Twice in six days, Connecticut Democrats will have marked significant political anniversaries. One celebrated a moderate congressional success on guns, the other a crushing loss on abortion rights. Both are warmups for 2024.
“Anniversaries are usually happy occasions. And there’s nothing to celebrate today,” Attorney General William Tong said Thursday, two days before the anniversary of Roe v. Wade’s demise. “It’s been a year since basic fundamental civil rights, human rights were taken away from women, patients, doctors, nurses across this country.”
Tong stood with other Democrats before a soaring two-story mural on the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Women’s Empowerment Center in Hartford. The late justice, flanked by the visages of Michelle Obama, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Gov. Ella Grasso and Vice President Kamala Harris, glared over his shoulder.
“We’re gathered here today to say in no uncertain terms abortion is safe, legal and protected in Connecticut,” Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said. “We want the women of Connecticut to know that, and we want women across America to know that, because if abortion is prohibited in your state, come to Connecticut to get access to care.”
Last week, President Joe Biden headlined a gun-safety summit organized by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy at the University of Hartford to celebrate the bipartisan passage a year ago of the first federal gun law in 30 years. But the event also focused on the refusal of congressional Republicans to follow Connecticut’s example of universal background checks and a ban on AR-15s and other military-style weapons.
Coming off a state legislative session notable for budget bipartisanship that tended to blur rather than sharpen differences with Republicans, Democrats see guns and reproductive rights as potent wedge issues, even if Connecticut already has some of the nation’s strongest laws on gun safety and abortion access.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said the Democrats’ continuing references to guns and abortion ultimately will sputter in blue Connecticut. The majority party’s previous successes on those issues will undermine their relevance, at least in state elections, he said.
“The latest mantra on guns and abortion is being driven by the national political landscape versus the real need for reform in Connecticut,” Candelora said. “When you’re searching for a press release to say you’re doing something on gun control, and you’re coming from a state that has already comprehensively reformed it 10 years ago, it’s hard to keep going to that well when other states are much further behind Connecticut.”
But one obvious reason for the Democrats to highlight the issues is that they expose a genuine political divide among lawmakers.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed update of the sweeping gun law passed in 2013 in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School passed easily this year, 24-11 in the Senate and 96-51 in the House. But the votes largely were cast along party lines.
In the Senate, only one of the dozen Republicans supported it. Among the 24 Democrats, the vote was 23-0 in favor, with one absence. In the House, seven of the 53 Republicans voted yes. Among the 93 Democrats, there were 84 in favor, five opposed and four absent.
“That separates Democrats from Republicans. And on choice, there are a number of strong pro-choice Republican women legislators. I want to acknowledge that and their partnership and their support,” Tong said, adding they are a minority. “Yeah, there’s a huge divide between Democrats or Republicans on this issue.”
In 2022, passage of a law expanding who can perform first-trimester abortions and declaring Connecticut a safe harbor for women seeking abortions came with only seven Republican votes in the House.
In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 a year ago to overturn Roe v. Wade and upend nearly a half-century of settled law on abortion.
Roe barred states from banning abortion prior to fetal viability, generally considered to be between 23 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. In April, one of the GOP presidential contenders, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, signed a law banning abortion after six weeks.
Comptroller Sean Scanlon, a former state lawmaker from Guilford and one of the Democrats at the abortion-rights event Thursday, insisted differences over abortion inevitably will be on voters’ minds in a presidential election year.
“In the coming weeks and months and year, as this election gets going, believe me, this is going to be one of the most important issues facing our country,” Scanlon said. “And not just in states where there are governors like Ron DeSantis. It’s in every one of our 50 states, because this issue is of tantamount importance to every single woman in this country and every single man who supports women in this country.”
Democrats pick up state legislative seats in most presidential years. Every Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992 has carried the state. But uncertainties over the frontrunners in each party, Biden and Donald J. Trump, loom large.
There is no book on evaluating a possible rematch of two geriatric candidates, one of whom is facing state and federal criminal trials, or its impact on voter turnout.
On Election Day, both men would be significantly older than Ronald Reagan was when he left office in 1989 as the oldest president to occupy the White House, two weeks shy of his 78th birthday. At the end of the next presidential term, Biden would be 86; Trump would be 82.
Democrats have significant advantages in Connecticut. Not quite one in five voters are active registered Republican voters, with Democrats outnumbering them, 813,384 to 463,401. Unaffiliated voters number 924,214.
Democrats hold every statewide and congressional office in Connecticut, as well as majorities of 24-12 in the state Senate and 98-53 in the state House.
Things were worse for Republicans 15 years ago, when Barack Obama’s coattails gave Democrats a 114-37 advantage in the state House and 24-12 in the Senate. Eschewing social issues and focusing on the state’s weak economy and budget challenges, Republicans steadily recovered, cresting in 2016 with half the seats in the Senate and just five short of a majority in the House.
But four years of Trump in the White House supercharged Democratic organizing, producing strong Democratic majorities in 2018, 2020 and 2022. Republicans seem to be dusting off the playbook that served them so well after 2008.
“I think at the end of the day, the primary issue is who are the better stewards of the economy? Who are the better managers of government?” said Ben Proto, the state Republican chair.
A significant difference from 2010 and beyond, however, is that the state’s Democratic governor is a fiscal centrist who just signed a budget that cuts taxes and leaves the state with fat budget reserves, while insisting economic growth is priority No. 1.
Proto said the cut to the income tax may be historic, but the annual savings of $500 to $600 for middle-class families will be consumed by inflation.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said there is room for Republicans to argue that they would have done more to control spending, cut taxes and promote growth — even if most of them voted for the budget.
“What the Democrats traditionally do is they’ll do Republican-light when it comes time for fiscal responsibility and tax cuts,” Kelly said. “They’ll go campaign on it but then want to come back to Hartford and spend.”
Kelly and Candelora said the Republicans also can separate themselves from Democrats on issues of crime and educational opportunity.
“We want to focus on issues that are pertinent to Connecticut families and things that are actually happening here in Connecticut,” Kelly said.