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For the local GOP, the song remains the same

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published November 11. 2012 4:00AM

Two years ago I wrote about the frustration local Republicans were feeling after coming up with a fairly strong field of House and Senate candidates to challenge Democratic dominance in the region, only to have nothing to show for it in terms of victories. The lack of success was all the more glaring in 2010 because that was the year of the emergence of the tea-party movement, part of a backlash to the federal health care bill that helped Republicans take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Having failed so miserably in a year of seeming opportunity, I wondered then whether Republicans in southeastern Connecticut would be able to find good candidates again in 2012 to give it a go. To their credit, they did, with only two incumbent Democrats left to run uncontested - Rep. Ed Jutila in the 37th House District of East Lyme and Salem, and Rep. Diana Urban in the 43rd House District of North Stonington and Stonington.

But the results were pretty much the same - Democratic victories and no incumbents unseated.

In the 41st District - which includes the southern two-thirds of Groton and runs across the Thames River into the southern half of New London - Republican Harry Watson seemed to present a serious threat to the incumbent Democrat, Rep. Elissa Wright. Watson is a long-time town councilor in Groton, well liked and with great name recognition. But while Watson got about 50 more votes than Wright in Groton, it wasn't nearly enough to offset Wright's strong showing in very Democratic New London. She won.

Republicans also seemed to have an opportunity in the 42nd House District - Ledyard, Preston and eastern Montville - when Rep. Tom Reynolds left the seat to make a run for state Senate, only to lose in the Democratic primary. A Ledyard resident, Rep. Reynolds had managed to overcome that town's Republican leanings and, acting as a moderate, won four terms in the politically split district.

The Republicans ran Mike France, a Ledyard town councilor who has helped hold down spending and taxes in that town as chairman of the finance committee. The Democratic candidate was Tim Bowles, a Preston selectman with some innovative ideas for redeveloping the former Norwich Hospital property in that town and, like Reynolds, a fiscal pragmatist. Both men ran well in their respective towns, but Bowles' better performance in Montville accounted for most of his 300-vote victory.

So it went for Republicans across southeastern Connecticut. There are plenty of explanations. Democrats outnumber registered Republicans (but not unaffiliated voters) in many of the districts. It was a strong day for Democrats at the top of the ticket in Connecticut. Most significantly there is the power of incumbency with its name recognition and the chance it provides to bring state grants to the region - or at least announce them.

Republicans had hoped to counter this advantage by reminding voters of the big tax increases passed by the Democratic legislature to address the fiscal crisis, and signed into law by a Democratic governor. They pointed to a need to provide political balance in Hartford and warned of the dangers of one-party rule. None of it worked.

Republican's lost a seat when Rep. Chris Coutu of Norwich left his 47th House District seat, which stretches from that city well north up into Hampton and Chaplin, to make a run for the 19th District Senate seat left open by a retiring Sen. Edith Prague, a populist Democrat. Canterbury First Selectman Brian Sear, a Democrat, took Coutu's seat. Meanwhile Coutu lost his race to state Sen.-elect Cathy Osten, the Sprague first selectwoman, a Democrat and former state union leader.

The lone successful attempt by a Republican to take a former Democratic seat came with the election in the 33rd Senate District of a political novice, businessman Art Linares. The retirement of Democratic state Sen. Eileen Daily had left the seat vacant. The bulk of the large district is located west of the Connecticut River, but does spill into Lyme. Linares was greatly aided by having a strong third-party candidate in the race, Melissa Schlag of the Green Party, who split the "non-Republican" vote with Democrat James Crawford, a state representative hoping to move up to the Senate.

Maybe that should be the Republican strategy in 2014 - persuade more left-leaning, third-party candidates to run for House and Senate.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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