Republicans grapple with exodus from party in wake of Jan. 6 attack
More than 600 registered Republicans in New London County have left the party since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The trend is also playing out statewide. More than 5,000 Connecticut Republicans changed their political party affiliation in the six weeks following the breach.
Current and former Republicans interviewed for this article said while former President Donald Trump is partly to blame, the reasons for the exodus are more complex than that and include hostility faced by members of the party after the Capitol attack.
Groton City Republicans also cited the "hostile and threatening environment" in announcing they wouldn't run a slate in this year's municipal elections because their prospective candidates had backed out.
“The climate from Jan. 6 on has been that Republicans have been attacked for their beliefs, so a lot have changed (their party) to unaffiliated,” said Colleen Rix, a member of the Montville Republican Town Committee. “However, they still lean conservative.”
Like Rix, Kat Goulart, chairwoman of the New London Republican Town Committee, also has heard from Republicans who say they are leaving the party due to the backlash they face for expressing their views.
"That is something that I have heard from local Republicans in and around New London that they're dealing with that they're just tired of," Goulart said. "They aren't changing (their party affiliation) because their values have changed. They're changing because they're tired of being bullied."
She said it’s not uncommon to see large numbers of voters change their parties following an election cycle. “A lot of people will identify with a major party during municipal and presidential elections and then switch back to unaffiliated,” she said. “We see that every two and four years. Certainly the Democrats are seeing losses as well.”
While the Democratic Party also lost members following the Capitol attack, the number is dwarfed by the Republican Party's decline in membership.
In New London County, Republicans left the party at five times the rate of registered Democrats between Jan. 6 and Feb. 19, according to state voter registration data. Many registered as unaffiliated voters instead.
In 2017, the year Trump was sworn in to office, just 72 Republicans in New London County left the party between Jan. 6 and Feb. 16, compared to the 621 who left the party over that same period this year.
That's in comparison to the 262 Democrats in the county who changed their party registration in the first six weeks of 2021, and 274 who changed from unaffiliated. In 2017, eight Democrats and 189 unaffiliated voters left their respective parties over that same time period.
Stuart Norman was a registered Republican for more than 50 years until Trump, at a news conference early in the COVID-19 pandemic, suggested people inject themselves with disinfectants to rid themselves of the coronavirus.
In reality, it was a series of decisions made by Trump, including his response to the pandemic, and his behavior that pushed Norman to leave the party. But that comment from the former president "was the final straw."
"I was a proud Republican," Norman said. "It was not easy."
He changed his party affiliation a short while later, choosing to register as a Democrat instead of an independent or unaffiliated voter, due to Connecticut's closed primary system that allows only registered members of a political party to vote in that party’s primary elections.
"In my mind, you have to belong to a party because then you are able to participate in picking a candidate in the primary," he said. "Sometimes that can be more critical than the general (election)."
Trump also led Theresa Madonna, a Republican who ran for state Senate against Democrat Andrew Maynard in the 18th District, to leave the party in fall 2020. She registered as a Democrat just before the presidential election.
"His policies went beyond fiscal conservatism, which is the reason I was a Republican," Madonna said, specifically citing Trump's policies on immigration.
While she's not "enamored" with the Democratic Party either, Madonna said she feels more aligned with Democrats at this point than Republicans. Plus, she wants to continue serving locally in politics "and you just can't get elected if you're an independent."
"Four years of Donald Trump has been a problem for some," said Rob Simmons, a Republican who represented Connecticut in Congress and is a former Stonington first selectman.
"I'm moderate. I consider myself a fiscal conservative," Simmons said. "I supported Donald Trump’s policies because fiscally, I found them to be quite successful, but his personality, his mannerism, his behaviors did not appeal to some Republicans who had to explain him and found it embarrassing to explain him."
Simmons sees the recent resignation of Connecticut Republican Party chairman J.R. Romano, who was "constantly beating the drum for Donald Trump," as an opportunity for his party.
With Romano gone, Simmons said he hopes the state GOP will move away from national politics and refocus its efforts on getting Republicans elected to statewide offices.
"We have an opportunity now over the next few months to begin to build back toward the middle, to get beyond the Trump presidency," he said.
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