The headline last week in The New Canaan Advertiser caught my eye. With a mixture of bemusement and bravado, the paper declared, “Red Canaan: Last Connecticut town with GOP majority.” And at 51 percent, it’s a bare majority, at that.
Actually, I was surprised to learn there were any towns remaining in my state that had more Republicans registered than Democrats or independents. Indeed, according to figures released by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill in advance of last November’s municipal elections, only three other towns even have a plurality of registered Republicans: Darien (47 percent); Middlebury (45 percent); and Hartland (40 percent).
Fifty of the state’s 169 municipalities have more Republicans registered than Democrats, though in 90 percent of those towns, unaffiliated voters still outnumber those in either major party. One of those is in my neck of the woods. Goshen has long been known as the Northwest Corner’s GOP bastion. But even there, voters who declined to enroll in any party outnumber Republicans 827-802.
So what’s going on here? On many levels, this phenomenon isn’t surprising. Since 2001, Republican enrollment in Connecticut has dropped 8 percent, while Democrats have surged by almost 9 percent. But the largest growth has been in unaffiliated voters — “independents” who can’t bring themselves to register in either major party. In the last 13 years, they’ve grown by 9 percent to 917,535, or upward of 42 percent of the electorate, the very same percentage we find on the national level.
The migration away from the GOP has been well documented. Ask Republicans seeking office in Connecticut what their biggest problems are. Aside from fundraising, they’ll tell you one of their greatest burdens is defending themselves against the GOP kooks in places like Missouri and Texas. “Why is your party waging a war on women?” is a common but baseless question on the Connecticut campaign trail.
Voters also want to know why Republicans are so inclined to support Wall Street over Main Street — a fairer question, but one that has been blunted by Wall Street Democrats such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as President Obama, who has been the recipient of record levels of support from the financial sector in both his campaigns for president.
Republicans in Connecticut are also part of a growing national trend in which the politically inclined conclude that they’re more comfortable living among people who think like they do. So conservatives in Connecticut might move to North Carolina or Texas, while liberals in those states pull up stakes and head to New England or the west coast.
More than 75 percent of those who label themselves independents also say they lean toward one party or the other, so it’s not clear why they refuse to actually register in a party. Maybe they just prefer the sound of the word “independent,” connoting as it does the spirit of freedom and autonomy.
In my case, it’s because I don’t check enough boxes on the laundry list of the parties’ pet issues. For example, I’m a capitalist and free marketeer who also believes there are a few cases where the markets don’t serve us well, which is why I think a single-payer healthcare system is preferable to what we have now. This makes me persona non grata in the Republican Party. But I also believe abortion beyond the point of viability is essentially infanticide, which puts me very much at odds with the just about everyone in the Democratic Party.
I could go on and on but suffice it to say that from flag-burning to the Second Amendment to same-sex marriage to education to taxes, I don’t line up enough to have a home in either party. And I suspect there are a lot of people who feel the same way.
When you think about it, it’s rather shocking that a state like Connecticut hasn’t done a better job of keeping its voters in the two major parties. As someone who has also been a working journalist in New York and Massachusetts, I’ve been struck by how partisan my home state is.
It seems like every office, from the local level to the state level, has a Republican and Democratic nominee. Each municipality has both a Democratic and Republican registrar of voters. The state makes it difficult to run without party support — particularly for higher offices. Ask Jonathan Pelto and Joe Visconti about that. And Connecticut’s absurd minority representation law mandates that no party completely dominate the other in smaller towns.
Most school board elections in Massachusetts and New York are nonpartisan, meaning that everyone runs as a petitioning candidate. But not here. Strong parties are everything to the powers that be. To make matters worse, both parties close their primaries to the unaffiliated, which deepens the polarization of the electorate as candidates pander to their activist bases in order to secure the nomination at the conventions or the primaries.
On a personal level, there’s a silver lining. It gives me perverse pleasure to see that, despite the best efforts of party officials to keep us in line, we refuse to cooperate. We’re slowly eschewing the Democratic and Republican labels. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before independents outnumber all the party loyalists combined. And that will be a good thing.