“Democrats poised to expand their [House] Majority by 10 to 15 seats,” wrote the non-partisan Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman the day before the 2020 election. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight model gave Democrats a “75 percent chance” of taking control of the US Senate through wins in North Carolina and Maine. CNalysis, a start-up dedicated to rating non-federal races, projected that Democrats would net over 120 single-member seats in the state legislatures.
But as more and more votes were tallied on November 3 and in the weeks that followed, it began to look more and more like Democratic enthusiasm had stopped with President-elect Joe Biden, stunning Democrats, Republicans, and pundits alike—all of whom had expected Team Blue to have a record showing. The “conventional wisdom that higher turnout favors Democrats'' was called into question. The 2020 election saw the highest turnout since the 1971 passage of the 26th Amendment—yet Democrats across the country fell short.
“I never anticipated that we were going to have the night that we did,” said Jeff Kaufman, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. “We lost members we shouldn’t have lost,” said Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA). “GOP gains … came as a surprise to us and other handicappers,” wrote Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter associated with the University of Virginia.
Republicans not named President Donald Trump massively overperformed expectations. Instead of riding Biden’s coattails into power, Democrats saw a net loss of nine seats in the House and a net gain of just three in the Senate after two hard-fought Georgia runoffs and a number of close (and long) losses. State legislatures—many of which control redistricting—were a bloodbath for Democrats as Republicans made a net gain of 137 seats across the country. Not only did the GOP hold on to power in all seven chambers rated as “toss-up” or better for Democrats, they managed to flip both the New Hampshire House and Senate, even as Biden and Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen cruised to victory in the Granite State.
The finger-pointing began almost immediately. Jacobin blamed Democrats swapping in-person campaigning for digital organizing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moderate lawmakers directed their ire at progressives in the party. “The number one concern in things that people brought to me in my [district] that I barely re-won, was defunding the police,” Spanberger said on a post-election call with House leadership. Yet others blamed “GOP voter-subtraction policies or Republican gerrymandering.”
But nestled between the rolling hills and Dunkin’ Donuts of New England, there may be a glimmer of hope for Democrats. Not often discussed in the context of national politics, Connecticut was home to massive successes for the Democratic Party. Just four years after facing a tie in the state Senate, they established a supermajority in the chamber. Along the way, they netted six seats in the state’s General Assembly, sending nine new Democrats—seven of them women—to Hartford.
So what set Connecticut apart from its blue state colleagues? Were certain issues more or less salient in the Nutmeg State? Or was Trump—a former resident—simply too much of a drag from the top of the ticket?
Over the last few weeks, I was able to interview a handful of former candidates and local officials from across the state: four Democrats (State Senator Jorge Cabrera, State Senator Will Haskell, Groton Democratic Chair Conrad Heede, and City Councilor and unsuccessful candidate for state House Jim Jinks) and two Republicans (Republican Town Committee Chairs Chuck Pyne and John Scott, of Woodbridge and Groton, respectively). Between these interviews and an in-depth analysis of candidates’ websites, social media presences, and news coverage, I was able to come to some preliminary answers to these questions.
In short? It depends who you ask.
I. ACCORDING TO DEMOCRATS
According to Democrats, the Land of Steady Habits simply continues to abide by the age-old adage of its one time neighbor to the north, Tip O’Neill: all politics is local. Low autumn rates of COVID-19 transmission allowed significant in-person campaigning in the months leading up to November 3, and Nutmeggers, starved for social interaction, were more likely than ever to spend time chatting with a canvasser at their door. What folks ran on varied from district to district, and with 187 state legislative seats in all, candidates were able to tailor their messages directly to the communities they wished to—or did—represent.
Cabrera, one of the candidates who delivered the Democrats their Senate supermajority by unseating State Senator George Logan, ran primarily on a message of “creating on-ramps to the middle class” and ensuring healthcare affordability. But after a series of strong summer storms and a public outcry against Connecticut energy distributors, he turned a renewed focus to his opponent’s employer: Aquarion, a subsidiary of Eversource Energy.
