While the 5th District congressional election might be close, few observers give the Republican Party much of a chance of retaking one or more houses in the Connecticut General Assembly. I share that sentiment, in part because turnout in non-presidential years tends to be light and low turnout generally favors incumbents. To wit, the last time the Connecticut Republicans made truly significant gains was in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected and the GOP gained three additional state Senate seats and achieved an 18-18 tie in the upper chamber.
Consequently, when I’m not distracted by the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial contests, neither of which look terribly competitive either, I’m focusing my attention on the races in the two legislative districts where I live.
Similar to two years ago, two-term Rep. Maria Horn of Salisbury is campaigning hard to keep the 64th District in the Democratic column. And it looks like she’ll have an easier time than in 2020, when she faced a rematch with one-term former Republican Rep. Brian Ohler, whom she had defeated two years earlier in a squeaker that necessitated a recount. Ohler was a popular presence on social media and had developed a loyal following. Horn won 52% of the vote the second time around.
This year, she should have an easier time because her opponent, Christopher DuPont, is a little-known consultant from Goshen who has never run for political office. He’s running on cutting taxes, the repeal of some sections of the state’s police accountability law, “parental rights” in public education, keeping Sharon Hospital open and “supporting local business.”
Now that she’s in her second term, Horn is – like most incumbents – citing her experience and her ability to provide “Steady Leadership in Stormy Seas.” Horn, a former federal prosecutor, co-chairs the Public Safety & Security Committee and on her campaign website touts her work on the police accountability law (but does not mention it by name), and juvenile crime and gun control measures, among other issues. She’s also been very active in extending broadband service to remote areas of her district and, like just about everyone else, wants Sharon Hospital to remain open.
Some of Ohler’s supporters will no doubt vote for DuPont because he’s a Republican, but I suspect others in the Northwest Corner who in the past were inspired by Ohler and his service as a volunteer and a military veteran will simply stay home. I say Horn wins by at least 5 points.
The more interesting race is for the 30th Senate district, which pits current state GOP Rep. Stephen Harding against labor activist Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, a Democrat who has been cross-endorsed by the Independent and Working Families parties.
The district, which stretches from Harding’s hometown of Brookfield, a suburb of Danbury, north to the Massachusetts border to include a portion of Torrington, has been in Republican hands for decades – at least since the days of the legendary grand dame of the Senate, the late Dell Eads, who held the seat from 1981 until she retired in 2000, and was replaced by a fellow Republican, then-state Rep. Andrew Roraback. Two Republicans have held the seat since then. The most recent, Craig Miner of Litchfield, opted to retire earlier this year.
Like his predecessors, Harding, an attorney by training, appears to be a moderate Republican: relatively conservative fiscally but socially liberal. According to votesmart.org, Harding has a 100% rating from the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, a 58% rating from the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, and a recent 50% rating from the state AFL-CIO, a labor union. He also voted yes to a bill earlier this year that expanded access to absentee ballots.
Republicans have a reputation for being unfriendly to public-sector labor unions, but Harding sort of breaks the mold here. It should come as no surprise that a Republican would get a seal of approval from the Connecticut State Police Union, as Harding did. But his wife, Kelly, is a teacher in the New Milford public school district. That could be one reason why Harding’s Senate candidacy has also been endorsed by the Association of Retired Teachers of Connecticut. So it would appear that Harding isn’t a foe of organized labor, which should come as a relief to moderates and public-sector workers who are considering voting for him.
Contrast that to Zimmerman, whose resume, including her current job, mainly consists of several stints as an organizer and boss at the Service Employees International unions in both Connecticut and Massachusetts. Her husband, Stacey Zimmerman, has a similar background.
It is a fair question to ask Zimmerman whether, if elected, she will vote on or participate in deliberations on state employee labor contracts. Logic and common ethics would suggest that she refrain. But state law says otherwise.
Former House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, was also education coordinator for AFSCME, one of the largest public-employee unions in the nation. The Office of State Ethics told Aresimowicz that nothing prohibited him from voting on contracts negotiated by AFSCME or, for that matter, bills favored by the union. Several other current and former lawmakers were in the employ of labor unions, according to an exhaustive report by the libertarian Yankee Institute. Connecticut’s sleazy ethics laws should not be used to shield Zimmerman from explaining how she would handle such conflicts if elected. Indeed, common sense demands it.
Zimmerman checks all the progressive boxes, so Democrats and left-leaning unaffiliated voters should have no problem supporting her. Fighting climate change, raising the minimum wage, pursuing “environmental justice,” expanding women’s rights and affordable housing will be priorities, she has announced on her website.
Her parents moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico when she was a child and soon became a plaintiff in the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill case, in which the state Supreme Court found in 1996 that Hartford’s schools were racially and economically isolated, and therefore in violation of the state’s constitutional obligation to provide all schoolchildren with equal educational opportunities.
A newcomer to the district, Zimmerman has been shopping around for an elected office for some time. She ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018. In 2014 while living in Newtown, she was recommended by the Democratic Town Committee to fill an unexpired term on the town Legislative Council and was soundly defeated in an election the following year. In 2016, she ran against incumbent Republican Mitch Bolinsky for the 106th House District seat and lost by 15 points.
Zimmerman’s actions have raised questions about her honesty. As Kevin Rennie has reported on his blog, Daily Ructions, Zimmerman claimed in a fundraising email for her lieutenant governor campaign that she was “elected to the Newtown Council by knocking on more doors earlier and more often than anyone else in the race.” In fact, Zimmerman was never elected to the council and was only on that panel because she was appointed (she later clarified the record).
The Zimmermans have since moved to New Milford, which is really the key to winning that district. In terms of voter registration, the town of nearly 30,000 people is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with a Republican mayor and a GOP-controlled town council. Harding, who has represented his House district since 2015, hails from next-door Brookfield and is well known in the area. You’d have to give him the edge in this race.
How well other Republicans will do is anyone’s guess, but history tells us Republicans only win big in Connecticut when a GOP wave sweeps the rest of the nation. In 1984, Connecticut Republicans rode the landslide coattails of Ronald Reagan and seized control of both houses of the General Assembly. Ten years later, Connecticut Republicans made big gains in the House and retook the Senate briefly. Notably, 1994 was the same year in which national Republicans flipped both the House and Senate in Washington. It can be done.
But predictions of a national GOP wave this year might prove premature. The recent Dobbs decision, which was handed down by the Supreme Court and overturned Roe v. Wade, has energized Democrats who have turned abortion rights into a potent campaign issue. With high inflation and President Biden’s relatively low approval ratings, national Republicans might still see gains, but not enough to give GOPers a big boost in Connecticut.