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Grassroots politics in time of pandemic

There is one election in which the choices made by Connecticut voters could make a significant difference. But now with the pandemic and the renewed civil rights movement, not many people are giving it much thought.

It is the election to decide what party will control the state Senate and House of Representatives. More realistically, it will determine how big are the Democratic majorities and how strong the ability of the Democrats to dictate state policy.

Joe Biden, or whoever is the Democratic nominee, will defeat President Trump in Connecticut. There are no races for U.S. Senate, governor, or any of the state constitutional offices. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat, will stroll to re-election.

That leaves the state legislature. Democrats control the Senate 22-14, the House 91-60. Can Democrats maintain, or enlarge, those big majorities? Or can Republicans narrow the gap, as they did in 2016, which gave them the ability to peel off enough Democratic votes to influence fiscal policy?

The anti-Trump fervor among party faithful and progressive-minded independents favors Democrats.

And holding an election during a pandemic favors incumbents. Democrats have more of them.

“Getting in front of people is something I am particularly comfortable with. The inability to do that, that’s been a big disadvantage,” said Brendan Saunders, the Republican seeking to unseat freshman Democratic senator Norm Needleman in the 33rd District.

A swing district, it ranges from affluent coastal towns west of the Connecticut River to the interior towns of East Haddam and Colchester. Needleman won by 85 votes in 2018. The first selectman of Essex and a successful businessman, Needleman largely self-funded his campaign.

Saunders, a director of sales and marketing for the Courtyard Marriott in Cromwell, describes himself as a fiscally conservative “Reagan Republican.” His biggest disadvantage, he said, is lack of name recognition. The impracticality of door-to-door campaigning and inability to speak in group settings is not helping, though he does teleconference with groups.

Saunders seeks to qualify for state campaign financing, called the Citizens Election Program. He is eligible for up to $104,000 as a Senate candidate, but must first gather $16,000 in small donations, no larger than $270 per individual. Soliciting those contributions is also made more difficult by the pandemic, he said.

Bob Statchen, a colonel in the Connecticut Air National Guard and an Air Force veteran, faces an additional challenge. On May 15 he was called to active duty to distribute personal protective equipment in eastern Connecticut. Under federal law, he is prohibited from campaigning while on active duty. Statchen, a Democrat, was therefore unavailable for an interview, said his communications director, Philip Vander Klay. His deployment is set to end June 24, though it could be extended.

It is a rematch for Statchen against incumbent Republican state Sen. Heather Somers, who defeated him in the 18th District two years ago. Benefitting from the donor and supporter lists accumulated in that campaign, Statchen raised enough donations to achieve public funding, Klay said. The CEP has not yet confirmed Statchen has qualified.

Statchen did well in the southern towns in the district, but not enough to offset Somers’ strength in the more conservative towns of Griswold and Plainfield in the north.

In another rematch, Martha Marx, a Democrat, is again taking on Republican 20th District incumbent Sen. Paul Formica. Marx crushed Formica in New London in 2018, where she is town committee chair, but lost badly in Waterford and East Lyme.

Marx told me she is making hundreds of phone calls weekly to counterbalance the inability to knock on doors. That outreach will enable her to qualify for state campaign financing, she said.

A visiting nurse, Marx said the experiences of the last few weeks put things in perspective.

“One of the more stressful times in my life,” Marx said. “If I can manage that, I can manage an unusual campaign.”

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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