It’s a modern rarity to see a congressional seat change hands from one party to another, especially here in Connecticut. Congressional challengers have a notoriously difficult time—so much so that a challenger has only defeated an incumbent four times in the last quarter century.
Bruce Morrison (D) vs. Lawrence DeNardis (R) - 1982
This race between Democrat Bruce Morrison and Republican incumbent Lawrence DeNardis was one of the closest congressional races in recent memory.
DeNardis was a freshman Republican, who in 1980 had defeated the State Senate’s majority leader, Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman, in a contest for an open seat. His victory marked the last time a Republican would win the 3rd District seat, and can largely be attributed to the 1980 victory of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. DeNardis had been a member of a group of Northeastern moderate Republicans known as the “gypsy moths”, who had stood against some of the changes to social programs proposed by the Reagan Administration (Hunter).
Bruce Morrison, who was the director of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, defeated Stephen Wareck, president of the New Haven Board of Aldermen, in the Democratic primary. Morrison had no previous political experience.
Morrison drew a clear distinction between himself and DeNardis on issues which played to the large Democratic base in New Haven.
Against Mr. DeNardis, Mr. Morrison could cite clearer differences on the issues than those between himself and Mr. Wareck. ''Our polling showed that people's votes were turning on Social Security and jobs,'' he said, ''Obviously, we targeted members of labor organizations, women's organizations.''
The proposed bilateral nuclear weapons freeze also appeared to play a large role in the upset. Mr. DeNardis had voted in favor of the freeze resolution in Congress. But he supported statements made against the amendment by Alexander M. Haig Jr., when the former Secretary of State campaigned for him. And he reportedly said that a neutron bomb was no more of a nuclear weapon than a sweater, since a certain amount of radioactivity is naturally present in textiles. (Freedman)
He also ran an aggressive grassroots campaign and built an effective organization, which overmatched DeNardis, who also admitted that he had grown complacent:
In reflecting on his loss, which he had not expected, Mr. DeNardis also blamed himself for becoming too complacent. ''I always knew it was a difficult district for me, about two-to-one Democratic,'' he said. ''But I thought everyone considered I was doing a good job, going home every weekend, mending my fences, holding listening hours in the district every week, working 16-hour days.''
Now, looking back, he said he realizes that ''a certain complacency'' had crept into his way way of campaigning. ''I just didn't stay up to date on the technology of campaigning,'' he said. ''I guess I ran not to lose rather than to win.'' (Hunter)
A major factor in the campaign was the absence of Ronald Reagan on the ballot, and the discontent felt towards Reagan’s policies in 1982. Some of the Republican gains of 1980 were undone nationally during that election year, although they would be made back in 1984.
Morrison ended up winning by a very narrow margin, only about 1,500 votes. DeNardis decided not to force a recount, and conceded.
Freedman, Samuel. “Rise of a Newcomer to Seat in Congress.” The New York Times November 7, 1982.
Hunter, Marjorie. “Reflections of a Losing Congressman.” The New York Times December 31, 1982.
John Rowland (R) vs. William Ratchford (D) – 1984
It’s always interesting to take a closer look at the races of John Rowland. This race, in which a mustachioed 27-year-old Rowland leapt onto the national stage by winning the seat of Democrat William Ratchford, is one of the first highlights of his political career.
William Ratchford had been in office since 1978, but the 1984 campaign looked to be his toughest. President Reagan was on his way to soundly defeating Walter Mondale, and the entire country seemed to be leaning towards the Republican Party. John Rowland, a state representative from Waterbury and the former minority whip, had emerged the victor in a three-way contest for the Republican nomination.
Rowland’s victory is inextricably bound up in the victory of President Reagan. National winds were blowing the GOP’s way, and Ratchford, whose 5th district was trending more and more Republican, fell before them. Rowland drew a sharp division between himself and Ratchford, and emphasized his connection to Reagan’s policies and ideology. Both Ronald Reagan and former President Gerald Ford campaigned in the 5th District for Rowland, helping to cement the connection.
Mr. Rowland, on the other hand, is emphasizing his link to Mr. Reagan and his strong support for the President's economic policies. He presses hard the overall theme of family and traditional values.
''You hear a lot of people say the main issue this year is the economy,'' Mr. Rowland said. ''I think it's the future of Connecticut's families - what I call the safety issue - security in the economy, whether young people can buy homes, whether all of us can keep our jobs, what effects inflation will have on all of us, keeping up a level of defense.''
Ratchford, on the other hand, ran a far less ideological campaign, emphasizing his service to the district and downplaying what Rowland called his liberal voting record. He also drew a distinction between the ages of the two men (Rowland was 27, Ratchford 50):
''The main issue in this race,'' Mr. Ratchford went on, ''is the comparison between the two of us on quality and performance and experience. I'm in Congress six years. I was speaker of the State House of Representatives. People know me.''
In an interview at a Democratic picnic in Ansonia, Mr. Ratchford acknowledged that the Democratic Party had lost some ground with blue-collar workers.
''As a party,'' he said, ''we need to reach out more to middle-income people. America is no longer rich or poor. Most of America is in the middle and we need to address that.'' (Schmalz, Connecticut)
Ratchford’s attempt to paint Rowland as too young and inexperienced didn’t work. He lost by a little over 20,000 votes. Crucially, Ronald Reagan carried the district by a huge margin (around 80,000 votes), and won Connecticut’s electoral votes as well. Reagan’s landslide helped give the GOP a majority in the state House of Representatives: a feat they have not since replicated.
In reality, then, it wasn’t John Rowland’s victory so much as it was Ronald Reagan’s, although Rowland was smart to draw a clear connection between himself and the popular president. Changing demographics in the 5th District also cemented his victory, and Ratchford’s loss.
Schmalz, Jeffery. “5th District Race Tests Strength of Democrats.” The New York Times October 21, 1984.
Schmalz, Jeffery. “Connecticut Democrat has 2 GOP Foes in Re-Election Effort.” The New York Times October 20, 1984.
Conclusions: Part One
Both Rowland and Morrison were helped greatly by complacent challengers and the prevailing national political winds. These would be factors in the 1996 and 2000 elections, when Gary Franks lost to Jim Maloney and Sam Gejdensen lost to Rob Simmons. I’ll take a closer look at those two elections tomorrow.