The state’s 5th Congressional District may have lost its “swing” designation after seven straight wins for Democrats, political scientists say.
“I've stopped calling the 5th a "swing district," said Gary Rose, chairman of the government department at Sacred Heart University. “Demographic changes within the 41 communities, party registration statistics, and political values of residents have combined to move the district into a less Republican and more of a leaning Democratic district.”
Democrat Jahana Hayes won the election over Republican Manny Santos Tuesday by 11 points, better than the margin of victory in two of the three victories for her predecessor, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat not seeking re-election. U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, also a Democrat, held the seat for three terms after beating then incumbent Republican Nancy Johnson by 12 points in 2006.
Much of Johnson’s 6th Congressional District, which covered the northwestern corner of the state, merged with the 5th Congressional District, which includes Meriden and Waterbury, after the 2000 census resulted in Connecticut losing a district.
The district now has 41 cities and towns, which also include Cheshire and Plainville. Its numerous small towns have traditionally favored Republicans, while its larger cities generally vote Democratic.
The district has been viewed as more moderate than some of the state’s other districts, making for a better opportunity for a Connecticut Republican to return to Congress.
But Rose said growing numbers of college-educated women voters in suburbs such as Cheshire, Newtown, and Farmington have helped boost Democrats.
The tough environment, and expectation by forecasters that Hayes would win, made fundraising lopsided from the start. Hayes, a 2016 national teacher of the year, had name recognition and strong financial backing from outside groups and Democratic leaders, such as Murphy.
“Hayes' election was not at all a surprise and it was obvious that Santos was largely on his own to win the district,” Rose said. “She had celebrity status as the national teacher of the year... the Me Too Movement and the Year of the Woman in politics added to her victory.”
Santos received little help from the national party, especially as the GOP was focused on trying to protect Congressional seats it already held.
Santos won 13 of the 41 towns — Southbury, Watertown, Wolcott, Torrington, New Fairfield, Woodbury, Plymouth, Goshen, Middlebury, Thomaston, Harwinton, Bethlehem and Morris.
According to a map of the governor’s race published by the Connecticut Mirror, most of those towns went deeper red in 2018. Many other towns, like Salisbury and Kent, went deeper blue.
Some political watchers don’t think the district will change soon.
“The 5th was a swing district winnable for a Republican, but the political and demographic winds are going to be at the Democrats’ back for the next cycle or two,” said Scott McLean, political science department chairman at Quinnipiac University.
McClean said Hayes has the kind of appeal that may cause the district to trend Democratic for many more cycles. He also said her platform, including strengthening public education, federal fun control, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, help make her more attractive to voters.
“Her story… allows her to portray herself as a likeable contrast to President Trump and the House Republican agenda on health care, education and immigration,” McLean said.
Santos also had a compelling story about his immigrant roots and military service.
“Santos was not as effective as Hayes at using his life story to soften the harder edges of his policy positions,”McClean said.
Republican Party Chairman JR Romano agreed with the challenges faced by Santos but believes the district is still up for grabs.
“I still consider it a district with potential to flip,” Romano said. “Manny Santos was a great candidate but the media would have treated the race differently if the candidate had been (New Britian Mayor) Erin Stewart, or Dr. (William) Petit.”
Romano also said the 2003 redistricting “gerrymandered” the district to benefit Democrats. Johnson won one more election in 2004, beating U.S. Rep. Jim Maloney of the 5th District, before losing the seat to Murphy.