Republicans hoping to keep momentum going to dominate state House
Republicans have nearly doubled their presence in the state House of Representatives in the past decade, rising from 37 members after the 2008 election to the current 72.
They need to win just five more seats in November to gain a majority, a dominance the party has not held since 1984.
“In the past four election cycles, we’ve won 35 seats in the house. That’s not just gains, those are historic gains,” said Themis Klarides, House minority leader. “I see no reason why that can’t continue.”
For Klarides, it’s personal. She decided not to run for governor this year to focus on winning a House majority. If the GOP succeeds, she could become the first female Republican speaker of the House and second woman ever to have the job.
But Democrats, who now hold 80 of 151 House seats, feel optimistic that the fabled blue wave and their own slate of candidates will mean Democrats can not only keep but also strengthen their majority. The current speaker, Democrat Joe Aresimowicz, predicted his party will have 82 to 92 seats in the House after the election.
“How many seats we pick up will probably depend on some very close races, but we feel very confident about where we are going,” said Matt Ritter, House majority leader.
Districts to watch
While candidates are knocking doors all across the state, the battle for the House majority comes down to about 30 districts or less.
There are 19 open seats, where no incumbent is running. Twelve of those seats are now held by Democrats, seven by Republicans. Each seat is a place where one party will be playing defense and the other, looking for a pick-up.
“If you don’t have an incumbent running, that usually is an opportune time for turnover,” said Gayle Alberda, a professor of political science at Fairfield University. “Over 90 percent of incumbents win their re-election campaigns.”
In addition, there are eight other districts that were decided by fewer than 400 votes in 2016. Those slim margins mean those seats could be ripe for beating the incumbent, according to political observers.
The closest of those 2016 races was in East Haven where state Rep. James Albis, a Democrat then in his third two-year term, beat Republican Steve Tracey by only 14 votes, requiring an automatic recount.
State Rep. Liz Linehan, who represents Chesire, Southington and Wallingford, also had a recount in 2016, after winning her election by 54 votes.
In four of those nail-biting races, voters split on their support for the state House and the U.S. president. Albis’s district in East Haven went for President Donald Trump, as did Democratic state Rep. Michelle Cook’s district in Torrington, where she won by 213 votes.
Two other districts voted for Clinton, but narrowly elected Republicans to the state House in 2016. They are state Rep. William Duff’s seat in Bethel, and state Rep. Sam Belsito in Ashford, Willington and Tolland.
Aresimowicz said he feels “especially hopeful” about gains in districts from Milford to Stamford.
While many of these races will turn on local issues, Republicans up and down the ticket are pitching a message of change, a departure from the administration of unpopular Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and longtime Democratic legislative majorities.
“They’ve made your life worse,” said Klarides during a recent interview. “That’s the overall message.”
Meanwhile, Democrats may enjoy higher turnout on Nov. 6. According to data from the Connecticut Secretary of the State’s office, 77,668 new voters has registered as Democrats since the 2016 election, compared to 37,742 new Republican registrations.
“If turnout is up five or ten percent in a district, a lot of those (people) will probably vote Democratic and that’s going to help our candidates,” said Ritter.
Midterms are traditionally a referendum on the president, said Alberda, the political scientist. But Trump is such a divisive figure that he may motivate voters on both sides to go to the polls.
“Does the GOP stand a chance? It’s possible,” said Alberda. “Five seats doesn’t seem like large number — five is pretty little — but at the same time, it’s a big feat.”
But a factor that can always change the calculus in politics, is money.
Republican political action committee early spending reflects a focus on these open seats and battleground districts. The House Republican Campaign Committee, a PAC headed by Klarides, spent $94,200 on GOP House candidates in July, August and September. The PAC spent $18,550 on behalf of all its candidates equally, but targeted $14,000 at districts with open seats or previous close races.
Latest campaign finance filings show, the PAC’s two biggest boosts of $2,500 each went to Laura Bush (no relation to the former presidents), running in Vernon where Democratic state rep. Michael Winkler won by a slim 335 votes in 2016; and Jim Feehan, running in Stratford where Democratic state Rep. Phil Young won a special election in February to seize a seat that had been a GOP stronghold for 40 years. Young’s win reduced Republican membership in the House from 72 to its current number, 71.
Klarides bragged that GOP fundraising has been “record breaking” in Connecticut this year. Her PAC raised about $125,000 in contributions this quarter, and nearly $300,000 in 2018 as a whole.
“We’re able to do focus groups which we’ve never done before. We’re able to do data surveys, which we’ve never been able to do before,” said Klarides. “Because we’ve raised so much more money, we’ve able to do more able of the things we’ve done in the past and add new things.”
But Democrats have fundraising heft of their own. Three Democratic PACs targeting the House raised $186,690 this quarter, and they have already pumped some of that money into their races, filings show.
Democrats spent more broadly in July, August and September, hewing less closely to the 30 pivotal open and battleground districts. Their PACs spent most heavily to help incumbents state Reps Christine Conley of Groton, Jonathan Steinberg of Westport, John Hampton of Simbury and Aresimowicz, of Berlin.
“That’s just early contributions. That helps incumbents get up and running,” Aresimowicz said. “Unlike challengers, we’re still doing the people’s business.”
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