Serving in a state legislature is an honor—but in Connecticut, it’s a part-time honor. And after years of “working his way through the ranks” of Aquarion, Logan’s employment became an easy way to tie him to the near-universally unpopular Eversource. “Everyone knows Connecticut is expensive,” Cabrera said. “When utilities like Eversource are slow in repairing power lines and restoring downed power, that’s a source of frustration. Utilities cost and impact small businesses, making them harder to grow—especially in a pandemic.”
Republicans too focused overwhelmingly on state and local issues, with most campaigns united in their opposition to highway tolling, a police accountability bill, and state control of local education and zoning rules. But the issue that overwhelmed every other was the pandemic.
Every Democratic candidate to whom I spoke tied their platforms—and, in many ways, their successes—back to the handling or mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was issues one, two, and three,” said Haskell, who was reelected to a second term from his suburban district. “I think people saw [Governor] Ned Lamont doing a great job containing COVID, and the voters saw one party depoliticizing the public health crisis.”
The charge of “politicizing” the pandemic wasn’t just rhetoric. A month prior to the election, Republican Representatives Craig Fishbein and Doug Dubitsky sued the state “on behalf of a group of Connecticut parents, [seeking] to remove a requirement that students wear masks in schools to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.” The suit is ongoing—though it already has impacted state politics. Fishbein came within an inch of losing his usually safe 90th District seat to Jinks: After a recount, Fishbein prevailed by only seven votes.
“Most [Connecticut state legislative] races are much more local than they appear from the outside,” Jinks said. “But a choice of going with someone who was in court advocating for striking down this governor’s mandate that kids wear masks in school, that was certainly a non-starter for a lot of Cheshire and Wallingford voters . . . But he never wavered from his main [campaign] theme of lowering taxes, and in a somewhat right-leaning district, that was enough.”
II. ACCORDING TO REPUBLICANS
Despite this slim victory in the 90th District and a slew of close calls from Groton to Greenwich, the Connecticut Republican Party still faces the question of why it didn’t see the same pleasant surprises that tended to favor GOP candidates across the country.
The fault seems to lie between two powerful forces only partially within their control—an incredible expansion of vote-by-mail and the tensions within the party caused by the actions, statements, and tweets of the president. Outgoing House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, whose decision to not seek reelection allowed Democrat Mary Welander to flip the 114th District, spoke of a friction between party leadership and local GOP candidates in a recent interview, “suggesting [CT GOP Chair J.R.] Romano hewed too closely to the president, while GOP candidates quietly distanced.”
Pyne, who also serves as the GOP’s state party treasurer, attributed Democratic gains to “two words: absentee ballots. Period.” Prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, Connecticut was one of just six states to not allow no-excuse absentee voting: A voter needed to have a compelling reason they could not cast a vote on Election Day, such as illness, incapacitation, or absence from the state on Election Day. However, through a combination action by Lamont and the state legislature, access to absentee ballots was greatly expanded, and an absentee ballot application was sent to every eligible Connecticut voter.
Pyne sees this “decision to mail an absentee ballot application to every voter at the taxpayers expense” as causal to Democratic successes in New Haven County, his region of the state. “Democrats were very effective in getting their absentees returned,” he said in an interview, “and it was straight-ticket almost exclusively. The Democrats at a local level took advantage of an anti-Trump feeling.”
While Democratic candidates tended to overperform in areas where a higher percentage of votes were cast via absentee ballot, this relationship is not inherently causal. Trump urged his supporters for months to vote in-person, while Biden and the Democrats promoted voting by mail whenever possible as a precaution against COVID-19.
There is evidence of a positive correlation between Joe Biden’s margin vs. Donald Trump and the percentage of votes cast via absentee ballot, by town.
In addition, a large number of voters still split their tickets. By my calculations, twenty-seven Republicans in the House and three-quarters of the remaining Republican Senate delegation now hold seats won by Biden.
Joe Biden won 128 of Connecticut’s 151 state House Districts, including 5 in which incumbent Republicans went uncontested. Democrats won 97 seats, a net gain of six.
Joe Biden won 33 of Connecticut’s 36 state Senate districts as Democratic candidates won 24, creating a supermajority in the chamber.
