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On Voters' Doorsteps, Connecticut Republicans See Hope of Retaking the State Senate

Nov 2, 2016

Republicans need just four more seats to control the state Senate.

While the extraordinary spectacle of the presidential battle has commanded most of the attention in this election, there are interesting things at stake here in Connecticut on the state level. 

Not least of these, Republicans, for the first time in 20 years, are within striking distance of real power in the General Assembly.

One recent evening, Heather Somers was where she has been most days in the last few months, knocking on doors in one of the eight towns that make up the state senate district she hopes to win this fall.

This is where things happen in day-to-day retail politics, on the doorstep, talking to voters.

“So, yes, it’s part of the job, you have to knock on doors, and I have personally myself knocked [on] close to 8,000 doors,” she said with a smile.

Heather Somers is one of the state Republican party’s high-profile candidates this year. A former hopeful for lieutenant governor with Tom Foley two years ago, now she’s running for the open seat created by the retirement of Democrat Andrew Maynard in southeastern Connecticut.

"The Republicans are looking at it as an opportunity because it’s an open seat," she said of the 18th District. "I don’t think that they necessarily believe it’s going to be easy."

Somers deflects the pressure, but in fact this is seen as must-win seat if the Republicans are to achieve something that has generational significance in the Nutmeg State: control of the state senate.

If they can pick up just four seats this election, they can control the upper chamber and put themselves back in the conversation for the first time since 1996.

Lawn signs are a hot commodity at the Democrats' headquarters in Groton
Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR

"They’ve been picking up a couple of seats here and there over the years," said Susan Bigelow, a columnist with CTNewsJunkie.com. "And now with such discontent at the way that the Democrats are running the state, there’s a lot more hope among Republicans that yes, they can pick off enough seats to actually flip the chamber."

Democrat Tim Bowles is one person whose job it is to stop the wave. Bowles stepped up for the party this year to to run against the better known Somers.

"There’s obviously pressure," he told WNPR. "The biggest pressure there is, is you don’t want to disappoint the people who are supporting you, but the difference is that I’m not an incumbent. Unlike when I ran two years ago, for the state house, the Democrats lost a number of seats here in southeastern Connecticut. I had something to lose at that point in time. And I also think people understand this is a competitive seat and a competitive race."

The Somers/Bowles contest in the 18th District is seen as the most likely pick up by the GOP.

But there are also potentially vulnerable seats in Meriden -- where Dante Bartolomeo has won only narrowly in the past two elections -- and out in Killingly and Mansfield, where first-term Democrat Mae Flexer is facing a strong challenge.

But with almost no polling in state contests, columnist Bigelow said forecasting any seat is dangerous.

"For races at this level, you don’t really know, you don’t have a sense, until the numbers start to come in," she said. "We can guess, based on the demographics of the place, but really it’s going to be an exciting night."

Candidate Tim Bowles speaks with volunteers Ruby Silva and Kathleen Bussey
Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR

And of course, this year is even less predictable than usual.

“It’s really up in the air as to what the Trump effect, if there is one, will be,” Bigelow said.

But Bigelow also said Connecticut voters are canny, and the coattails effect may be more complicated than we think.

"Usually, the top of the ticket and the state races don’t have a lot of connection with one another. People will split their tickets," she said. "But I think this time, the real danger for Republicans is that a lot of Republicans simply stay home."

Of course, there’s one person who’s not even on the ballot this time, who Republicans hope will have an outsize effect on voters’ decisions.

"I think that if we want to impress upon them a vote for a Democrat is a vote for Governor Malloy, that’s how you get them to say, well I don’t want that," said state Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano.

Fasano would be the man to lead the chamber come 2017, if his mission is successful. He cited the budget, restructuring state borrowing, and tackling urban decay as some of his priorities, if he’s in that position.

Fasano believes a split between the two chambers would lead to dialogue rather than gridlock.

“I think, frankly, on some issues -- especially in the last six to eight months -- Governor Malloy is closer to my way of thinking than the Democratic way of thinking,” he said.

Heather Somers talks to voter Peter Barlow, while Stonington Selectman Mike Spellman, a registered unaffiliated voter looks on.
Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR

Back on the doorsteps of Pawcatuck, Heather Somers said she doesn’t see much awareness of what’s at stake for her party this year.

"I think people are very busy in their lives," she said. "Some people are working three jobs, taking care of children and dogs, running to soccer practice, or trying to find a job, so I think they’re just busy, and I think it’s our job as candidates to deliver them the information."

And of course, there’s always the caution to be careful what you wish for.

If state Republicans pull this off, they’ll be at the table next year for what can only be a bruising budget battle. And for the first time in a generation, they’ll have to take responsibility for the outcome.