So many political races to pay attention to and so little time. Right now, of course, the presidential race is sucking all the oxygen out of the room. This year is abnormal because of the intensity of the race for the nation’s highest office and the unusually high-stakes nature of the decision voters face.
Still, I have always been amazed at how little voters care about elections in non-presidential years. Nationwide, only about four in ten eligible voters, for example, turned out to vote in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. That increased to about 60% nationwide for the presidential election in 2016 and 74% in Connecticut. Turnout was at 65% in 2018 for the Lamont-Stefanowski governor’s race, but in municipal races, which happen in odd years, turnout is pathetic. In 2019, turnout in Connecticut was 32% for local races, according to the office of Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.
I know there is a lot at stake in this year’s presidential election. The choices couldn’t be more stark in the race for the White House. Of the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation, neither of our U.S. senators is up for re-election this year, but all five House members are. Three of the five are facing token opposition. But Jahana Hayes (5th District) and Rosa DeLauro (3rd District) are up against well-funded Republican opponents.
Not to downplay the significance of the presidential election, but in many ways the people who run our towns and represent us in Hartford and Washington have a far greater collective effect on our daily lives than does the White House. And while Democrats have dominated the General Assembly for much of the last 30 years, there are pockets of competitive districts scattered across the state – some in the suburbs and others in rural areas such as mine – that remain highly competitive. CT NewsJunkie‘s Vote.CTNewsJunkie voter guide is an especially handy resource for keeping track of the various races and the top issues.
The sprawling district has flipped back and forth between Democratic and Republican hands. It had been in GOP control since 1994, when Andrew Roraback won the seat and gave it up six years later to run for the Senate seat of the retiring Dell Eads. Liberal Democrat Roberta Willis held it for the next 16 years until she retired and it was taken by Republican Brian Ohler.
Ohler was challenged two years later by Democrat Maria Horn, who won in a squeaker that necessitated a recount. After announcing he would not attempt to win back the seat, Ohler reversed course and entered the race.
It’s a rerun of a classic Litchfield County match-up: a hometown boy and Army veteran from a working-class town who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan versus an Ivy League-educated former federal prosecutor in New York who once chaired the board of trustees of one of the area’s fancy private schools.
Horn did herself no favors when, practically right out of the starting blocks, she quietly submitted legislation that would have placed regulation of auto-racing facilities under local control rather than state authority. The measure would have allowed the Salisbury Planning and Zoning Commission to regulate Lime Rock Park, which was seeking to expand its operations amid a legal battle with the town that has since been decided in Salisbury’s favor.
Horn faced a fierce backlash from the locals who insisted the park be regulated by the state. It is a strangely ironic position for the anti-Horn crowd to take, given the fact that most of them complain incessantly about the state interfering with local matters, but I digress. Horn played right into the stereotype of the wealthy interloper who wanted to stick it to one of the town’s iconic institutions and spare its wealthy neighbors the dreaded possibility of Sunday racing. Under great pressure, she withdrew the legislation, later calling it a “dead letter.”
Horn also voted for the last biennial budget, which featured some tax increases. And she voted this year for the controversial police accountability bill. In most Connecticut localities, those would not be terribly controversial actions. But in Litchfield County, they’re often a tough sell. After all, by a margin of 54-41%, Litchfield was one of two counties in Connecticut to go for Trump in 2016 (Windham was the other).
Ohler is an interesting case. Disclosure: I know him by his first name and like him personally. He is also a friend of my Marine Corps officer son. Ohler’s strategy for appealing to his constituents lies mostly in his ability to connect with them on social media. He started a Facebook page, Northwest Corner Chatter, a forum for the community that has more than 9,000 members and is perhaps more political than he initially intended. Anytime there is a fire, a flood, a power outage, or an important community event, Ohler uses his extensive contacts to update his followers. When flooding and ice jams plagued Kent in 2018, Ohler used his background in emergency management to help direct operations and get face time in front of television cameras.
He has touted his endorsement by three police unions and the National Small Business Organization. Horn, by contrast, received a legislative score of 22% from the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.
But live by the sword and die by it. Northwest Corner Chatter has attracted its share of unsavory characters, one of whom posted some salacious material about Horn, who characterized the post as “alleging all kinds of outrageous and personal falsehoods about me: about an affair, about theft, about financial fraud. My children were even dragged into this mud, accused of confirming these crimes.” The post stayed up for a few days before a moderator finally took it down, leading to speculation that Ohler either deliberately left it up, or was not competently managing the page.
The “issues” page of Ohler’s campaign site isn’t heavy on policy but speaks mostly in general terms of his “balanced and equitable approach to legislation,” and his “unwavering dedication to fiscal accountability and social responsibility.” Not surprisingly, Ohler’s site does not mention the head of the Republican Party, President Donald J. Trump.
I’m guessing the race will once again be a very close one. Since it’s a presidential election year, Ohler should benefit from higher turnout. Then again, if all those left-leaning New Yorkers who moved up here to escape the contagion of the cities have actually registered to vote in Connecticut, Horn could win by a larger margin than she did two years ago.
Stay tuned. There could be more than one nail-biter on Nov. 3.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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