Treasurer-elect Erick Russell hugs Secretary of the State-elect Stephanie Thomas after a press conference Wednesday morning. Watching is Comptroller-elect Sean Scanlon. At left, Lt, Gov. Susan Bysiewicz. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Democrats rode a cohesive message of fiscal responsibility to marginally expand their already sizable leads in the state House and Senate.

And while caucus leaders from both parties anticipate at least five races will be subject to recounts, the finally tally based on unofficial results appears to be a 24-12 Democratic advantage in the Senate and 98-53 edge in the House.

Democrats learned early Wednesday morning that they’d gained one seat in the Senate when it became clear that incumbent Mae Flexer from Windham had defeated Republican challenger Susanne Witkowski of Thompson in the 29th District.

They also learned of a vote-counting error in Fairfield that has left Democrat Sarah Kleitt with an 11-vote lead over Republican Meghan McClout in the 134th House District, House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, announced Wednesday evening. Both Democratic and Republican caucuses originally had McClout winning that contest by about 40 votes. 

Caucus leaders also anticipate that race, and as many as four more — two additional in the House and two in the Senate — could be subjected to mandatory recounts because the margin of victory appeared to be less than the statutory threshold of one-half of 1% of votes cast.

[RELATED: Democrats retain large majorities in General Assembly]

The other races potentially facing a recount include:

  • Democrat Christopher Poulos’ win over Republican Tony Morrison in the race for the open 81st House District seat in Southington;
  • Republican Rachel Chaleski’s win over incumbent Democrat Kenneth Gucker in the 138th District in Danbury;
  • Avon Republican Lisa Seminara’s win over Harwinton Democrat Paul Honig in the 8th Senate District; 
  • And incumbent Republican Ryan Fazio’s win over Democrat Trevor Crow in the 36th Senate District in Greenwich.

‘Red wave’ never materialized

Despite expectations of a Republican “red wave” fueled by consumer frustration with high inflation, there was no great mystery to the Connecticut Democrats’ success, said Michael Mandell, the state party’s executive director from 2015 to 2017.

“Democrats had a record to discuss and run on,” Mandell said, and Lamont in particular “had a clear story to tell about what Connecticut has done.”

That story included not only a $650 million tax relief plan but, more importantly, a stunning reversal to the deficits that plagued state finances for nearly a decade prior to 2018, he said. And Mandell added that Democrats fielded a strong crop of General Assembly candidates who consistently stayed with that theme while tackling the various issues in their districts.

Former House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat who does political analysis for WTNH-TV in New Haven, agreed the Democratic plan to retain the legislature was far from complex.

“They’ve run on the issues, on what they’ve been able to accomplish,” he said.

And the chief accomplishment might be a record-setting $3.3 billion rainy day fund and another $1.4 billion in federal pandemic relief still available to support state finances in the next two-year budget. Collectively, that’s enough to keep state finances in balance even if 20% of tax receipts are wiped out during the first year of a recession.

At a Wednesday morning press conference to assess election results, Lamont spoke proudly of the “fiscal guard rails” that he inherited when he took office and that he maintained throughout his first term.

“I think it’s served as very well,” he said, “and I’m going to ask the legislature to continue that going forward.”

By contrast, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski shifted themes for much of his campaign, and GOP legislative candidates weren’t always in lock-step with him.

The Madison businessman and his fellow Republicans running for the legislature tried to mobilize voter frustration about inflation that topped 8% most of this year. Lamont and the Democrats even handed the GOP a talking point in early summer when they opted not to suspend a big increase in the diesel tax — potentially escalating the cost of transporting groceries and other goods — despite the relatively modest cost of suspending the hike.

But while GOP legislators’ response to the Democrats’ $650 million tax relief package was a proposal worth $1.2 billion, Stefanowski put $2 billion on the table. Some Republican lawmakers weren’t ready to back that much in tax cuts with threats of a recession growing.

Stefanowski also often referred to the hefty state reserves as a “slush fund,” even while Republican legislators took credit for that fiscal bulwark against the next recession. They noted it was a bipartisan budget — and GOP insistence in particular — that helped create new budgetary savings programs in 2017 that led to the record-setting reserves.

Stefanowski also made overtures to social conservatives and vaccine skeptics that didn’t draw applause from all Republican circles.

Affluent Fairfield County, once a stronghold for the GOP, has increasingly gone Democratic. And by early Wednesday morning, Democrats controlled all three House seats in Greenwich, one of the wealthiest communities in the state.

“Gov. Lamont’s messaging about the economy, our fiscal health and the future was something that I think led to his over-performance” and Democratic legislators’ success, said Fairfield Republican John McKinney, a former state Senate minority leader and also a political analysts for WTNH. “And I think there was a lot of concern that the Republicans were more extremists.”

McKinney said many Republican legislators are proud of the role they played to build the reserves that currently leave Connecticut one of the states best prepared to weather a 2023 recession, should it arrive.

He added that Republicans legislative candidates also were hampered by an overall lack of incumbency clout. Entering Tuesday’s vote, Democrats not only controlled all six state constitutional offices but also Connecticut’s five seats in the the U.S. House and two in the U.S Senate.

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.