Stickers were handed out to people after voting. Yehyun Kim /

By Kasturi Pananjady

The unpopularity of President Donald J. Trump in Connecticut helped Democrats increase their sizable majorities in the General Assembly on Tuesday as close to 80% of the state’s 2.3 million voters cast ballots at the polls or by absentee.

With a record number of votes cast by absentee due to the COVID-19 pandemic, legislative leaders braced for a long night awaiting returns, but the results available by midnight showed Democrats picking up House seats in the Farmington Valley, Fairfield, on the shoreline in Clinton, and in Waterbury, while losing a couple in eastern Connecticut.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Democrats made a net gain of at least seven seats, and he informed his caucus by email early Wednesday that they will convene in January with a majority of 98-53 — and possibly 100-51, if two close challenges of Republicans fall their way.

Unofficial results showed Senate Democrats successfully defending their 22 seats and capturing two from Republicans, though margins could change Wednesday as some towns continued counting absentee ballots. If the numbers hold, the Democratic majority would be 24-12 in January.

Democrats currently hold majorities of 91-60 in the House and 22-14 in the Senate.

“It could be 100 or it could be 95,” Ritter said of the House margin Tuesday night, before before settling on 98 as the most likely number. Whatever the final tally, Ritter will succeed Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, as speaker of the House in January.

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who will become the House minority leader, said he expected a net loss of about five seats. Most of the losses were in affluent areas, once reliably Republican, that have been trending Democratic.

“They continue to gain the affluent districts and Republicans continue to hold and pick up the more blue-collar, working-class communities,” Candelora said.

In the Senate, a net gain of two seats for Democrats seemed likely. Democrats claimed to flip two Republican seats, defeating Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, in the 17th and Sen. Gennaro Bizzarro, R-New Britain, in the 6th District. Republicans had been hoping to offset those losses by recapturing a seat in Greenwich.

But Democrats said Alex Kasser of Greenwich appeared to be holding on against Republican Ryan Fazio, a young candidate trying to recapture what had been a solid GOP seat. Senate Republican leaders could not be reached. Unofficial results showed Kasser with 50.5%.

In the House, the parties traded two prominent seats: the ones held by Aresimowicz and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. Neither leader sought re-election, and both flipped. Democrats had long conceded Republicans would win the 30th District seat in Berlin and Southington, while the Klarides seat in the 114th was seen as more competitive.

Democrat Mary Welander of Orange, the winner of Klarides’ seat, was running for the second time in a district deemed competitive once Klarides retired. Unofficial results showed Welander with 52%.

Republicans Sen. Kevin Witkos, a former police officer, and Rep. Leslee Hill greeting commuters. Hill lost her seat on Tuesday to Democrat Eleni Kavros DeGraw in a rematch of their 2018 contest. Unofficial results showed him winning. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Welander was not the only Democrat to succeed on their second try. In rematches and open races, it was a good night for suburban Democratic women.

At least three Democratic women who became activists after Trump’s election in 2016, then fell short as candidates in close races  in 2018, also won GOP House seats this year. They are Eleni Kavros DeGraw of Avon, Aimee Berger-Girvalo of Ridgefield and Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk.

Kavros DeGraw unseated Rep. Leslee Hill, R-Canton, in a rematch of their close 2018 contest in the 17th House District of Avon and Canton, one anticipated by Democrats who saw voter registration tilt their way during Trump’s four years in office.

In Ridgefield, Berger-Girvalo won the open House seat she nearly captured in 2018 against Rep. John H. Frey, who did not run again. Thomas, who fell short against Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, in 2018, won the open seat this year.

Democrat Jennifer Leeper unseated Rep. Brian Farnen, R-Fairfield, in the 132nd House District, where Trump lost by 18 points in 2016, Democrats said. She narrowly lost to him in a special election last year after Republican Brenda Kupchick was elected first selectman and resigned from the House.

Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury,  won her rematch against Brian Ohler, the Republican she unseated in 2018. She needed a recount two years ago. None will be required this year.

For second time in two elections, however, Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, appeared to narrowly survive a challenge from Democrat Rebekah Harriman-Stites. Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, also prevailed in rematches in districts where being on the ballot with Trump was no help.

Democrats said they believed  John-Michael Parker unseated Rep. Noreen Kokoruda, R-Madison, in a rematch after losing in a recount two years ago. Republicans called the race in the 101st District of Madison and Durham too close to call, saying the identity of the winner appeared to rest in uncounted absentee ballots.

But unofficial results showed Parker, a Democrat on three ballot lines due to cross-endorsements by the Working Families and Independent parties, with a solid 55% of the vote.

In Waterbury, Democrat Michael DiGiovancarlo unseated Rep. Stephanie Cummings, R-Waterbury, in the 74th House District. Cummings was elected in 2016, when the GOP made stunning gains in the legislature despite Trump’s loss.

Democrats won two Republican seats in districts where the incumbents surprised the party by declining to seek re-election relatively late in the cycle.

In the open 57th House District of East Windsor and Ellington, Democrat Jaime Foster beat Republican David Stavens, picking up the seat that became competitive only after the incumbent Republican, Chris Davis, declined to run again. Like Parker in Madison, Foster was on three ballot lines with cross-endorsements by the Working Families and Independent parties.

