There is, if pundits and polls are to be believed, a Republican wave building in the country right now, and deep blue Connecticut is not immune. A high-profile Senate race might give us our first Republican U.S. Senator since Joe Lieberman ousted Lowell Weicker in 1988, and congressional races in the 4th and 5th districts may be tight. Republicans may find their fortunes significantly reversed statewide.

So far, none of this is news.

What happens at the top of the ballot, however, may strongly affect what happens down-ballot. Republican gains in Washington might well mean Republican gains in Hartford. In fact, during two previous Republican wave elections, Republicans won control of either one or both houses of the usually heavily Democratic General Assembly. Could that happen again?

In 1994, the last Republican wave brought John Rowland to office as governor, and won Republicans control of the state senate for the first time in a decade. They didn’t win control of the House, but did reduce Democratic majorities. Therefore, the state’s first Republican governor since Thomas Meskill in the early 1970s had at least a piece of the legislature to work with.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s landslide, coupled with the final use of the party lever on voting machines, produced a victory for a young, mustachioed John Rowland in the 5th district congressional race, and a Republican House and Senate for the first time in over a decade in Hartford (as a sidenote: one of those Republicans first elected in 1984 was Brookfield State Representative Jodi Rell). Democratic Governor William A. O’Neill was suddenly faced with an opposition legislature, throwing his own re-election prospects for 1986 into serious doubt.

It’s possible, then, that a Republican wave could result in the recapture of one or both houses of the legislature. The Senate, which has fewer members, is probably more likely to flip. Democrats have been picking off marginal Republican Senate seats in Fairfield and Litchfield counties for years; many of those seats could return to Republican hands this year. The House will be much harder to flip, given the sheer number of seats that would need to change hands, but huge swings that chamber’s party composition have happened before.

So what happens if Republicans do win control of one or both chambers? History suggests that much will depend on the governor and the economic climate. O’Neill and other Democrats largely backed the Republican legislature’s program of tax cuts during the 1985 session, leading some to grumble that the former majority party had lost its identity. Connecticut’s mid-80s burst of prosperity made cutting taxes easy and popular, and allowed the legislature and governor to approve the Education Enhancement Act, which raised teacher pay among other things. O’Neill himself remarked that it was nice to have money to work with. His personal popularity soared, and he easily won re-election in 1986. The tax cuts and education spending increases approved by the governor and the Republican legislature, on the other hand, helped set the stage for the deep fiscal crisis that drove O’Neill from office in 1990.

In 1995-96, John Rowland used the leverage provided by the slim Republican majority in the state senate to enact some of his tax cut and welfare reform plans. However, not all was harmony: one of the highest-profile plans Rowland pushed was a casino in Bridgeport. He called a special session to deal with the topic in late 1995, only to see the state senate defeat the bill by a wide margin. By and large, though, Rowland found the help of fellow Republicans in the legislature to be invaluable during the first two years of his term. The 1995 session was perhaps Rowland’s most productive when it came to enacting his legislative agenda. However, any hopes of continuing that success were dashed when Democrats retook control in 1996, despite the popular Rowland’s attempts to cast the campaign as a referendum on him and his policies.

What does this tell us about how Republicans might fare in the 2011 session if they do manage to secure a majority in one or both chambers? If they face a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, any program of spending and tax cuts will require serious negotiation; even if a Republican is the next governor it’s likely that he and the legislature will have many disagreements during this time of economic crisis. It’s also worth pointing out that there is no legislature in living memory that has significantly and effectively managed to limit state spending. The needs of members’ districts may press upon them more heavily than ideology once they’re in office.

However, a Republican legislature has the potential to really shake up Connecticut’s calcified governmental structure, even if the governor is a Democrat. A freshly minted majority and a new governor may not be not so rigid in their thinking, and could find much common ground, as O’Neill and the Republicans did in 1985-86. Majority Republicans would also have a significant impact on the redistricting process, and therefore the makeup of the legislature for the next decade. Much would depend on their leadership, and the willingness of new and inexperienced members to be led.

Democrats should take heart, though, even if the unthinkable does happen and Republicans win control of either or both chambers in Hartford. Republicans haven’t managed to hold control of any piece of the legislature beyond a single two-year term since the early 1970s; chances are they’ll find themselves voted out in 2012, and a Democratic majority restored.

Susan Bigelow is the former owner/author of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.

References

AFTER 100 DAYS, ROWLAND IS AT HOME IN THE RING:[STATEWIDE Edition]
MATTHEW DALY and JON LENDER,  Courant Staff Writers.  Hartford Courant.  Hartford, Conn.:Apr 15, 1995.  p. A.1

ROWLAND CASTS SENATE RACES AS REFERENDUM REPUBLICAN AGENDA ON THE LINE:[STATEWIDE Edition]
CHRISTOPHER KEATING,  Capitol Bureau Chief.  Hartford Courant.  Hartford, Conn.:Oct 31, 1996.  p. A.1

BRIDGEPORT CASINO DIES IN SENATE 24 10 VOTE A DEFEAT FOR CITY, ROWLAND:[STATEWIDE Edition]
MATTHEW DALY and CHRISTOPHER KEATING,  Courant Staff Writers.  Hartford Courant.  Hartford, Conn.:Nov 18, 1995.  p. A.1

O’Neill to Sign Legislation Lifting Tax on Clothes Costing Under $50
By RICHARD L. MADDEN Special to The New York Times.  New York Times (1923-Current file).  New York, N.Y.:Feb 24, 1985.  p. 35 (1 pp.)

A Bipartisan Budget:In Hartford, Prosperity Smooths Way For O’Neill and Republicans to Agree
By RICHARD L. MADDEN Special to The New York Times.  New York Times (1923-Current file).  New York, N.Y.:May 18, 1985.  p. 28 (1 pp.)

School Boards Act to Raise Teacher Pay:Boards Act to Raise Teachers’ Salaries”
By CHARLOTTE LIBOV.  New York Times (1923-Current file).  New York, N.Y.:Jan 11, 1987.  p. CN1 (3 pp.)

VOTE IN HARTFORD BY SENATE REJECTS BRIDGEPORT CASINO:NO HELP FOR AILING CITY The Proposal by Gov. Rowland Is Stifled by a 24-10 Tally, Ending a 4-Year Debate Senate Vote Rejects Casino for Bridgeport
By JONATHAN RABINOVITZ.  New York Times (1923-Current file).  New York, N.Y.:Nov 18, 1995.  p. 1 (2 p

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.