But Pyne was correct to an extent. Logan’s upset win over longtime State Senator Joseph Crisco in 2016 can be attributed almost entirely to the then-underdog’s incredible overperformance with ticket-splitters in Hamden, a suburb of New Haven. There, Crisco received 1,826 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, while Logan outran Trump by 1,162 ballots. By getting ‘only’ 61 percent of the vote in Hamden, Crisco was doomed—but with Trump in the White House, Logan couldn’t replicate this success. His vote share in the town tumbled to 31 percent in 2018, and fell yet again to 28 percent this cycle.
Comparing the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections in Senate District 17.
In other parts of the state, however, Republicans weren’t so quick to blame an increase in absentee voting for their losses. “I’m not sure” what impacts it had on the outcome of the election, said Groton RTC Chair John Scott. “I think it’s one of those things we’ll have to study to see what sort of impact it had . . . I’m not sold on [increased access to] absentee ballots being a problem.” While Trump only won 35 percent of the vote in Groton, home to a major military submarine base, Republican state Senator Heather Somers garnered 45 percent of the vote on her way to a five-point win.
Somers, the only woman in the Senate Republican caucus and a former mayor of Groton, flipped the 18th Senate District in 2016 after her 2014 bid for lieutenant governor came up short. Once a Democratic stronghold, Trump won Somers’ eastern Connecticut district by just under one hundred votes in 2016—a major shift from Barack Obama’s 56–42 victory four years prior. The district swung back to Democrats this year, with Joe Biden winning 53–45 and Congressman Joe Courtney defeating his opponent with over 60 percent of the vote.
Comparing results for President, Congress, and State Senate in Senate District 18.
“Either she did something correctly that other candidates weren’t,” said Scott, a former Republican state representative whose seat had given Mitt Romney just 41 percent of the vote, “or she’s so good at her job that Democrats split their ticket.” And Biden voters certainly split their tickets: Somers ran ahead of Trump in each of the district’s eight towns, with her largest improvements in the two towns won by the President-elect.
While “the rural, northern part of the district wouldn’t vote for a Democrat to save their lives,” according to Scott, Democratic Congressman Joe Courtney still won four such towns. “Every cycle he gets voters who otherwise vote GOP to vote for him,” wrote political analyst Drew Savicki, calling him “one of the last true local Congressmen.” But the changing partisanship of this district may be beginning to weigh on Courtney. This year, despite a divisive GOP primary that included the arrest of the party-backed candidate on charges of domestic violence and a dramatic recount that changed the primary’s outcome, his margin in SD-18 dropped 8 percent from 2018.
But it was likely the ticket-splitters of Groton and Southington, not the northern towns, that delivered the election to Somers. 2,408 Biden or third-party voters cast ballots for her in these two towns—and those votes made up 99 percent of her winning margin (2,435). “She was able to disassociate herself with Trump,” Scott elaborated. “Trump has no direct control over the state of Connecticut. Senator Somers ran on her record for the community, of bringing money home to the district. Her opponent tried to say that she was Trump’s left hand, and that message didn’t resonate.”
Scott’s Democratic counterpart, Democratic Town Committee Chair Conrad Heede, echoed this sentiment. “I know both Republicans and Democrats who voted for Senator Somers who [were] revolted by the Trump presidency and voted for Biden . . . Am I surprised Senator Somers won? Absolutely not.”
Indeed, in an October debate with her Democratic opponent, she “all but ignored the attacks” tying her to the president, saying, “I have to represent everyone in my district regardless of who they support for president.” “When you ‘know’ someone, it is easier to give them a pass,” Heede said.
III. CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS
And while a focus on local issues and ticket-splitting continue to play major roles in Connecticut politics, these phenomena dovetail with a number of national trends. The suburbs are growing more and more Democratic, while more working class districts are tending towards the Republican Party. In an analysis comparing Obama’s win in 2012 to Biden’s, Savicki notes, “Biden struggled to recapture Dem support in the blue collar towns between Hartford and New Haven but found increased support in the wealthy upscale southwest.”
