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Eastern Connecticut's growing importance to the state Republican party

Eastern Connecticut is increasingly the nucleus of Republican support in the state, particularly of the Trumpism variety, yet you wouldn’t know that from the list of delegates appointed to what turned out to be a convention in name only last week. Not one at-large delegate came from New London or Windham counties.

Yet drive through interior New London and much of Windham counties and you will see plenty of Trump signs. More significantly for the party, unlike some traditional Republican suburbs in Fairfield County that went for Democrats in 2018 two years after President Trump’s election, Republican lawmakers east of the river largely held on.

Two state senatorial seats that were once solidly Democratic have been in the hands of Republicans for several years.

Sen. Paul Formica was first elected in 2014 to the 20th District, which includes the towns of Bozrah, East Lyme, New London, Old Lyme, Salem, Waterford and portions of Montville and Old Saybrook. Democrat Andrea Stillman held the seat prior to Formica, before retiring.

Sen. Heather Somers won her 18th District Senate seat in 2016, succeeding Democrat Andrew Maynard, forced to retire for health reasons. That district includes Griswold, Groton, North Stonington, Plainfield, Preston, Sterling, Stonington and Voluntown, with those northern, Trump-backing towns, providing her critical votes in 2018.

Both Stillman and Maynard were substantial players in the Democratic majority.

The Republican incumbents face the same Democratic challengers they defeated in 2018, with New London Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Martha Marx again running against Formica and Somers facing off against Bob Statchen, a colonel in the Connecticut Air National Guard.

Democrats are counting on anti-Trump turnout and general dislike for the president to help their down-ticket candidates. But a couple of things undermine that optimism in eastern Connecticut. First, Trump remains popular with a lot of voters in the suburbs and rural interior towns. Also, candidates using the state’s publicly financed campaign program (almost all) cannot drop the names of other candidates, including Trump, in their campaign literature, they can only take aim at their opponents.

I had hoped to talk with Sue Hatfield of Pomfret, the vice chair of the state Republican Party and a convention delegate from our Second District, about the strength of the party in eastern Connecticut as opposed to elsewhere in the state. A prosecutor and early Trump supporter, Hatfield ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2018. In elevating her to vice chair, the party seemed to recognize the region’s growing importance.

Alas, Hatfield was the good soldier and did not want to jump rank, referring my questions to the party boss, Chairman J.R. Romano. But if the election goes badly, and there is a change in leadership, Hatfield may be the one taking the questions a year from now.

Romano said the state's 28 delegates are largely dictated by the presidential campaign, choosing from a long list supplied by the state party, and the lineup was not meant to slight eastern Connecticut.

As for this section of Connecticut, Romano said he not only thinks Republicans can hold their Senate seats, but may gain one by defeating state Sen. Cathy Osten, whose 19th District of Columbia, Franklin, Hebron, Lebanon, Ledyard, Lisbon, Marlborough, Montville, Norwich and Sprague includes a lot of Trump country. Opposing Osten is Steve Weir, a small business owner who lives in Hebron.

Republicans consider Osten vulnerable after she lost her seat as first selectwoman in Sprague in 2019, an office she held jointly with her Senate position. She is now a selectwoman.

The softening of the Republican Party’s position in its traditional stronghold of uber wealthy southwestern Connecticut, and disdain for Trump there, was in evident in the Oct. 11 primary when 38% of Republican voters in Darien and 33% in Greenwich defected from Trump to vote “uncommitted” or for Rocky De La Fuente, an unserious candidate who has also had his name on Democratic presidential and Senate ballots.

While there were defections in interior eastern Connecticut, they did not approach those levels.

Romano attributes the strength of the party and the Trump support through large swaths of eastern Connecticut to the middle-class work ethic traditions of its people, many not well served by policies that shifted blue-collar jobs overseas. They can’t afford, because of a callous tweet or presidential utterance, to abandon a party, or a president, whose deregulation, America First, pro-job policies are in their interest, he said.

If Republican state legislators in eastern Connecticut again hold seats or gain seats, and serve as a last line of defense in what might otherwise be another tough year for state GOP candidates, it would solidify the region’s importance to any Republican plan to rebuild power in the state. Who knows, the region might even get some at-large delegates to the 2024 convention. It is one more interesting thing to watch in what will be a most fascinating, some might say terrifying, election.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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