Is there a Republican tide belatedly sweeping over Connecticut? Over the past month or so, it seems like something has shifted rightward around here.
Connecticut is usually the land of liberals, one of the places in this country where Democrats can feel secure in their utter dominance, and one of the few places where progressive legislation and policies have been enacted in the past two years. After all, there are no Republicans in any statewide office or in the delegation to Congress. In 2010, Democrats ran counter to expectations and a national conservative tide, expanding their hold on the state. But 2012, which is a presidential election year and nothing even close to another dramatic wave election, was supposed to be relatively easy. Earlier polls suggested exactly this.
And yet, suddenly, we’re not so much of a sure thing. Rep. Chris Murphy was supposed to easily defeat Republican Linda McMahon and embark upon a long and potentially promising Senate career, but now he’s in very visible trouble after polls showed the two in a virtual heat. Republican Andrew Roraback is now leading rival Elizabeth Esty in at least one (admittedly partisan) 5th Congressional District poll. Barack Obama still leads here, but his margin is way down from 2008. It’s possible, given a little imagination and the right circumstances, to think that Mitt Romney could put the state in the GOP column for the first time since 1988.
How did this happen? Connecticut Republicans have been lost in an increasingly deep and thorny wilderness for years, after all. They’re a tiny, largely ineffective minority in the General Assembly, and they lost their last real lever of power in Hartford, the governorship they’d held since 1995, in 2010. Their last member of Congress, Rep. Christopher Shays, lost to Democrat Jim Himes in 2008. And Republicans haven’t held a U.S. Senate seat since Lowell Weicker lost to Joe Lieberman in 1988. National Republicans have been getting more extreme instead of less so in many cases, which is usually awful news for the local party. How is it possible that they could come back? And, if Republicans are on the rise, why is it happening now instead of during the national Republican wave two years ago?
There’s two possible reasons for a Republican rise. First, there’s a fortunate confluence of several separate events and district-specific quirks giving Republicans a boost. Linda McMahon’s long, aggressive campaign to court women and independents may finally be paying off, and her sudden, partly misleading attacks on Murphy’s committee attendance record may have defined Murphy before he had a chance to really introduce himself to the rest of the state. A home foreclosure dustup won’t help him, either. In response, Murphy is proposing nine debates, which the McMahon campaign is whittling down to four. This is the tactic the trailing candidate uses to get more exposure and perhaps land a critical hit against an opponent. It’s also a dangerous move; since the Murphy campaign clearly expects to annihilate McMahon any reasonably respectable showing from her will be a disaster for them.
Roraback may be benefiting from a divided Democratic Party in the aftermath of a bitter primary and from the goodwill he’s earned in his part of the state. Esty is still largely unknown, and this is likely hurting her right now. This is also a district with a strong conservative pedigree, no matter the margin of Murphy’s wins here. This is the district that gave landslides to Nancy Johnson, after all, and the only Connecticut county to support George W. Bush in 2004 was Litchfield. As for Obama, his position is probably secure here, but large parts of the coalition that elected him by a wide margin in 2008 have slipped away. It helps that one of Romney’s more convincing personas is that of a New England Republican.
The second reason for Republican resurgence is that larger trends are at work here. This may be a reaction against the progressive agenda of the governor and legislature, or a response to a state economy that constantly feels stuck in neutral. It’s also very possible that people in Connecticut have had two years of nothing but Democrats in every office, and, true to our famously contrary nature, are ready to swing back the other way. Connecticut may seem to stick with one party right now, but we’ve had divided government and a divided delegation far more often than we’ve had a single party running everything. In fact, the last time a single party controlled as much as Democrats do now was after the party swept the 1964 elections. In 1966, they lost one of their six congressional seats, and by 1971 they had lost control of two more seats, a Senate seat, and the governorship. One party control is not in our nature.
Of course, nothing is certain. A strong showing by President Obama in the state could erase any tentative Republican gains, and we could end up with the status quo after Election Day. These larger trends may be ghosts, only to vanish as conditions change. But Democrats are only just now starting to wake up to the reality that the Republicans aren’t laughably inept after all. No matter if this is an incoming tide or just a heavy rain, Democrats are suddenly treading water in a state where they once stood on solid ground.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.