These trends continue down to the state house level, and can be clearly illustrated through two major flips in the state House—each an open seat. The aforementioned Themis Klarides, house minority leader and a rumored candidate for governor in 2022, chose not to seek reelection in suburban HD-114, while Democratic Speaker Joe Aresimowicsz stood down in his rapidly right-trending HD-30.
Based in the towns of Derby, Orange, and Woodbridge, just outside of New Haven, Klarides’ District 114 is incredibly well-educated, with over 44 percent of Woodbridge residents holding advanced degrees. This “canonical Yale faculty town,” to quote a Democratic operative, has long supported Democrats at the federal level, but its grouping with Orange and Derby in the state House long allowed moderate Republicans to thrive—until the Republican Party became the Party of Trump. On November 3, Woodbridge gave the president just 32 percent of the vote, Derby flipped blue, and Orange voted Democratic for president for the first time since 2000 (when Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was on the ticket). However, a flip was by no means guaranteed—in the 2018 governor’s race, Republican Bob Stefanowski won the district in close but decisive fashion.
Comparing results for President, State Representative, and Governor in House District 114.
Welander’s victory in the seat was not for lack of effort by Klarides, nor the Republican nominee, healthcare executive Dan DeBarba. By October 18, DeBarba had knocked on “nearly 2,000 doors” (roughly 15 percent of likely voters), and much of his social media content reminded voters of his support by the outgoing representative. Whether it was a picture of her canvassing or a supportive op-ed she had written in the local paper, Klarides was a mainstay in his campaign. But it wasn’t just Republican elected officials—in a likely bid to appear bipartisan, DeBarba posted a picture of himself with Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy on the day Murphy endorsed Welander, writing that as state representative, he would “always put politics aside to do what is right.”
Welander likely disagreed. In a lengthy rebuttal to a piece of DeBarba’s campaign mail, she accused him of “an attempt to deliberately spread misinformation about who I am, what I stand for, with the sole purpose of spreading fear and attempting to divide our community.” She finished, “I am focused on the issues and helping people and will continue to make this a campaign based on compassion, truth, and service.” Her campaign came out on top, winning by 6 percent.
Across the aisle, Democratic House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin chose not to seek reelection. Long-established precedent indicates a speaker of the Connecticut House should serve no more than two terms in that capacity, with only two examples of the contrary since the position was established in 1819. But precedent aside, the district he had represented for six terms was becoming harder and harder to hold. Two years ago, he prevailed by just fifty votes in his bid for a final term and “was the only Democrat to carry Berlin, where he is the high school football coach. [Governor] Lamont won just 37 percent.” In 2016, he had won by 4 percent as Trump carried the district by 11 percent.
Berlin and Southington, once industrial hubs and home to a blue-collar, traditionally Democratic workforce, have faced a Rust Belt-esque decline in recent decades. While union activism continues to represent a force in the region—especially in Cabrera’s district, which partially overlaps—the Republican tides were too much to overcome in District 30. In a matchup between two Berlin town councilors, Republican Donna Veach defeated Democratic JoAnn Angelico-Stetson by a twelve-point margin.
Similar to the DeBarba campaign, Angelico-Stetson boosted her endorsement from the outgoing speaker, but a shared post from October 26 hinted at Democratic tensions in the district at play alongside GOP misinformation. “I’ve remained relatively quiet this election cycle but I cannot stand by while people lie and try to smear a dedicated public servant,” writes Aresimowicz, “JoAnn Angelico-Stetson is running for my current legislative seat against Donna Veach. I disagree with Donna on many issues but she is a good person. JoAnn is more in line with my views on issues and I know she is beyond qualified to be our State Rep and is also one of the most kindhearted people I know.” He goes on to clarify that local Democrats oppose tolling and “defunding the police,” and ends with “I cast my ballot this past Tuesday and I proudly voted for JoAnnn Angelico-Stetson. If you support Donna you should vote for her. Whomever you support, please don’t post lies or personal attacks—it’s embarrassing to you and the district.”
