Republican Sam Belsito cruised to victory in Tuesday’s special election to fill the seat of Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, who had resigned to take a job with the USDA. Republican state chairman Jerry Labriola was thrilled, crowing that there is “no doubt that tonight’s commanding GOP victory is referendum on Dan Malloy’s mishandling of the Connecticut economy,” in an email message to supporters, adding that the election was “a harbinger of things to come.”
A Courant editorial also suggested that Belsito’s win meant Democrats needed to sit up and take notice. That seems like quite a pronouncement to make over a special election where turnout hovered around 20 percent. Do special elections, which happen infrequently and often have very low turnout, really predict the way the wind will blow in the next general election?
To figure out whether special elections are a good place to take the temperature of the electorate, let’s take a look at what’s happened during previous cycles.
The two years running up to the 2012 general election actually had a large number of special elections. In early 2011, not long after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced his plans to fix a massive budget gap through a plan of “shared sacrifice,” which would include union concessions, cuts, and tax hikes, nine special elections were held, all of them in House or Senate districts represented by Democrats. Republicans only picked up two seats, despite the unpopularity of the governor’s plans.
A later special election in April resulted in Democrats holding a seat. In 2012, after then Rep. Tim O’Brien (D) won election as mayor of New Britain, Democrat Rick Lopes defeated two other candidates to win his House seat. All of this suggests an electorate willing to go with the status quo, and in fact in the 2012 general election the overall partisan balance of the General Assembly didn’t change at all. The one seat that Republicans had hoped would forecast a shift, a Senate seat in Meriden, was back in Democratic hands.
What about the 2010 cycle? Republicans did very well in the 2010 general election, picking up a seat in the Senate and a whopping 17 seats in the House. A total of 15 Democratic incumbents were defeated. However, the special elections held from 2009-10 don’t really forecast that. In 2009, there were two special elections, one to replace Rep. Kevin DelGobbo, R-Naugatuck, who left to be a DPUC commissioner, and another following the death of Rep. Faith McMahon, D-Bloomfield. Both seats remained with the parties that had held them before the election.
In 2010, a special election was called to replace Rep. John Harkins, R-Stratford, who had recently become mayor of Stratford. Laura Hoydick, another Republican, picked up the seat. It’s a small sample size, true, but there’s little here to indicate the Republican wave on the horizon.
Sometimes special elections seem to swim against the current. During the two years prior to the 2008 elections, Republicans did very well, even managing to flip a Senate seat in Bridgeport by a shockingly large margin. But when the general election rolled around, they were swamped by the Democratic tide, and the Bridgeport seat was back in Democratic hands.
Here’s the thing about special elections: they’re weird. Turnout is low — sometimes as low as 10-15 percent — and they often say more about the state of local politics and local get-out-the-vote operations than they do about bigger trends. The reason is that the electorate for a special election is usually very, very different from that of a general election, which is why it’s possible to have bonkers results like a Bridgeport senate seat going Republican by 20+ points.
But does this special election matter? It’s hard to say. The seat has a definite Democratic history; it was for a time represented by current Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, and it’s possible to see it as a sign of voter frustration in the many, many supposedly “safe” districts Democrats take for granted. And yet, in 2010 Hurlburt won re-election by only a few hundred votes, while Tolland and Willington went for Tom Foley. So a Republican win isn’t completely unprecedented. It’s also possible to see this as local politics in action. Belsito is a well-known member of the Tolland town council, while his opponent hailed from tiny Ashford.
Therefore, take the result with a grain of salt. It would be foolish for Democrats to ignore this result entirely. But it might be just as foolish to believe that it’s a sign of impending doom.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.