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Fighting to win the state Senate majority

September 23, 2018

As James Maroney and state Rep. Pam Staneski knock on thousands of doors in the 14th state Senate District, they carry not only their personal ambitions, but also the future of their political parties.

Both are running to replace conservative Democrat Gayle Slossberg in one the few vacant state Senate seats. The district covers Milford, Orange, West Haven and Woodbridge

“This seat here is a pivotal seat if we maintain all 18 (GOP Senate seats),” said Staneski, a veteran Republican member of the House of Representatives. “This could be the 19th seat.”

The eyes of party chairmen, Senate leaders and political operatives are on them. The open seats will be a key battleground in November, as Democrats and Republicans fight to seize a majority in the Senate, which is now tied 18-18.

Both parties want to hold the districts where they have incumbents — 15 for Republicans, 14 for Democrats — as well as make new gains. Democrats and Republicans are also targeting a handful of other seats where they think incumbents are vulnerable.

For Republicans, who haven’t had a Senate majority since 1996, winning the chamber would be just a start.

“We are very excited,” said J.R. Romano, state Republican party chairman. “Our plan is to not only win the majority in the Senate, but to win majorities in the House, the Senate and the governorship.”

Republicans are hoping for fresh wins in formerly Democratic towns that went for President Donald Trump in 2016. They are also looking for a boost from voters dissatisfied with the economy and taxes under Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Democrats, on the other hand, will look to turn strong opposition to Trump — only 40 percent of Americans approve of the President’s job in office, according to an aggregation of all national polls by the website FiveThirtyEight — into more seats in the midterms, which are usually considered a referendum on the president.

The party is on the offensive, said Bob Duff, Senate Majority Leader, D-Norwalk.

“We’re going to be making a play for a number of the seats that are held by (Republican) incumbents,” he said.

If Republicans were going to take a Senate majority, they would have done so in 2017, said said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

“When Obama was president, 33 state senates lost their majorities and 32 state houses lost their majorities for Democrats,” said Jennifer Schneider, a Democratic consultant. “There was a trend that was happening all over the country and you saw (Republicans) gaining seats, but now the wave is going the other direction.”

Competitive districts

In addition to the Milford seat, Republicans are eyeing the seat Ted Kennedy Jr. of Branford is vacating for possible gains, said Romano. They also say it’s important to defend the open seats where Republicans Art Linares of Westbrook and Tony Guglielmo of Stafford Springs served for years.

Republicans will look to unseat incumbent Sen. Tim Larson, D-East Hartford and Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, who won by slim margins in recent elections.

“That one there could go Republican,” said Rose of Larson’s seat.

The GOP will also be protecting first-term Sens. George Logan of Ansonia, Heather Somers of Groton, and Len Suzio of Meriden, Romano said of districts formerly represented by Democrats.

“Suzio’s seat is obviously one of the top ones that is being targeted,” said Schneider.

Democrats are attacking the open seats even in Republican areas. Democrat Norman Needleman, first selectman of Essex who is self-funding his campaign to fill the Linares vacancy, has dropped $86,000 on television commercials, an anomaly in state legislative races.

“We got Julie Kushner up in Danbury, which has always been a Republican seat,” said Nick Balletto, chairman of the state Democratic party. “She’s up there just running an unbelievable campaign.”

Senate President Looney said Democrats have a “strong expectations of winning back” Logan’s seat that was previously held by Joe Crisco of Woodbridge.

Several Democrats also highlighted Will Haskell, a 21-year-old, challenging longtime Republican Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton.

“He is probably the most energetic candidate we have had in the district for a long time,” said Looney.

Spending

Gary Rose, political science professor at Sacred Hearst University in Fairfield, said Democrats could take the state Senate majority by one or two seats, but “it could still end up being a wash, quite frankly.”

Midterms are traditionally low turnout, causing Republican influence to be more “pronounced,” said Rose. But voter turnout and registration was higher than normal in the August primary, according to the Secretary of the State’s office — perhaps a harbinger that more ballots will be cast in November, too.

“The enthusiasm among Democrats is really high this year,” said Rose.

But money could change everything.

The Republican State Leadership Committee — which promotes GOP majorities in state government — has already given at least $400,000 to a Republican PAC called Change Connecticut, according to latest campaign finance filings. Three other GOP PACs targeting the Senate have raised over $300,000 collectively.

At least two PACs supporting Senate Democrats have raised more than $179,000 collectively, according to latest filings with the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Neither party has yet decided on districts in which they will invest resources during the last weeks before the election, said Romano and Looney.

But for Maroney, in the 14th District, who has run against Staneski twice before, each claiming one win, the stakes are high. He’s primarily focused on winning his race, rather than the outcome of the entire Senate.

“Everything she does makes me nervous,” said Maroney, a Democrat and former state representative. He says this race is like every other and there are always just two ways to campaign: “Unopposed or scared.”

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