In sharing the post, Angelico-Stetston wrote, “I'm grateful for Rep. Aresimowicz's endorsement and many years of service to Berlin and Southington. Joe and I don't agree on every issue but we both believe in putting real results for Connecticut families above partisan politics. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for my opponent.” Not only does she use the speaker’s post to bash her opponent—whom he calls “a good person”—but Angelico-Stetson also highlights her policy agreements with Aresimowicz after he says she is “more in line with my views on issues.”
HD-30 was one of just three seats that flipped to Republicans in November. The two other GOP gains were made against first-term Democratic women. Rep. Kate Rotella lost historically blue District 43 in the southeast part of the state to police detective Greg Howard. In the northeastern part of the state, Representative Pat Wilson Pheanious lost District 53, traditionally a Republican turf she had flipped in 2018, to Tammy Nuccio. Each Democrat lost by only a few hundred votes, with local factors playing a large role. Pheanious, for instance, found herself unable to overcome Nuccio’s strength in Tolland, where she chairs the Town Council—it was simply “a better political base than tiny Ashford,” her home.
Democratic gains stuck to suburban regions across the state. Whether they were in the suburbs of New York (Ridgefield), Bridgeport (Fairfield), New Haven (Clinton), or Hartford (Ellington), Democrats overperformed, flipping eleven seats, with female candidates taking the lion's share. “Suburban women will be a crucial demographic [for the Democratic Party] going forward,” said Haskell, whose first win over a twenty-year Republican incumbent showed the strength of the 2018 Blue Wave. “Not only are they showing up to vote blue, but they’re also showing up to run themselves.” Where they ran, suburban women ran hard. Seven of the nine flips in the lower chamber came from female candidates, many of whom saw their political lives begin with Trump’s election in 2016. And there’s still room to grow in Haskell’s suburbia—three Fairfield County seats left uncontested by Democrats were carried by Biden, and two were carried by Democratic Congressman Jim Himes.
IV. CONCERNING POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY
Shifting partisan demographics and disapproval of the president were not the only national politics that had an effect on Nutmeggers as they went to the polls or dropped their ballots in a mailbox. As many national policies can have local implementations, national policy issues may become local ones, and with the July passage of a police accountability bill in the wage of the police killing of George Floyd, some local Republicans saw a chance to make hay of the issue.
Connecticut House Bill 6004, “An Act Concerning Police Accountability,” was marked as “controversial” from the start by local media. A number of police unions stood opposed, backed by the state Republican Party, over whose objections the bill saw passage. The law, which went partially into effect in October, included provisions to create an Office of the Inspector General, require that officers use body cameras, open police discipline records to FOIA requests, and implement a handful of other reforms. It also included a provision taking aim at qualified immunity, the special privilege police officers have that prevents them from many civil suits.
While state Democrats called the bill a step in the right direction with regards to police reforms, Republican officials began to wield it in harmony with accusations of Democratic intent to “defund the police”—a slogan always guaranteed to draw jeers and boos at one of the president’s rallies. In August, the Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano published, “7 myths about the CT police accountability bill,” each point implying or outright stating that the bill was ineffective at punishing ‘bad cops’ yet effective at making it harder for ‘good cops’ to do their jobs. In September, CTGOP Chair J.R. Romano began “encouraging Republican candidates for state office to push the issue as a way to challenge the leadership of Democrats who supported the police reform bill.”
Romano’s call to action was heard by Republican candidates around the state, many of whom had already been frequently promoting their support by the police and law enforcement. All seven Republican candidates vying to represent Norwalk at the federal and state level signed a joint op-ed detailing their opposition to the bill. Donna Veach bought billboards that read, “Supports Public Safety and Police. Vote Donna Veach 2020.” When asked the critical differences between him and his opponent, Fishbein wrote, “My opponent has been endorsed by groups wanting to de-fund [sic] the police and take away our rights to protect ourselves. I have an actual record of supporting law enforcement, crime victims, and those wanting to be able to protect themselves.”
