Why didn't 'red wave' hit CT election? Here are four theories – CT Insider

Gov. Ned Lamont speaks during a news conference in front of the State Capitol, in Hartford, Conn. Nov. 9, 2022. Lamont joined other state Democrats to speak about the results of Tuesday’s elections.
Tuesday was supposed to be a big night for Connecticut Republicans.
Inflation was at 8 percent. Speculation about a coming economic downturn had grown louder. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, had an approval rating in the low 40s. Even if Republicans were unlikely to win Connecticut’s highest-profile races (for governor and U.S. senator), they hoped to at least keep the margins close in those contests, while perhaps picking up their first congressional seat in more than a decade and narrowing Democratic majorities in state government.
Instead, Connecticut Democrats dominated up and down the ballot, winning large margins in high-profile races, holding every statewide office and all five congressional seats and expanding their statehouse majorities.
“The red wave is still at sea,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal gloated the morning after his 15-point victory over Republican Leora Levy. “Never came ashore.”
The results were enough to make longtime political observers marvel.
“It’s actually quite remarkable that the Democrats did as well as they did with Biden’s low job approval,” said Scott McLean, professor of political science at Quinnipiac University. “It’s not easy to find historical parallels to this.”
So what happened? Why did Republicans’ vaunted red wave fail to materialize in Connecticut (or many other places), and how did Connecticut Democrats have such a strong night despite economic factors working against them?
Here are some theories, as proposed by local candidates, party officials and outside observers.
To Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University, the explanation for Democrats’ success Tuesday starts with one issue.
“Abortion in particular was the issue that moved independents toward the Democrats in this election,” Rose said. “Had that Supreme Court decision not come out I do believe there could potentially have been a red wave.”
In a CT Insider/Channel 3 Eyewitness News/Western New England poll conducted earlier this fall found that inflation and taxes were the two biggest issues determining Connecticut residents’ preferences for governor but that abortion was third, with 10 percent of voters identifying it as their top priority.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in June to repeal Roe vs. Wade and allow states to outlaw abortion, Democrats in Connecticut and elsewhere campaigned on promises they would strengthen abortion protections, while suggesting Republicans would erode them. Even when individual Republican candidates identified themselves as pro-choice, they couldn’t shake their party’s anti-abortion rep.
Here, CT Republican chair Ben Proto and CT Democratic chair Nancy DiNardo find rare agreement. CT Insider asked both if Tuesday’s election might have gone differently if not for the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling:
“I think it could have,” DiNardo said.
“I think it did,” Proto said. “Democrats spent a lot of time talking about abortion.”
Republicans attempted to make the election about inflation and the economy, which they viewed as winning issues for them.
But at times, the campaigns drifted into areas that might not have played so well, such as COVID policy, candidate transparency and crime.
The latter was a particular focus for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski, who described crime as “out of control,” even when numbers didn’t back him up and attributed the supposed crime wave to policies supported by Gov. Ned Lamont, such as a 2020 police accountability bill.
There were signs even before Election Night that this message wasn’t working. The CT Insider poll found that only 2 percent for voters viewed crime and public safety as their top issue in picking a governor, behind numerous other options.
Sure enough, Lamont beat Stefanowski in many of the places this sort of messaging was supposed to land, even flipping Stefanowski’s hometown of Madison.
“In the areas where you would think that message would resonate in the suburbs, you just didn’t see the excitement for Stefanowski,” McLean said. “He didn’t get the margins he needed out of the suburbs, or the turnout.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, who was not up for reelection Tuesday but watched the results closely, said he thought Republicans nationally and locally had gone too far in their messaging about crime.
“I just don’t know that people’s daily reality matched up with the images they were seeing on Fox News,” Murphy said. “There’s no doubt that crime and homicide rate continues to be a problem, but for a lot of people living in Connecticut they aren’t walking out their door every day worrying about getting hurt or harmed.”
Whereas in 2018 Lamont and Stefanowski ran on promises of what they would do if they became governor, this time Lamont was able to run on what he did as governor, frequently touting his management of the COVID-19 pandemic and his balancing of the state budget.
Swing voters, apparently, liked what they saw.
“I think the simplest explanation is that Lamont performed well enough in four years to win unaffiliated voters,” McLean said. “He performed well with COVID, he’s one of the most popular Democratic governors in the U.S.”
Indeed, an October poll from Morning Consult found that 58 percent of Connecticut voters approved of Lamont while only 36 percent disapproved, making him the 12th most popular governor in the U.S. and the third most popular Democratic governor.
Lamont’s committed centrism, particularly on fiscal issues, has often frustrated members of his own party may have played well among unaffiliated voters and moderate Republicans. DiNardo said Lamont’s achievements, and his reputation as fiscally conservative, blunted some Republican talking points.
“Republicans were running on inflation and the economy, and Gov. Lamont has done a great job [in that area],” she said. “We had the largest surplus that we ever had.”
According to an analysis from CT Insider’s Dan Haar, Lamont closed ground on Stefanowski in rural parts of Connecticut, while beating him in wealthy towns.
Even Proto said Lamont’s popularity, and particularly his well-regarded handling of the pandemic, may have cost Republicans up and down the ticket, possible even swining a tight race in the fifth congressional district. 
“I think people were more supportive of [Lamont’s pandemic management] than a lot of people realized,” he said.
Lamont, however, was not the top Democratic vote-getter Tuesday. That was Blumenthal, whose approval ratings are not as strong as the governor’s but who seemed to benefit from running against a highly unpopular, Trump-endorsed opponent, Leora Levy.
To some observers, Blumenthal’s reelection was secure the moment Republican primary voters chose Levy over Themis Klarides, a more moderate Republican with a long history as a lawmaker. Blumenthal himself said he didn’t want to give Republicans any advice but that Levy wasn’t right for Connecticut.
“The fact is they chose a candidate who told Donald Trump, ‘I will always have your back,’” Blumenthal said Wednesday. “This election was a rejection of extremism, insurrectionism, far-right talking points. And that margin of victory is more compelling and powerful than any of my words could be.”
Levy wasn’t the only archconservative seeking election in a reliably liberal state. Republicans ran a candidate for Secretary of the State who amplified disproven theories of election fraud and nominated several congressional candidates who supported rolling back abortion rights. None had particularly impressive showings.
Rose suggests Republicans look in the future toward moderate candidates “who have a good, long policy-making record in the public sector.” To do so, he says the party should consider shifting to an open primary, which would limit the ability of the state’s most conservative voters to steer nominations.
“The party is moving more to the right in Connecticut, and look at the results,” Rose said. “If your candidates can’t win, and you put forward Trump people like Levy, then what’s the point?”
Alex Putterman is a statewide reporter with CT Insider. Previously, he spent four years at The Hartford Courant, covering a variety of subjects, including sports, climate and the COVID-19 pandemic. Alex grew up in West Hartford and lives with his fiancée in East Hartford. In his free time, he enjoys reading, watching baseball and doing crossword puzzles.


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