US Capitol (Orhan Cam via Shutterstock)

Nearly 4,000 Connecticut Republicans left the political party over a roughly three-week period following the U.S. Capitol insurrection last month. Some joined other parties but most shrugged off political affiliation altogether. 

During the Jan. 6 attack, a mob supporting Republican President Donald Trump invaded the Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which Trump lost. The violence resulted in the deaths of five people and sparked impeachment proceedings against Trump led by Democrats in Congress. 

In the 22 days since, 3,932 Republicans in Connecticut switched their party affiliations, according to the Secretary of the State’s Office.

It is impossible to say for certain why so many Republicans left the party in such a short period of time, but the departure is significant. By comparison, about 1,300 voters withdrew from the much-larger state Democratic Party during the same period. There are roughly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans in Connecticut. As of Monday, there were 856,724 Democrats and 481,209 Republicans. Meanwhile, there were 958,340 voters in the state who were not affiliated with any political party. 

Whatever the reason, the voter exodus appears to be an outcome of an increasingly fractured Republican Party which has struggled with an identity crisis throughout the Trump years. There are other signs: the early and sudden departure of the party’s state chairman, loyal Trump supporter, J.R. Romano; the across-the-board losses in the 2020 congressional races and electoral setbacks in the state legislature.

“Do I want to call [the Republican Party] in a state of crisis? Maybe. Yeah,” said Gary Rose, a professor of political science at Sacred Heart University. “I’m not all that disinclined to say the party is really hurting and what happened with the Capitol in Washington is not doing anything to bolster the image.”

Party officials prefer the term “transition” to “crisis.” Although there have been deserters, there have also been new converts in recent years, they say. While the GOP has ceded territory in the affluent and once-reliably conservative Fairfield County, it has wrested some control from Democrats in the blue-collar regions of Eastern Connecticut. 

“Both parties go through transformations over time,” said House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford. “There seems to be a little bit of a philosophical shift in that the wealthy communities are leaning more toward Democrat principles and policies and we’re seeing the opposite shift from our suburbs and blue collar communities. It’s a little bit of a reversal.”

The transformation has come with a shift in identity. The party once motivated by fiscal issues and characterized by moderate Gold Coast Republicans, has given way to a more populist movement spearheaded by Trump and often driven by hot-button social issues. Rose predicted the continued transition would see the state GOP converted into a smaller, but more ideologically intense, party. Long-serving moderates may soon find themselves facing primary challenges by far-right upstarts, he said.

“The old brand of Connecticut Republicans, which there still are a lot of, those are the ones who are probably seriously rethinking ‘What am I doing in this party now? This is not what the party is supposed to be,’” Rose said. 

“The days of the ‘country club Republican’ are long over in Connecticut,” he said.

The challenge facing the party now will be to try to reconcile those disparate parts. In the short term, Romano has complicated that effort by abandoning the post before the party could vet or elect a replacement. Republicans are expected to elect a chairperson later this month who will serve at least until Romano’s term was set to expire in June and maybe for the next two years. 

Ben Proto is a Republican strategist from Stratford and one of the candidates seeking to succeed Romano as party chair. Some number of defections seemed inevitable after that “dark day” at the U.S. Capitol, Proto said. But he took some comfort in the fact that most voters leaving the GOP had chosen to renounce party affiliation entirely rather than register as Democrats. 

Of the 3,932 departures, 2,670 are now unaffiliated. About 631 registered as Democrats, but that number is somewhat offset by the 214 Democratic voters who flipped to Republican during the same period. 

But what about all those voters who went from Republican to unaffiliated? Proto said they are not necessarily a lost cause for conservatives. The party still has the opportunity to converse with them and listen to their concerns, he said. 

“If we frame the issues with our values and beliefs, I think — we may not attract them to re-register with the Republican Party but I believe we can attract them to continue to vote for Republican candidates,” Proto said. 

Nancy DiNardo, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said she believed many Connecticut Republicans have grown increasingly upset with a leadership shortfall and a general unwillingness by the state party to distance itself from Trump. 

“The problem that I see is that there’s no accountability. In my mind, until the Republicans admit that Trump took over their party and perpetuated a big lie that led to Jan. 6, people with a conscience, Republicans, have felt they couldn’t stay in a party that doesn’t represent them,” she said. 

But as Republican leaders look to coax back disaffected voters they are finding that not everyone is upset with the party for failing to disavow the former president. Some are just as upset the state party has not done more to defend him.

“You have people abandoning the party because they don’t feel that the party has backed Trump enough. Then you have people leaving the party who feel that it’s no longer representative of them because of what Trump did,” Candelora said. “It’s a real double-edged sword and it’s going to take some time for Republicans to readjust.”