Of course, framing yourself as supportive of law enforcement is one thing—attempting to brand your opponent as a wannabe police-defunder is another, especially during an election where everyone has time to check. A number of Democratic candidates vocally opposed the ‘Defund the Police’ movement, including Welander (“I do not support defunding the police and have never said anything that would imply otherwise.”) and Jinks (“I have a track record of supporting the police.”), but that didn’t stop their opponents from lobbing the epitaph their way.
In some communities, Democrats saw the issue of policing and police accountability having a moderate effect—but potentially where Democrats had dropped the ball. Groton DTC Chair Conrad Heede noted that in his community, “Democrats largely fumbled [the] issue” of police reform. “Republicans successfully neutralized the rallying cries [of the Black Lives Matter movement] by creating false equivalencies, pointing to somewhat isolated acts of violence, and stoking fears of even modest reforms and adjustments no matter how helpful and balanced they may be.”
In other parts of the state, however, the attacks weren’t perceived as effective by Democrats—and most offered one of two reasons for why:
First, the attacks simply didn’t matter. “If [the police accountability bill] was a motivator for someone to vote against me, they probably weren’t gonna vote for me anyway,” said Jinks. The Berlin town councilor was hesitant to the idea that this national political conversation—or any—played a role in a down-ballot race decided by just a few thousand voters. Even in Connecticut, he saw the seats that changed parties as “all really based on local factors more than what’s happening statewide or nationally. It’s hard to ascribe these big trends to what’s happening locally.”
Or second, “people had more time on their hands to dig into the issues.” Cabrera was of this mindset. “I think [these attacks] didn’t work. [Republicans] tried to be cute and paint me and other candidates as wanting to eliminate police departments . . . They used the catch-all ‘Defund the Police’' slogan and it didn’t work. Voters are smart and knew it was more complicated.”
Connecticut ranks fifth on the list of most educated states, and like its highly-educated contemporaries, shifted strongly towards Democratic candidates this year. “Metropolitan counties, whether they are the central city or in the surrounding suburbs, have all shifted . . . People who have college degrees who are not the top earners, and are also younger, have internalized a set of values that cause them to recoil at Trump’s behavior,” MIT’s Charles Stewart told Bloomberg.
But it’s not just about book smarts—with so many people stuck inside, they were more willing to do the research. Fasano’s August piece would succinctly define the Republican dilemma: “The bill doesn’t directly defund the police, but . . . With voters at home and with enough time to research every candidate on the ballot (often with it lying on their kitchen tables), that “but” didn’t hold up.
In a small number of races, however, the bill may have made a difference, but as Jinks said, it all came down to local effects. Republican police officer Greg Howard framed his issues with the bill as a matter of fairness at the negotiating table. “We’re looking at street-level accountability and transparency, but we did not give police officers a seat at that table,” he said in an October debate. “The bill does do good things—the body cams and dash cams are great for police accountability and transparency. I welcome police accountability and transparency, most of the police officers do . . . police officers were not given a seat at the table, but the people of the 43rd district can now give a police officer a seat at that table.” He would defeat Rotella by just three hundred votes.
Another police officer, Mike “DiGi” DiGiovancarlo of Waterbury, is also headed to Hartford—but on the other side of the aisle. DiGi ran a pared-down campaign on social media and was not available for comment, though no references to him I could find addressed the issue of police accountability, nor the bill. His Facebook page lists a few union endorsements and a small event with Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, and a candidate profile he shared lists his priorities as simply to “advocate for small businesses, fight for additional state education aid to improve city schools and to work to make prescription drug prices more affordable for seniors.”
His opponent, Republican Representative Stephanie Cummings, only makes one mention of police reform on her website
https://votecummings.com/issues/, that she “supports policies that allow for reimbursement for body camera expenses for local police departments,” alongside her bipartisan work to provide Waterbury “with over $375,000 a year . . . to provide anti-gang programming.” Her primary focus, however, was lowering taxes and increasing education quality—local issues, as Connecticut tends toward. But with a full-court press by Democratic organizations, she couldn’t outrun the partisanship of her district, which increased from Clinton’s fourteen-point win to Biden nineteen-point. It’s unlikely the issue of police accountability played a major role, though she did vote against the bill.
