On a night where Democrats got tossed out of Congress all over the country, Connecticut’s five Democrats held firm. How did that happen, and can Republicans ever hope to win a Connecticut congressional seat again?
In three of the districts, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, Reps. John Larson, Joe Courtney, and Rosa DeLauro rolled to easy wins. In the other two districts things were more closely fought, so let’s examine them to see how it all worked out.
The 4th District
What happens when a Fairfield County Republican runs against an incumbent Democrat four years after he’d lost to the man the first time? Let’s ask former State Sen. Dan Debicella, who lost to Rep. Jim Himes in the 4th District race again this year.
In 2010, Debicella lost to Himes by about 13,000 votes. In 2014 that margin actually got a little wider; Debicella lost by 14,000 votes. The maps of the two elections are also quite similar. In both 2010 and 2014, Himes won the three cities of Bridgeport, Stamford, and Norwalk by hefty margins, and also won the suburbs of Redding, Westport, Weston, and Fairfield. Debicella did reasonably well everywhere else, but his inability to connect to urban voters sank him.
The moderate Debicella ran a decent enough race, but the 4th is a difficult place for Republicans to run and win anymore. Lower Fairfield County is not the Republican stronghold it was during the Bush years and before. The Republican brand at the national level is badly tarnished there, and while the area will often still vote to send local Republicans to Hartford, there’s a lot of hesitation to elect one to Congress.
It’s going to take a very strong, capable, and well-liked Republican candidate to make any in-roads in the 4th anytime soon.
The 5th District
Rep. Elizabeth Esty had President Obama to thank for her 2012 victory, but in 2014 the man who did more than anyone else to ensure she was elected for a second term was her opponent, Mark Greenberg.
It’s not hard to see why, as 2014 was a great year for Republicans, and the 5th is the state’s most Republican congressional district. And yet, Greenberg was absolutely demolished by Esty, someone who many Democrats still feel rather lukewarm about. To her credit, Esty has been better about connecting with the Democratic base lately, but really. Democrats in this race were far more interested in defeating Greenberg than protecting her.
Greenberg lost by huge margins in the northwest corner of the state, lost most of the Farmington Valley towns, and even managed to narrowly lose his hometown of Litchfield. These are all places Roraback won in 2012, and they are also places where Tom Foley did well this year.
Matt DeRienzo, in his excellent analysis of the race, faulted both Greenberg’s inept campaign and the candidate himself, saying “Republicans might have defeated Esty with any candidate who didn’t deny the existence of man-made climate change or call for women to be forced to look at sonograms of their unborn children before getting an abortion.”
And that’s the thing: Republicans all around the country this year learned from their mistakes and ran competent candidates who could actually connect with the voters instead of, say, the Todd Akins and Christine O’Donnells of the party. But here in Connecticut, Republicans decided to go with a guy who came off like a stereotype of a Tea Party Republican.
So the problems here are the same old problems the Connecticut Republican Party has again and again. They can’t find any good ways to really differentiate themselves from the toxic national party, and they often tend to run awful candidates in races where they really could win. Deeply flawed candidates like Tom Foley, Linda McMahon, and Mark Greenberg really shouldn’t be the face of the party.
Imagine what might have happened if Andrew Roraback had run again in the 5th, or if the popular state Sen. John McKinney had run against Himes for his father’s old seat. Imagine how different things would be if state Republicans found a strong, united message that resonated with voters beyond their narrowing base, or if the state party did better work reaching out to urban and minority voters.
Maybe a change in leadership can help them in that direction, though I fear a wholesale change in culture is needed. I hope they hurry up. We’re in desperate need of a real opposition party, and right now the Republicans are all we’ve got.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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