.
In Connecticut, where no one has emerged as an early front runner for governor, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, a Democrat, has struggled to decide whether to join the race, as has House Republican leader Themis Klarides of Derby.
Exit polling in New Jersey and Virginia found an anti-Trump backlash helped drive voters to the polls in favor of Democrats in the two open races. Majorities of voters in both states said they disapproved of Trump’s performance, with significant minorities saying their votes were meant to register opposition to the president.
In Virginia, the Democratic candidate was the lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, a physician and U.S. Army veteran. Bergman said the campaign’s internal polling and turnout model showed him winning by 3 percentage points. With a higher-than-expected turnout of anti-Trump voters, the margin of victory swelled to 9 points.
Bergman, a former Malloy adviser in the 2014 election who later joined the administration, said the anti-Trump sentiment is an opportunity for Democrats, not a guarantee. Dissatisfaction with Trump is real, but so is voter anger with state government in Hartford. Victory will turn on the quality of the candidates and their ability to frame a message capable of convincing voters they know how to grow Connecticut’s economy and stabilize its finances, he said.
“They’re aware of what’s happening in Hartford. They’re going to turn out and likely vote for Chris Murphy and the other congressional Democrats,” Bergman said. “But they’ll vote for Republicans for state offices if they think they have a better message about governing the state.”
Connecticut voters know how to split tickets.
Republicans gained seats in the General Assembly in three of the past four elections and held ground in the fourth, despite a win by the Democrat at the top of the ticket: Hillary Clinton in 2016, Malloy in 2014, Barack Obama in 2012 and Malloy in 2010. From a low of 37 seats in 2008, House Republicans now control 72, just four short of a majority. The Senate is evenly divided, though Democrats control the agenda by virtue of the tie-breaking ability of the Democratic lieutenant governor.
Klarides, the leader of the GOP minority in the House, minimized what municipal success by Democrats means for 2018. She noted that Republicans did well in municipal contests in 2009, only to lose the governor’s office the following year.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he, too, is careful not to read too much into what a municipal cycle means for state races.
“At the same time, it’s reassuring to us up here to see some of those communities where we struggled the last few years begin to look like places where we’re picking up seats and turning the tide, so to speak,” Ritter said. “It’s important to keep the momentum going and be optimistic for next year, but also be mindful of that we just can’t show up and say, ‘Ah, we’re here!’ We have to continue to focus our message as Democrats here at the state level.”
The 2018 legislative session that opens in February will be a venue for developing that message.
“We have a chance to focus our message on jobs, jobs, jobs,” Ritter said. “I think we have to be the party of the middle class, the working class, and continue to make that our priority.”
Connecticut has recovered 76 percent of the 119,100 jobs lost in the recession. Unemployment last month was 4.6 percent, with net job gains over the year of just 3,500 after three straight months of losses. Republicans say they are intent on keeping voters focused on Malloy, not Trump; on the recent track record of Connecticut’s economy, not the promise by Democrats to do better.
“Democrats will try to nationalize the race and make it about Trump,” Boughton said. “Republicans need to make it a regional debate about the failure to get the state out of the recession, how lots of companies and people are leaving. If you can focus on that, it’s an eminently winnable race.”