V. ON THE NATURE OF CAMPAIGNING
On the issue of police accountability, the CT GOP seemed to have attempted to bring national campaign issues to the Constitution State, interwoven with the state-level police accountability bill—but fell short of many political end goals. As Cabrera said, “Voters are smart and knew [the issue of police accountability] was more complicated” than a snappy “Defund vs. Defend” mail piece or a singular attack ad. But in Connecticut, Democrats were able to counter these attacks where it was most effective: at the doors.
After Democratic hopes of wins were dashed from the Sun Belt to Appalachia, much bellyaching was made about the Biden campaign’s decision to dial back their in-person canvassing efforts. “Democrats largely allowed local Republicans to knock doors uncontested,” wrote Ross Barkan in a much-shared Jacobin piece excoriating the decision. “Biden, with universal name recognition and a massive budget for television and digital advertisements, survived. But down-ballot Democrats were annihilated.”
Democrats’ decisions to forgo door-knocking came exclusively from a public health perspective. However, in the months prior to the election, as Connecticut boasted some of the lowest COVID-19 numbers in the nation, Democratic candidates (and their Republican counterparts) took advantage.
Lower rates of COVID-19 test positivity in the months leading up to Election Day in Connecticut allowed candidates and campaigns more leeway for in-person canvassing and events.
Some campaigns made a slower start, with the traditional strategy of building your ‘doors’ program as Election Day approaches, though the pandemic did prompt changes beyond social distancing and mask wearing.
“At the height of the pandemic [nationally], it didn’t feel right to ask for votes,” Haskell said. But with dozens of volunteers and students clambering to help, his campaign still put them to use. “We made 10,000 calls to seniors in our community to just check in.” Other campaigns began their door-to-door operation with “lit drops,” or the dispersal of campaign fliers without face-to-face contact.
But as more campaigns went to the doors, the floodgates began to creak open. By September, Jinks said, “we were hearing from a lot of other candidates around the state who were door knocking, and the people they were talking to didn’t have concerns—feedback was good, so we started knocking from then through the election.”
In-person campaigning was supported by a massive growth in novel forms of organizing. Somers and her team “spent a lot of time writing postcards” to voters who had requested their absentee ballots. Digital organizing also played a larger role than normal. “We definitely utilized social media a lot more than we would have otherwise,” Cabrera said. “A lot of Zoom calls with the team, a lot of phone conferences.”
But candidates on both sides of the aisle placed a high value on face-to-face (or, perhaps, mask-to-mask) contact with voters. “We definitely amped up our digital campaign, but I’m a big believer in meeting people-in-person. The doors are the last frontier to meet the apolitical,” Haskell explained. “If I stand outside a dump and wave, the people who stop will already be vaguely political. If I hold a phone town hall, the people who show up will be at least a little political. But at the doors, people will talk about potholes.”
A focus on hyper-local issues allows candidates to present themselves as individuals, rather than as purely partisan figures—and this phenomenon has become an integral part of the Republican playbook. “George [Logan] is very effective door-to-door,” Pyne said, who also served as Logan’s campaign manager. “We made a decision very early on [to continue in-person campaigning], and he got to roughly the same number of doors as he had during the last two cycles.” Somers, who won reelection, “had a ton of events across her district,” Scott said. “She had a packed schedule.”
In the past, Republicans have been able to use a local focus to great success. As Clinton was winning Connecticut by 13 percent, Republicans gained a net of seven seats in the General Assembly and three in the state Senate, bringing the upper chamber to a tie. While Trump has thrown a wrench into this Republican strategy over the past two cycles, some Republicans are unsure about whether the damage he caused to the Republican brand will last.
VI. WHAT’S NEXT?
With Democrats in possession of a senate supermajority and Republicans facing the greatest challenge they have had in years, both parties must be asking themselves the quintessential Jed Bartlett question: “What’s next?”
The Democatic successes in Connecticut now allow for more leeway as progressive legislators advocate for their various agendas. In 2018, it was Logan’s 2018 seventy-seven-vote, post-recount win that denied Senate Democrats a supermajority of twenty-four seats—but now, they’ve got it. And while it may allow the caucus to pass new and meaningful legislation, the accomplishment is somewhat incidental.
