On Tuesday, Democrats added to a historic win streak in special elections, picking up state house seats in New Hampshire and Connecticut. The remarkable thing: the Connecticut seat — the 120th District in Stratford — had been held by Republicans for 44 years previously.
Democrats across the country are celebrating this win as yet another sign of Republican weakness heading into the 2018 midterm elections. So is this a thing? Or is it just another off-the-wall special election black swan event?
Oh man. I have no idea. That’s what makes it so fascinating and scary.
See, in the old days, by which I mean 2015, I’d have said that special elections are basically random events that don’t predict what may or may not happen in the next general election, either at the state or national level.
Special elections are by nature weird. They’re low-turnout, low-interest, often very local contests that can flip a seat by a few hundred, or a few dozen, votes. And that’s true here, too. Democrat Phil Young defeated Republican Bill Cabral 1,615 to 1,552, according to unofficial tallies. Turnout was a pitiful 17 percent. So, this is meaningless, right? Right?
I want to say it is. But … man. This is a seat that Republicans have held for two generations. Voters are supposedly furious with Democrats in Hartford, why would they elect another one? What’s going on here?
I have a couple of theories.
The first and easiest theory is that Democrats got away with one because the state GOP fell asleep at the switch. Nobody expected Phil Young to win, not even other Democrats. His opponent was well-known, the previous state representative, Laura Hoydick, resigned because she was elected mayor, and it was supposedly safe Republican territory. It’s the perfect sort of race where determined organizing, lack of any media attention, and an unaware opposition can win the day for an underdog.
That theory is comforting for those of us who like our political laws to stay fairly constant. The trouble is, I don’t believe it’s the whole story.
The second theory is that this is a small piece of a much larger trend: the slow movement of Fairfield County, once a Republican stronghold, to the Democrats. This district, the 120th, was represented by John Harkins until 2010, when he also stepped down to become mayor. Laura Hoydick succeeded him by winning a much higher-turnout special election (a whopping 22 percent) on March 2, 2010.
In fact, Republicans have been growing weaker in Fairfield County for a long time. Hillary Clinton won Stratford in 2016, and Dan Malloy won it in 2014 and 2010. Fairfield County has been represented in Congress by Democrat Jim Himes since 2009, despite being a Republican seat for decades before that.
That 2010 special election? It was very close. It could easily have gone the other way, in which case we wouldn’t be having this conversation. After Hoydick won, of course, the usual laws of incumbency took over, meaning she was much harder to beat. The longevity of this district for Republicans is therefore less impressive than it seems.
So this is just a larger regional trend asserting itself. Fine. Good. I don’t completely buy that either.
The third theory is that this is a harbinger. The national and the local are becoming impossible to separate. Republicans at the federal and the state level are in very, very deep trouble thanks to the deep disgust so many voters have for President Donald J. Trump and his party. This is just another sign that a national wave is building, and nowhere could be safe for the GOP.
If that’s real, then it should be a rude wake-up call for a party that seems poised to win the governorship and possibly legislative majorities in both chambers in November. Republicans are pinning their hopes on one thing: voters around here are usually good at splitting their tickets and voting one way nationally while voting another in state and local races.
Maybe that doesn’t happen this time. Maybe that wave that’s building is strong enough to wash the Democrats back into office, wrecking the best chance the state Republican party has had to be relevant in decades.
I don’t know if I wholly believe this one, either. But of the three possibilities, I’m thinking it may be the most likely. The political world is upside down. The rules are out the window. So why not?
When is a special election not just a special election? When it’s the canary in the coal mine. Republicans: be warned.
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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