Parties must adapt to new reality
Early signs of a seismic shift in Greenwich politics were first seen in the 2017 municipal elections. Longtime GOP First Selectman Peter Tesei held off a tough challenge from a last-minute candidate with little political experience. And the Democrats grabbed control of the town finance board, a victory all the more significant because it had never happened before.
Those early ripples of Republican vulnerability developed into a full scale Blue Wave that crashed over Greenwich Tuesday night, washing away almost a century of Republican domination of Greenwich representation in Hartford. Democrats won two of the three contested legislative races, including a shocking upset of state Sen. L. Scott Frantz, perhaps the most popular Republican in Greenwich. This new-found Democratic strength, and changing voter registration dynamics, portend a very new political landscape for Greenwich in the years ahead.
In August 2017, local Democrats were just days away from letting Tesei run unopposed for a record sixth term; the Democratic Town Committee chairman had even said he was fine with having no candidate at the top of the party ticket. But then Sanford Litvack, a corporate lawyer and former Disney executive, stepped forward to claim the nomination. With little campaign infrastructure and next to no help from an ineffective DTC, Litvack came closer to beating Tesei than any of his five previous opponents. Add the Democrats’ capture of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, which controls the budget and sets the tax rate, and suddenly, reliably Republican Greenwich was looking a little less so.
In post-election analysis in 2017, local Republicans comforted (deluded?) themselves by claiming they had fallen victim to a force beyond their control: a widespread backlash against the harsh, divisive rhetoric and policies of President Donald Trump. Because it was an off-year election, the Republicans reasoned, and only local Republicans were in the line of fire on the ballot, they absorbed the full wrath and anger that was aimed at Trump. Republican leaders said they expected to regain their party’s dominant footing with local voters this year.
But the Greenwich Republican Party underestimated this president’s unnerving ability to find new and outrageous ways to offend almost everyone, but particularly women. The local GOP also did not foresee the staying power and growing sophistication of the Indivisible movement, a nationwide grass roots effort that emerged from the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Marchers wanted to transform this newfound political energy of protest into active engagement in state and local elections.
What happened in Greenwich this week is a microcosm of what took place across this part of the country. “This was a wipeout for Republicans in the Northeast,” former Connecticut Republican Congressman Christopher Shays told the New York Times in its post-election coverage. National political currents certainly contributed to the Democratic Party’s success in Greenwich this year. But the town’s changing voter registration figures show that Republicans have been steadily losing what was once a huge numbers advantage over Democrats. In the early 1990s, 45 percent of registered voters in town were Republican, and only 20 percent were Democrats. As of election night, Republicans had dropped to 35 percent of registered voters, and Democrats increased to 28 percent. But the largest block, at 37 percent, were unaffiliated voters.
Those registration numbers are even closer in the 150th House District, where two-term Republican state Rep. Michael Bocchino lost to Stephen Meskers. Republicans have only 350 more registered voters than do Democrats in this district that spans the Greenwich shoreline from Port Chester to Stamford. It is also home to most of the 15 percent of town voters who identify as Hispanic. Meskers produced a lengthy campaign video in which he spoke Spanish, a first, I believe, for any Greenwich candidate. And he also put in the time to meet personally as many voters as possible. Meskers victory was historic, but not wholly unexpected.
On the state Senate side, Democratic winner Alexandra Bergstein was always considered a long shot, and even as late as last week many Democrats thought she would lose. Incumbent Sen. Frantz had built a political reputation as an expert on state finances during his 10 years in Hartford, and was perhaps the most vocal critic of Democratic stewardship of the state’s economy. But Bergstein claimed the conservative financial mantle as well, though unlike Frantz, she favored tolls on the state’s highway to help fund badly needed infrastructure investments. But, she also drove home Frantz’s efforts to weaken the state’s gun laws and his record of supporting legislative efforts to curb women’s access to contraception and other women’s health issues.
The question going forward, for both Republicans and Democrats, is what will year three of the Indivisible movement mean for the 2019 municipal elections. Will Republicans return to what they feel is their rightful dominance, or will Democrats continue the momentum of the last two years?
The answer may come from the 70 or so new members elected to the RTM in 2017, many of them women supported by the Indivisible network. Some are Democrats, some are Republicans and some are independents, but in November they all will have spent two years deeply engaged in town issues. They will also have well-informed opinions about the town’s elected leaders. This is likely to mean that both the Republican and Democratic town committees will be pushed toward allowing broader participation in choosing candidates and running campaigns. And that can only be good for everyone.
Bob Horton can be reached at email@example.com.