With towering political figures like U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd and Gov. M. Jodi Rell leaving the scene at the end of 2010, it is easy and popular to herald Tuesday’s elections as the end of an era. While this remains true in the context of the races to replace Dodd and Rell, the changes produced by the Connecticut General Assembly arguably have a greater impact on the daily lives of most residents than does any one vote in the U.S. Senate or a single executive order from the Governor. But with the races for U.S. Senate and Governor sucking the political oxygen out of the election season, precious little attention has been paid to the contests for these offices.
Historically more prone to big shifts than their federal counterpart, all 151 seats in the state House and 36 seats in the state Senate are up for grabs on Tuesday. This potential for swings mixed with the wide gap between the number of Republicans and Democrats has the GOP looking for substantial gains heading into Election Day, though the lack of polling data on these races make predicting outcomes much more challenging.
The state House’s current composition of 114 Democrats and 37 Republicans is the fourth largest partisan disparity in the nation, reflecting the successive waves of Democratic triumphs in 2006 and 2008. In the modern era, only the post-Watergate state House was more dominated by one party when the Democrats held a 118 to 33 advantage over the GOP, suggesting that the Party of Lincoln may be due for the pendulum to swing back in their favor. The last “wave” year for the GOP, 1984, saw the Republicans pick up 21 seats as party lever voters cast their ballots for President Ronald Reagan.
The current election year has already proved to be a far different political environment in the state House than in past years. Whereas 51 of the 151 seats went uncontested in 2008, there are just 21 such races in 2010.
On top of having a larger set of targets, Republicans are also encouraged by the fact that President Barack Obama’s approval numbers have eroded dramatically over the past two years. Though President Obama received the support of 61 percent of Connecticut voters in 2008, recent statewide polling shows that his approval rating in Connecticut has slipped down to a 47 percent. This swing suggests that Republicans could be competitive not just in the 34 towns where the presidential margin was less than five percent, but also in the 47 towns where President Obama posted otherwise convincing victories with margins of six percent to 14 percent.
This calculus puts a number of seats in play for Republicans. The districts of 22 Democratic incumbents have Obama margins of less than 14 points. State Reps. Corky Mazurek of Southington, Vicki Nardello of Prospect, and Chris Lyddy of Newtown all hail from districts where Obama won by just three percentage points, making them potentially vulnerable.
After two punishing cycles, however, House Republicans have relatively little exposure to Democratic challengers. Norwalk, the hometown of House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, overwhelmingly cast their ballots for President Obama by a margin of 32 percent, but the ebullient leader of the House GOP is a strong incumbent and very unlikely to lose his seat.
Click here for a chart to see where Republicans could pick up seats in the House.
The upper chamber of the legislature has also experienced its share of big changes over the years. But since the heady days of 1897 when Republicans controlled all 24 seats in the Senate (what Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney probably calls “the good old days”), Democrats have spent most of the time in a narrow but consistent majority. Like in the state House, the Democratic rise in recent years has shrunk the Republican caucus down to 12 of the 36 seats in the Senate circle.
A close comparison of the Obama ’08 numbers to the current field of races shows a challenging environment for the Republicans despite the national mood. Of the 36 Senate districts, President Obama won by margins of less than 14 percent in only eight.
The top target for Senate Democrats is likely Enfield Republican Sen. John Kissel. His 7th District voted for the President by an impressive 22 percent margin over GOP Presidential nominee John McCain, making it the most Democratic district held by a Republican. The nine-term incumbent faces state Rep. Karen Jarmoc on Tuesday.
Republican pickup opportunities may focus on a coterie of districts where the changed electoral environment may produce more favorable results for the GOP, including southeastern Connecticut’s 18th Senate District, the shoreline towns of the 12th Senate District, and eastern Connecticut’s 19th Senate District, where former Congressional candidate Sean Sullivan is challenging the venerable Democratic incumbent Edith Prague.
Click here for a chart to see where Republicans could pick up seats in the Senate.
With a dearth of polling and the eroding ability of local newspapers to cover local news, races for the Connecticut General Assembly have largely slipped under the radar of most residents throughout the election season. But it is Connecticut’s approach as a state to public policy decisions that have given us the highest electricity rates in the continental United States, among the worst business climates in the country, and burdensome tax rates. Until officials at the state Capitol get serious about growing the economy and creating jobs, everyone will continue to suffer for it.
Heath W. Fahle is a policy analyst and consultant based in Manchester. His background in political campaigns includes work for former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons and the Connecticut Republican Party. He also is the principal of Revolutionary Strategies LLC, a website design and consulting firm. Learn more at www.heathwfahle.com.