It happens every municipal election cycle. Everyone drags out the mystic runes and Ouija boards to try and divine what it all means for the next state and federal elections. This is usually a futile task. But in the upside-down world of 2017, it may not be.
In normal years, local elections are just that: local. Politics changes when it’s only about property taxes, baseball fields, sewer lines, and street cleaners instead of huge issues of state and national policy. The culture wars can sometimes trickle down this far, but they don’t animate voters in quite the same way that they do when it comes time to select people to go to Hartford or Washington.
That’s how it used to work, anyway. Tip O’Neill, back in the 1980s, said that all politics are local — but it feels like the opposite is true now: all politics are national. So when Democrats did unexpectedly well in towns where they’ve been an afterthought for years, members of both parties were quick to point the finger at President Donald J. Trump.
It’s not hard to believe. After all, the president is deeply unpopular in Connecticut, and the 2017 elections showed gains for Democrats nationwide. In Groton, Republican town councilors who were swept from office pinned at least some of the blame on Trump, even reporting that voters came to the polls angry about Trump and asked who the Republicans were so they could vote against them.
Democratic leaders pointed to an increase in enthusiasm, more candidates running, and new voters coming to the polls as factors in those wins. After all, during a year when Democrats at the Capitol in Hartford aren’t exactly popular, what else could be driving wins in places like Farmington, Southington, Bristol, and Glastonbury?
What’s interesting is the number of new voter registrations, which does suggest that the population voting in these elections may be somewhat different from years past.
Add all that together, and it sends a clear and chilling message to state Republicans: don’t start measuring the drapes in the governor’s office just yet. If 2018 is supposed to be the year the GOP kicks the Democrats out of power, continued anti-Trump fury could steal all of that away.
Except I don’t buy it, not completely.
There are a few reasons. First, turnout was around 30 percent, which is both agonizingly low and just about typical for municipal elections. In 2013, the last cycle occurring after a presidential election year and the cycle most similar to this one, turnout statewide was 31.43%.
It’s possible a lot of Republican voters simply stayed home, but it’s also possible that a lot of the new voters are registering in advance of next year’s state and federal elections. If there really were a lot of new voters in the mix, I would have expected turnout to increase somewhat. This was the pattern in the gubernatorial and legislative elections in Virginia, for example, which were the clearest examples of Trump motivating Democrats to victory.
I also look at the towns where Democrats made gains, and while some of them are a little surprising, like Southington, none of them are completely impossible territory for Democrats. In fact, a lot of the towns that changed hands, including Groton, Farmington, South Windsor, Glastonbury, Pomfret, Newington, and more, voted for Hillary Clinton. Democrats aren’t unknown there. Farmington is being held up as an example of a strong Republican town, but that town, along with the rest of the Farmington Valley, has been steadily trending Democratic for years.
Democrats were also due to win some of these places back. Town council control often goes back and forth in many Connecticut towns. It’s surprisingly rare to find one-party towns where control never changes — with the exception of big, Democratic-controlled cities and a few rural towns.
Lastly, a lot of these races really did turn on local issues. A good example of this is Bristol, where Republican Mayor Ken Cockayne’s brutal loss happened not because of Trump, but because Cockayne had been censured twice in the past year for retaliating against an employee and sexual harassment. Voters had clearly had enough of it.
In short, then, I think the Trump effect in our local elections is likely present, but overstated. Democrats may have recruited better candidates, run more energetic campaigns, and inspired a few angry voters to the polls, but there’s not much evidence for anything beyond that.
What’s it mean for 2018? Nothing. 2018 will be its own story.
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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