Cabrera, whose rematch win provided Democrats with their twenty-fourth seat, thought that the potential for a supermajority was not a motivating factor for many folks. It only mattered “for the more political people—people in the party, activists, people who have been in politics for a long time,” he said. “They saw an opportunity for a veto-proof majority as a better chance for passing progressive legislation.” Haskell, whose 2018 win helped break the state Senate tie, echoed these sentiments. “Most people don’t know who their state senator is, and don’t know the party breakdown of the state Senate.”
But expanded state House and Senate majorities will play a large role regardless. Both Haskell and Cabrera stressed the need to make Connecticut more affordable, and both plan to make that a priority in the next legislative session, but that’s only the start.
“Environmental protections are the main issue of our generation,” Haskell said. “When the pandemic subsides, there will be another major weather event, another catastrophe, and we’re reaching the point of no return. Obviously Connecticut won’t solve climate change by itself, but we have a chance to set an example and change the tone, and show that what works here can work everywhere.”
Cabrera’s focus lies in getting “more people into the middle class,” and he’s not afraid to take aim at a third rail of Connecticut politics: taxes. “We need more fairness in our tax code,” he said. “We need to make sure those at the very top pay their fair share of taxes. Increase our top marginal tax rate. Close loopholes.”
Other legislators are taking up national progressive batons. Democratic Speaker Matt Ritter, who previously served as House majority leader, announced in late November that he plans to pursue the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state. Increased legislative majorities increase the likelihood of this proposal passing, as the “legislature remains closely divided.” Representative Josh Elliot, a proponent of legalization, told the Hartford Courant that “we have the wins that we need.”
Another key issue pushed by Democratic legislators and Secretary of State Denise Merrill is the permanent expansion of absentee voting. Merrill, a long-time proponent of no-excuse absentee and early voting, watched a constitutional amendment on the subject go down to a close defeat in 2014, but with absentee voting heralded as a success in this election, she’s going all-in on a similar referendum likely to make the ballot in 2022. Haskell voiced his support for this initiative, saying he saw far more enthusiasm for voting rights this year compared to two years ago. “It was refreshing to have so many people interested in the democratic process,” he said, noting the increased interest gave him “more license to focus on that in the upcoming term.”
And where does the CTGOP go from here?
Historically, Connecticut Republicans have been very competitive in gubernatorial races, despite coming up short since Jodi Rell’s 2006 reelection. In the 2018 “Blue Wave”, Lamont prevailed by just over 3 percent in what was the largest Democratic victory since 1986.
While Lamont’s predecessor held incredibly low approval ratings—at one point polled as the least popular governor in the country—Lamont’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has earned him positive marks in the most recent approval polling. 53 percent approved of his job performance, up from just 41 percent in April. Whether this holds up until his (likely) bid for reelection is another matter and is beyond the scope of this piece.
When asked what the state GOP’s next move was, Pyne responded, “We’ll keep an eye on how Democrats perform, and we’ll point out when they do things that aren’t in the interest of the voters.”
Who will lead this effort is unknown. Just before Election Day, Romano announced that he would not seek a fourth term as chairman of the state Republican Party. Romano had resisted calls to step down over the summer from Stefanowski, Klarides, and other prominent Republicans after his alleged “failure to respond to assault allegations levied against congressional candidate Thomas Gilmer.” Romano insisted that his decision was not related to the controversy. On January 13, 2021, he “abruptly resigned” in an email to his party.
“It’s a weird time in politics,” Scott said. “We have to see if the Trump era is over to see where we go from here.”
Connecticut Secretary of State (link)
Connecticut General Assembly Redistricting Project (link)
UConn Library Map and Geographic Information Center (link)
Office of Governor Ned Lamont, Facebook page (link)
The header image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Allen & Ginter and can be found here. All other images were created by the author.
Ridgley Knapp is a graduate of the College and second-year MPP student at the Harris School for Public Policy. When he's not working in or writing about politics and policy, he enjoys rowing and the New York Times crossword.