This week probable gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley told the Hartford Courant that he keeps waiting for a ‘Wisconsin moment’ to come to Connecticut. He’s referring to the huge gains Republicans made in 2010 in that state, in which they picked up a U.S. Senate seat, the governorship, two congressional seats, and flipped control of both houses of the state legislature. Could that happen here in true-blue Connecticut?
It’s a heady thought for Republicans, who haven’t held the legislature, the governorship, and the majority of the state’s congressional delegation at the same time since the early 1970s. Wisconsin has deep progressive roots, after all, and has voted for Democrats in every presidential election since 1988. The state gave rise to the Progressive Party, and was the home of Robert La Follette and Russ Feingold, among others. In 2008, just a single election cycle before the Republican tide, Barack Obama won a historically large victory in the state. If Republicans can win big in Wisconsin, there has to be some chance of them doing the same here.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I spoke with Democratic strategist Melissa Ryan, who was active in Connecticut politics before joining Russ Feingold’s 2010 campaign, and is familiar with the way politics tends to work in both states. The kind of takeover Foley is hoping will happen “just doesn’t seem likely,” Ryan said, because the states and situations are so different.
Foley and other Republicans want us to believe that voters will throw out Democrats because of the economy, of course, but the economic situation in Wisconsin in 2010 was also much worse than Connecticut’s is now. The economy was the top concern in both states, but Wisconsin’s economy seemed far more like it was in crisis. “Wisconsin lost GM, the engine plant in Kenosha, and several other factories,” Ryan said. “I think a lot of voters felt like voting [for Republicans] was the only recourse they had.” Connecticut’s job situation has never been all that great, but we haven’t experienced the kinds of shocking and demoralizing losses Wisconsin did recently, and probably won’t as the economy slowly, haltingly improves.
Also, conservatives in Wisconsin and Connecticut are different breeds. “[Connecticut] Republicans . . . generally don’t care about social issues,” she said. “Not so in Wisconsin where there are large portions of social conservatives.” Connecticut’s Republicans “tend to be more moderate” than their Wisconsin counterparts. That means the sharp right turn of the national party energized conservatives in Wisconsin far more than it did here.
Lastly, Wisconsin Republicans also make up more of a percentage of the electorate than they do here, and the independents there swing more wildly than in Connecticut. There’s a reason why Wisconsin has been targeted by Republicans running for president since 2000, while Connecticut has been ignored. Turnout also matters more; a more conservative electorate led to a much more conservative government in Wisconsin. Doubling down on conservative rhetoric actually worked in Wisconsin. That won’t be the case in Connecticut, where Republicans increasingly need independents and Democrats to win much of anything.
Therefore, an economic crisis, energized conservatives, receptive independents, and low turnout in traditionally Democratic areas led to a kind of perfect storm in Wisconsin. Connecticut had a more conservative electorate in 2010, but still stayed with Democrats. If the “Wisconsin moment” didn’t happen in 2010, can it happen in 2014?
I doubt it. A handy rule of thumb in politics is that, all else being equal, voters tend to prefer incumbents. Voters only tend to turn on them when there’s a crisis voters can pin on the current government/party in power, like the economy in 2010. Connecticut in 2014 may well arrive at that kind of crisis, and Foley may yet defeat the unpopular Malloy. But it is, in a word, unlikely.
That may be heartening for Democrats who enjoy being the majority, but it’s not great for fans of a functioning democracy. Democrats in the legislature are dangerously complacent, Republicans too often seem like a hollow, desperately partisan shell, and the whole stagnant pond has begun to stink.
It would be nice to have a real second party again, but if Foley wants his “Wisconsin moment” his party can’t do it with the same old tired nonsense, and the same old appeals to white, male, suburban/rural voters. If they want to win, they’re going to have to give urban voters, minorities and women something to actually vote for. They have to become something new.
And I don’t see that happening. Not yet.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.