- Associated Press - Sunday, November 11, 2018

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - For years, wealthy sections of Connecticut’s Fairfield County appeared unwinnable for Democrats. But that all changed with the 2018 election.

Democrats managed to defeat Republicans in districts they haven’t held in recent memory, including state Senate and Representative seats in Greenwich. That’s the home of Connecticut’s new governor-elect, wealthy businessman Ned Lamont, who became the first Democrat since 1876 elected to an open governor’s seat in Connecticut and who has succeeded a fellow Democrat.

Party leaders appeared somewhat surprised by the level of their success.

“It’s not a seat we’ve ever had or come close to having,” Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney said of the 36th Senate District, which includes Greenwich, New Canaan and parts of Stamford. Greenwich attorney Alexandria “Alex” Bergstein, a former Republican, defeated five-term incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Frantz by more than 600 votes. The seat was last held by a Democrat in 1930. The party also won Greenwich’s 150th House seat, ending a century of Republican control.

Meanwhile, veteran Republican state Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton lost to 22-year-old Democrat and recent Georgetown University graduate Will Haskell, who was motivated to run because of Republican President Donald Trump and was endorsed during the campaign by former President Barack Obama.

Looney said he believes a combination of changing voter registration, opposition to Trump and the candidates’ hard work and platforms fueled the Democratic Election Day wins. The party now controls the Senate by at least a 23-12 margin, with one race facing a recount. There was previously an 18-18 partisan split. In the House of Representatives, Democrats have at least a 90-58 majority, with three recounts pending. Democrats have had a slim 80-71 majority.

“One of the things that we saw encouraging headed into the election was the large increase in registration, from the time of the presidential election until now. It was far greater than the comparable period between 2012 and 2014,” Looney said. “So we thought that was a sign of people moving in our direction.”

Democrats, he said, have seen a large increase in their party’s registrations since 2016, even in heavily Republican towns. The trend, he said, was most pronounced in Fairfield County, which borders New York.

Many see anger toward Trump as a major catalyst for that trend.

“Fairfield County women? They were outraged at the behavior that their children were seeing on television. They were outraged. I saw it everywhere,” said Bill Finch, a former Democratic mayor of Bridgeport and a state senator who campaigned for Lamont. “Fairfield County women wanted to send a message.”

J.R. Romano, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said he agrees that voters in wealthy parts of Fairfield County have become more willing to vote Democratic since the election of Trump. But he contends that’s to the detriment of people living in less affluent parts of the state.

“They are correct. Wealthier people who can afford to be offended by Donald Trump punished a single mom in East Haven, a hard-working family in Norwich, because they’re recession-proof, they’re not feeling the burden of what’s happening in the state,” he said. “So the Democrats are turning into the party of wealth, while Republicans are trying to fight for hard-working middle class Americans.”

And Romano contends that a larger Democratic majority in General Assembly, coupled with a Democratic governor, will disproportionately harm those residents.

“Someone in Fairfield County that gets tired of Connecticut’s tax rate, they can just easily buy another home in another state,” he said. “That’s not the case for people living in Ansonia, Connecticut. That’s not the case for people living in these blue-collar communities. They’re trapped here and they’re feeling the burden.”

Romano said Democrats are already talking about legislation they’ll offer in the new session that he claims will increase the cost of living in Connecticut, such as highway tolls. He sees the flips as temporary, given the closeness of the races.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, a political moderate whose old district includes much of Fairfield County, called Romano’s comment about Fairfield County voters “stupid,” saying “that tells you why the Republicans are facing the problems they are facing.”

“It makes no sense and it’s a poor excuse for a failure to build the party,” Shays said, noting that Trump’s tax-cutting plan benefits mostly the wealthy.

Shays was not surprised by what happened on Election Day. He was the last Republican member of New England’s House delegation in 2008 when he lost the 4th District seat to Democrat Jim Himes, who has since held onto the seat.

“The Republican Party hardly exists in the Northeast. It’s become a mixture of a Trump party and just a lack of enthusiasm in general,” he said, theorizing that “almost anyone” would have defeated him if he was running for re-election this year. In the era of Trump, Shays said Republican candidates in Fairfield County now face the prospect of being punished at the polls for not speaking out against Trump and not receiving the party’s nomination if they do criticize the president.

“It’s very sad,” he said of the legislative losses. “The problem is, it’s a party that has just lost its way, totally and completely.”

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