Wallingford Republican Rep. Craig Fishbein looked poised Tuesday to retain his seat by a razor-thin margin if a recount upholds a 21-vote lead established by a counting error discovered this week.
Fishbein, a lawyer who has made news recently for challenging a face mask requirement for Connecticut school children, had previously been reported as losing his seat to Cheshire Democrat Jim Jinks.
But those results failed to account for one of Wallingford’s polling precincts, Town Clerk Barbara Thompson said Tuesday. Thompson said she could not tell whether a clerical or computer error had caused the mix-up, but she amended the town’s results on Monday and did not immediately realize the impact the change had.
“It was kind of bothering me overnight,” Thompson said Tuesday. “I think Fishbein looks really close to Jinks. Because Fishbein had already assumed that he had lost. I looked at it and you know what? Fishbein is now above Jinks.”
The unofficial results now show Fishbein leading Jinks 7,058 to 7,037. Because the vote now falls within one-half of 1%, the results trigger an automatic recount. The recount will be conducted Thursday across the district, which includes both Wallingford and Cheshire.
“It’s not a common thing to have an error get caught that changes who everyone thought had won the race,” said Gabe Rosenberg, communication director for the secretary of the state’s office. “But there won’t be any question who won. The recount will tell them for sure.”
If Fishbein holds onto the seat, it will slightly narrow the large House majority carved out by Democrats last Tuesday. Democrats will outnumber Republicans 97 to 54.
Fishbein and Jinks, who both spoke to CTNewsJunkie Tuesday morning, could not be reached in the afternoon for comment on the error.
The unexpected news could salvage what looked to be a bad week for the conservative attorney. In addition to running for re-election, Fishbein has been in court fighting an state Department of Education requirement that Connecticut students wear masks in schools.
Fishbein and fellow Republican Rep. Doug Dubitsky of Chaplin, who retained his seat last week, represent a group of parents who oppose a state mandate requiring students to wear masks in school.
Their lawsuit alleges that masks are harmful to children both physically and mentally. It also contends that face coverings do little to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus and represent an imminent threat to Connecticut students.
Although the complaint is ongoing, Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher denied the lawyers’ request that the court step in and prevent the state from enforcing the mandate by injunction. In his ruling, Moukawsher wrote that the state’s actions had been prudent.
“There is no emergency danger to children from wearing masks in schools. Indeed, there is very little evidence of harm at all and a wide ranging medical consensus that it is safe,” the judge wrote.
Fishbein said Tuesday that he did not believe the lawsuit was a major issue in this year’s campaign. Although he said Jinks brought it up, Fishbein didn’t feel he lost any support because of it.
“Nobody came to me and said, ‘I’m voting against you [because of the lawsuit]. I would have voted for you.’ Nothing like that,” he said.
But while Fishbein fought mask requirements in court, his campaign distributed mailers featuring a picture of the candidate speaking while holding a mask in his hand. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont could be seen in the picture, wearing a mask. Jinks called Fishbein’s stance on masks “confusing for voters.”
The mailer “seemed like an attempt to make it seem like the governor was supporting Fishbein in some way,” Jinks said. “There was an odd sort of dichotomy in the way he was approaching the mask issue.”
Fishbein said there was nothing intentional about the presence of masks in the mailer. The picture, taken in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaias, was meant to demonstrate his efforts to work together with other officials. Fishbein said he brought a unique perspective to the debate over utility response because his district included both Eversource Energy and Wallingford Electric Division.
“I had some very nice discussions with the governor that day about that and just trying to work together,” he said.
Jinks said the school mask lawsuit, which made news around the state, did come up as he spoke to voters on the campaign trail this year. But he said it was one of many concerns people expressed. Voters also expressed concerns about Fishbein’s social media activity and votes he had taken at the state Capitol, Jinks said.
“It was sort of an accumulation of things over time,” Jinks said. Voters want “to feel like the person in that seat was really going to represent their values. I think that’s a big part of what this race was about. Not just the things that rose to the news.”
Results on the district recount should be available Thursday evening, Thompson said.