Once reliable bastions of moderate Republican politics, Connecticut's suburbs on Tuesday delivered the party a strong rebuke, driven partly by disenchantment with President Donald Trump.
"There's been a reaction, no doubt about it,'' said Mike Clark, the Republican chairman in Farmington. "Many people support some of his economic policies but they're really turned off by his style, the constant Twitter feeds and everything else."
Democrats in Farmington took the majority on the town council, a feat they had been unable to achieve since the first year of the Clinton administration. The party made a similar gain in Glastonbury, another affluent suburb, where Republicans have held a lock on the town council for 14 years. And in Southington, where Republicans had a supermajority on the council and all elected boards and commissions since 2009, Democrats gained control of the 9-member council
In all, Democrats successfully flipped 14 mayor’s or first selectman’s offices, from the tony Fairfield County suburb of Weston to the rural Northeast Corner burg of Pomfret. Democrats also took control of legislative bodies in Wethersfield, Southington and South Windsor, among other communities, and made important inroads in several GOP strongholds, including Greenwich, where the party captured the chairmanship of the powerful finance board for the first time in decades.
The Election Day shift in Connecticut’s suburbs mirrored a similar trend across the nation. Democrats toppled the entrenched Republican leadership in New York’s Westchester and Nassau counties, notched historic gains in Philadelphia’s suburbs and helped propel Democrat Ralph Northam to the Virginia’s governor’s office.
Nationally, Democrats said that many voters are dismayed about Trump’s performance so far, and they turned to the Democrats in races across the country. “Republicans tried to take away people’s health care,’’ Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. “They paid the price for their disastrous agenda.’’
In Connecticut’s low-turnout municipal races, the Trump factor wasn’t the sole reason for the Democratic gains. A rejected high school renovation project in Farmington, a controversy over unair-conditioned elementary school classrooms in Glastonbury and other micro issues played outsized roles in shaping Tuesday’s results.
“The Farmington race was too local,” said Farmington Democratic Town Committee Chairman Brian Noe. “I think yes, to a degree some, Trump is in there and the other extremes were there, but the bottom line is the vote yesterday was about the community.”
Glastonbury Republican Town Council Chairman Stewart "Chip" Beckett III, who has led the council the past four years, said voter turnout was key. He conceded that voters may have been looking for newcomers on the council.
"A lot of us weren't Trump supporters,’’ Beckett said. “Much of New England isn't. I don't think either party has shown itself capable on the national level. But I don't think it's overdone either. There are a lot of unhappy people with the state of government."
Connecticut’s suburbs have long been home to a reserved brand of Yankee Republicanism, typified by politicians such as former U.S. Reps. Nancy Johnson and Stewart McKinney. But even before Trump, some suburbs had been drifting toward the left as the GOP center of power shifted from the well-heeled enclaves of Fairfield County and the Farmington Valley to rural Eastern Connecticut and the small cities nestled along the Naugatuck River. The state hasn’t elected a Republican to Congress since Chris Shays lost his Fairfield County centered seat in 2008.
Still, Trump’s turbulent presidency has fueled a strong wave of Democratic activism. In the runup to the municipal elections, newly energized liberal voters made thousands of phone calls, bolstered the state Democratic party’s already robust get-out-the-vote operation. Action Together CT, a new group consisting mostly of women formed after Trump’s election, began phone-banking on behalf of Democratic candidates in September.
“National politics has definitely affected how activists feel and that’s what got all these voters out,’’ said Hilary Grant, a leader of Action Together CT. Volunteers with the group made more than 330,000 calls, she said.
In Greenwich, many of the 73 newly elected members of the Representative Town Meeting are members of Indivisible Greenwich and similar groups.
The state Democratic party underscored the message, sending out mailings that sought to tie the local races to national trends. “The Resistance Begins at Home,’’ announced one flyer sent to residents in Cheshire. “Elections Matter. Vote Local.” The flyer featured a photograph of the Women’s March on Washington, held the day after Trump’s inauguration. The tactic didn’t work in Cheshire, a suburban town where the GOP strengthened its control of the town council by picking up a seat.
But other towns have seen the activism reflected in changing voter registration rolls. Farmington, for instance, has seen the addition of 800 new Democratic voters since the 2016 election.
In Simsbury, a combination of factors on the national and local levels led to an apparent upset by political newcomer Eric Wellman over Republican Mike Paine in the race for first selectman. With the tightness of the race, the votes were still being tallied Wednesday and no official declaration of a winner had been made.
Paine, who owns a waste and recycling company, enjoys name recognition; his name is emblazoned on thousands of garbage cans across the town. Wellman, by contrast, moved to Simsbury only two years ago, but he blitzed unaffiliated voters with mailings.
Wellman’s supporters say that he was helped by an anti-Trump wave.
“The distrust at the national level has trickled down,’’ said state Rep. John Hampton, a Simsbury Democrat. “The Trump presidency has energized a lot of people. … He won against a pretty big name in Simsbury with old-fashioned door-to-door knocking and not-so-old-fashioned use of social media.’’
In a close race, Hampton said the national atmosphere could provide enough of a boost to tilt the race toward the Democrats.
“The continued violence with guns in churches and schools has energized people to say: ‘Enough!’ ” Hampton said. Besides playing to the Democratic base, Simsbury Democrats sent at least five multicolored mailers that were targeted to those registered as unaffiliated, who often serve as swing voters who can tip the balance in centrist suburbs like Simsbury.
Wellman was also helped by a local controversy, said Robert R. Duguay Jr., a longtime town resident. Paine, as a member of the board of selectmen, was among a group of Republicans who voted to reduce the salary of then-First Selectman Mary Glassman, which led to her resignation.
“I think there was a bad taste in people’s mouths from the way Mrs. Glassman was treated two years ago,’’ Duguay said,
Outside the Latimer Lane School on Election Day, Paine stood alone, greeting many voters by name.
While Democrats sought to make the election a referendum on Trump, Paine preferred to keep the focus closer to home. “This is where you have the most impact,’’ he said. “You can impact your taxes.’’
Courant staff writers Jordan Otero Sisson, Peter Marteka and Bill Leukhardt contributed to this story.
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