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On Local Level, Connecticut's Red Is Showing

ElectionsRepublican PartyDemocratic PartyElizabeth EstyAndrew W RorabackChris Murphy

Everybody knows that Connecticut is a blue state. The General Assembly is packed with Democrats, our congressional delegation got rid of its last Republican in the 2008 election, we have a Democratic governor and we haven't voted for a Republican for president since George H.W. Bush.

And yet when we look at the map of local election results, we often see a sea of red. Republicans frequently rule in the small towns, especially in the western third of the state, but perhaps more surprisingly, they're often competitive and even dominant in towns and cities where Democrats run with overwhelming strength in state and national races.

For example, in 2012 New Britain and Meriden went big for Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty in her race for Congress against Republican Andrew Roraback. She outpaced him by a whopping 15,000 votes in the two cities, an almost 2-1 margin. Esty won the entire district by only about 10,000 votes, so it's absolutely fair to say that without Meriden and New Britain she would have lost.

But on Tuesday, both cities elected Republican mayors. In New Britain's case, the race wasn't even close; Republican Erin Stewart handed incumbent Democrat Tim O'Brien a 10 percentage point loss.

Westport is another reliably Democratic town; in 2012, it went by large margins for President Barack Obama, Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Jim Himes. But on Tuesday, 18 years of Democratic rule came to an end as Republican Jim Marpe handily defeated his Democratic rival, Helen Garten, for first selectman.

This pattern has repeated itself all over the state in all kinds of ways over the years. Cities including Norwalk, Norwich, Danbury, Bristol, Waterbury and Stamford all either now have or have recently had Republican mayors. A town like Enfield might send two Democrats to the state legislature by wide margins, but prefer Republicans to be in charge of the town council.

So what's going on here? Why is Connecticut so Democratic at the state level and above, but so Republican in the towns?

In part, it is because the kinds of causes and issues that help create and perpetuate this wide gulf between Connecticut voters and Republicans at the state and especially federal level simply don't come into play in the towns. Controversial policies on climate change, the minimum wage, health care, abortion, welfare, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights just don't get decided by local officials. This means that local elections are often less about culture, identity and the fault lines between right and left, and more about sewer fees and leaf cleanup.

Turnout is also part of the picture. The electorate is an awful lot smaller, not to mention older and whiter, for municipal elections than it is for state and federal elections. That's the sort of electorate that favors Republicans, as the whole country found out in 2010.

There's also some history at work here. Republicans have deep roots in Connecticut, and municipal elections reveal one of the few places that piece of our past actually shows through. This was a solidly Republican state during the century between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, and that legacy, while blunted elsewhere, survives at the local level where politics is still all about family, friends and knowing your neighbors.

Lastly, local politics is just that — local. Every local election is quirky and unique, and there's always a story there that has nothing to do with the traditional narratives about right and left in this country. A successful local politician could be personally well-liked and trusted around town, the kind of person who knows everybody, or perhaps showed leadership during a town crisis like the otherwise much-reviled Joe Maturo in East Haven. These sorts of qualities don't always translate up the ladder well, but it's worth everything in local elections.

Connecticut is absolutely a blue state, of course. But like with so much else here, there's always more to the story, just under the surface.

Susan Bigelow of Enfield is a longtime analyst of Connecticut politics and a weekly columnist at CTNewsJunkie.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ElectionsRepublican PartyDemocratic PartyElizabeth EstyAndrew W RorabackChris Murphy
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