Deep in Trump country, in the 18th Senate District

Incumbent Heather Somers, right, of the 18th District chats with, from left, Jordan Anderson, Matt Baird and Bonnie Nault, secretary for the Republican Town Committee for the Town of Groton, outside the polling station at S.B. Butler Elementary School in Mystic on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Incumbent Heather Somers, right, of the 18th District chats with, from left, Jordan Anderson, Matt Baird and Bonnie Nault, secretary for the Republican Town Committee for the Town of Groton, outside the polling station at S.B. Butler Elementary School in Mystic on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

The Senate seat for the 18th District has toggled in recent history between Republican and Democratic.

It is one of the most challenging districts for aspiring politicians in eastern Connecticut because of its geographical footprint, a narrow rectangle-like shape that starts on the shoreline at Groton and Stonington and rambles up along the Rhode Island border, to Plainfield and Sterling.

That's a wide cultural and economic divide for candidates to reconcile.

I decided the northern reaches of the 18th would be a good place to seek out local Trump enthusiasts Tuesday, given that the 2018 midterms were billed as a grand verdict on the unfolding of the Trump era.

Indeed, I think I may have found the cradle of eastern Connecticut's Trumpism at the only polling place in Sterling, in a somewhat bedraggled Municipal Building in the village of Oneco.

Voter registration tilts overwhelmingly Democratic in Sterling, a rural town with a rich mill history and a population of 3,099, with a per capita income of $19,679, according to the 2000 Census. And yet Trump scored a decisive victory here over Hillary Clinton in 2016 — 1,102 to 478, one of his best percentage wins in Connecticut.

State Sen. Heather Somers of Groton rode those substantial Trump coattails to soundly win Sterling in 2016, scoring her most lopsided percentage win in the 18th District: 1,106 votes to her challenger's 483. She won all the towns in the district, but the tallies were closer along the more populated shoreline towns, 7,572 to 6,759 in Groton and 5,270 to 4,477 in Stonington.

I didn't have to chat with many Sterling voters, surprisingly enough, to find one sharp Donald Trump critic, 78-year-old Emily Perreault, who called the president the "unclassiest millionaire ever." Even as she expressed her scorn, she admitted that the men in her family are Trump supporters.

"I would say it is 70 to 30 (percent) in town for Trump," said 18-year-old Marc Perreault, as he accompanied his grandmother into the voting area. A Trump supporter himself, Perreault seemed destined to cancel out some of his grandmother's votes.

I chatted with many other Sterling voters who enthusiastically endorsed the Trump agenda. One told me he is glad Trump is keeping Mexicans from over-running the country.

"Trump's good. He's straightening the country out. The Democrats have something wrong with the head," said Donald Malboeuf. "And I'm a Democrat."

Chris Stoots told me he thinks much of the national message from Democrats is lost on residents of Sterling, one of the poorest parts of the state, with a low cost of living, where people are less worried about immigration issues and gun control.

Instead, it seems like the area is left behind when the state makes new investments but still struggles with higher taxes, he said. Drug addiction is a fast growing problem.

"It's one the last corners of the state where people still care about local issues," he said.

Bob Statchen of Stonington, in taking on Somers in the see-sawing 18th, signed up for a major challenge, a district that has a history of toggling between parties when the seat is open but which also has a history of supporting incumbents of both parties.

Another important factor when Statchen decided to try was the uncertain power of Trump's lingering coattails in towns like Sterling, two years into a controversial presidency.

The overall numbers of the northern part of the 18th are of course smaller than in the southern towns of the district, and ultimately less decisive, but the voting resolve, still fueled by Trump, I learned Tuesday, seems very powerful.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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