Christine Goupil, another Democrat on three lines, defeated Republican John Hall III in the 35th House District of Clinton, Killingworth and Westbrook. It was competitive even before Rep. Jesse MacLachlan, R-Westbrook, declined to run; more so, as an open seat.

In addition to picking up Aresimowicz’s open seat, Republicans unseated two freshman Democrats in eastern Connecticut: Rep. Pat Wilson-Pheanious of Ashford and Kate Rotella of Stonington. Wilson-Pheanious had won a Republican seat two years ago in the 53rd District of Ashford, Tolland and Willington, but Rotella’s loss to Republican Greg Howard in the 43rd District of Stonington and North Stonington was considered an upset by Democrats.

Howard, a police officer, made an issue of Rotella’s vote for a police accountability bill at a special session in July. He appeared to win, 51% to 49%.

Wilson-Pheanious, a political rarity as a Black Democratic office-holder in a suburban and rural district, lost to Tammy Nuccio of Tolland, a better political base than tiny Ashford. Nuccio appeared win with 52% of the vote.

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, a prominent conservative who sued the administration over COVID restrictions, lost to Democrat Jim Jinks in the 90th District of Cheshire and Wallingford. In the neighboring and always competitive 103rd District of Cheshire, Southington and Wallingford, Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, won a third term with little more than 50% of the vote.

Aresimowicz, a union official retiring after four years as speaker and 16 in the House, barely won re-election two years ago against a last-minute challenger, evidence of a blue-collar suburban district becoming more favorable to Republicans. The race this year was not close: Republican Donna Veach won by about 2,000 votes.

The Connecticut vote Tuesday for Joe Biden over Trump never was in doubt: The Associated Press called the state for Biden shortly after the polls closed. Less clear was how anti-Trump voters would treat down-ballot races — ignore them, vote Democratic, or split their vote.

Early results left unclear was whether the same trends that helped Kavros DeGraw win a Republican House seat in the Farmington Valley  would topple Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton. His 11-town 8th Senate District includes Avon, Canton and Simsbury, all communities that rejected the president and increased their Democratic rolls.

But unofficial results later showed Witkos with at least 51% of the vote in his rematch with Democrat Melissa Osborne of Avon. Osborne initially declined to concede, saying she believed there were absentee ballots yet to be counted. Witkos could not be reached. (Osborne conceded Wednesday evening.)

Witkos is competing with Sen. Kevin Kelly of Stratford, who was unopposed, to succeed Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven as the Senate minority leader. Fasano was the only member of the Senate not to seek re-election, and the GOP held onto his seat with an easy win by Paul Ciccarella over Democrat April Capone.

Democrat Rick Lopes of New Britain defeated Bizzarro, who won a special election over Lopes in 2019. But a rematch in a presidential year favored the Democrat in the 6th Senate District of New Britain, Berlin and Farmington. Trump lost the district by 23 points in 2016. Lopes appeared to win Tuesday with at least 55% of the vote.

Logan, who unseated a Democrat in 2016 in a Senate district that included Democratic suburbs of New Haven and Republican towns in the Naugatuck Valley, was one of the Democrats’ top targets this year. He faced a rematch from Jorge Cabrera of Hamden, whom he beat two years ago by 85 votes in a recount. Unofficial results had Cabrera winning with 51%, buoyed by strong turnouts in Hamden and Woodbridge.

Long before the polls closed, Democrats saw the heavy turnout as a favorable omen.

Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, who spent the day greeting voters at the polls throughout the 14-hour voting day, as he does every election whether on the ballot or not, said he never had seen such an enthusiastic reaction from voters.

He arrived to find a long line of voters waiting at Manchester High School for the doors to open at 6 a.m. More than 2,000 voters had passed through by 4 p.m.

“This definitely feels like the highest turnout and the best response for Democrats that I’ve seen,” Luxenberg said after 4 p.m.. “So, I’m expecting some good results tonight.”

One of the reasons for his optimism was Nancy Fuggetta, 73, one of the voters who assured him of their vote — and their desire to cast a vote against the president in person.

“I didn’t want to mail it in. This was such an important election, I wanted to come right in and do it myself. I didn’t want to take any chance,” Fuggetta said, standing near the entrance. Her father, a Pearl Harbor survivor, voted by absentee in North Carolina. He’s 101.

Fuggett shot a dark look down the sidewalk at Tina Listro, who held a sign promoting local Republicans and  “Women for Trump.” Fuggetta shook her head.

“Trump calls women dogs,” Fuggetta said, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “I didn’t want to start anything.”

Listro said the voters were cordial to her in the Democratic district.

In Fairfield, where Hwang won re-election to the Senate as a local House Republican was losing, a young Republican voter called the suburb purple, a place where down-ballot candidates could survive a vote against the president. Jackson Shostak, 19, who stood at the polls in support of local Republicans, said Trump signs would be hard to find in town.

“It would be a little bit more divisive, and it could hinder support for the candidates,” he said.

Shostak, a student at American University, said politics should be seen through a local lens — and hoped that some anti-Trump voters felt the same way. The best hope for his candidates was that “people will vote and think locally about the problems Connecticut is encountering.”
Kelan Lyons contributed to this story.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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