"Connecticut Democrats aren't a party. They're a collection of individuals who, by coincidence, share a ballot line."
--Michelle Jacklin, 2002
I keep hearing that Connecticut is a "blue state," meaning that it is one of the more liberal states, and therefore a state that favors the Democratic Party.
I've been wondering whether this is actually so.
Compared to the rest of the country, Connecticut is quite liberal. We have, among other things, laws on the books granting civil unions to gay couples and allowing women to have abortions, should Roe v. Wade be overturned. We promote stem cell research while ignoring the dire warnings of Connecticut's arm of Focus on the Family, the Family Institute of Connecticut. We disapprove of native son George W. Bush, who wandered a little too far west and south for our tastes, and of the national Republican Party in general. Connecticut was a theocracy once: we have no intention of becoming one again.
As for favoring Democrats, that's a different story.
It's easy to pigeonhole Connecticut from the national point of view. The state has voted for Democrats for president since 1992, and both of its senators have been Democrats since 1988. The General Assembly has been entirely controlled by Democrats since 1998, when Democrats recaptured the Senate. The first and third congressional districts are among the most solid in the country for Democrats.
But scratch the Democratic surface, and you'll find a deep Republican past. If you're looking for the Party of Lincoln, this is where it came to die. Lowell Weicker was perhaps its last true representative. The antislavery forces that gave birth to the Republican Party in the 1850s were strongest in pious, egalitarian New England, and the state continued to support Republican candidates through the rest of the 19th and 20th Century. Connecticut has voted for Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover (twice), Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
To give an example of just how Republican the state was--in 1932, only six states failed to vote for FDR. Connecticut was one of them. It's no surprise that the Republican answer to the Kennedys, the Bushes, came out of Greenwich.
The vast majority of Connecticut governors from 1855 on have been Republicans (33 to 15, with one independent), and the legislature was consistently held by that party up until constitutional changes in the 1960s. Currently, our governor is a Republican and three of the five congressional seats are held by Republicans. A look at the "top offices" map for the most recent municipal election will show a state with almost as much red as blue. A look at the map of the 2002 governor's race will give Democrats a heart attack.
Connecticut Republicans have often followed the old northeastern line of pragmatic fiscal conservatism matched with a grudging social tolerance. If they have failed in recent years, it's because the national party has gone in the opposite direction and the state party has fallen to pieces.
Connecticut Republicans suffer from a terrible identity crisis. How do they follow the national GOP without losing support at home? Successful Republicans like Shays, Johnson, Simmons and Rell have figured it out: don't follow the national party. By and large, Connecticut voters seem to support fiscal prudence and social tolerance. Add electoral reform to this, and a winning combination emerges. Governor Rell seems thrifty, while at the same time supporting minimum-wage increases, civil unions and campaign finance reform. Her approval rating is astronomical. There is a lesson here.
So what does this mean? It explains how Connecticut, thought to be so blue, can keep returning Republicans to Congress and the Governor's Mansion. It also suggests that Republicans need only to reorganize and return to their roots in order to regain meaningful power. Lost in the massive Democratic gains of the past four years, but all-too-apparent from their inability to pass campaign finance reform, is the collapse of the state Democratic Party. The Democrats have gone from the disciplined machine of the 1960s and 1970s to a disorganized mess of conflcting interests and people who just happen to put a "D" after their names.
At the moment, neither party stands for anything clear. They both have let the national parties define them. If state Republicans suddenly jumped into sharp focus, Democrats would be at a loss. The 44% of Connecticut voters who are affiliated with neither party might, for the first time in a decade, swing back toward the right. Seven seats flip the Senate. It isn't terribly likely, but it's possible.
National winds are blowing Democratic for next year. Connecticut's winds may be blowing in the opposite direction. It wouldn't be the first time.