SOUTHINGTON — Increasing numbers of Republican-registered voters and Republican-leaning unaffiliated suburbanites present a hopeful picture for the local GOP.
Republican Town Council candidates won every precinct in the municipal election earlier this month, reversing the Democratic hold on the council. While there are still more registered Democrats in Southington than Republicans, the GOP has added members since the last redistricting in 2011 while the number of registered Democrats has shrunk slightly.
Leaders of both parties say unaffiliated voters, the largest voting bloc in town, still decide elections. But voters in suburban Southington could more and more lean Republican, according to Scott McLean, political science department chair at Quinnipiac University.
“I think there’s a sorting process that’s going on in Connecticut,” he said. “Part of the divide in politics in Connecticut and states like Connecticut is between urban and suburban.”
Rural and suburban voters have found their interests more and more represented by Republicans, while urban voters support Democrats.
State and national debates affect local voting
Explaining this month’s results where every one of the Republican candidates won election, leaders of both parties said the GOP tactic of tying local Democrats to state issues such as tolls was effective. The Democratic-held council declined to take a vote on an anti-tolls resolution suggested by Republicans.
Brian Callahan, a former Republican town chairman, said many Southington residents move to town due to its good highway access and the ease of commuting.
“The thought of putting these tolls up infuriated people,” he said.
Ed Rosenblatt, a former Democratic town chairman, said the local party is hurt by the stereotype of spendthrift Democrats, despite the hard line the Democratic-held council has taken on tax increases over the past two years.
“They have a stereotype that Republicans are more fiscally austere,” Rosenblatt said. “That may have gotten some votes for them.”
In 2016, the town supported Republican President Donald Trump. More town voters that year also backed Chris Morelli, a UConn student and political newcomer, against incumbent Democrat Joe Aresimowicz for the 30th state House district. Aresimowicz, house speaker, held his seat with support from the Berlin section of his district.
More registered voters, stronger victory margins for Republicans
A look at precinct voting data in past council elections shows that Republicans have been gaining ground as the town adds voters despite a loss two years ago.
Republicans have added 1,667 registered voters since 2011, according to data from the Secretary of the State, which represents a 27 percent increase.
Democrats have lost 145 registered voters in that time.
The numbers of unaffiliated voters have stayed mostly the same.
Rosenblatt said an increase in registered Republicans “isn’t an overwhelming advantage.”
“There are lots of independent voters out there,” he said. “Each side hopes its own registered voters will get out of course, but in the end it’s the independent voters who are going to swing it one way or the other.”
With the exception of the previous municipal election where Democrats took five of the nine council seats, Republicans have mostly expanded their victory margins in council races.
In the election earlier this month, Republicans took 55.5 percent of the total votes cast for council candidates. Democrats had 44.5 percent.
Voters can choose up to six council candidates when casting a ballot.
Two years ago, council voters gave 48 percent of their votes to Democrats and 45 percent to Republicans. An unaffiliated council candidate, Jack Perry, nearly took a council seat that year with 3,820 votes. Republicans got 53 percent of council votes in 2015, 54 percent in 2013 and 50.7 percent in 2011.
2017 Democratic victory an interruption of Republican gains
Callahan said a combination of negative press and party infighting contributed to the 2017 loss which he described as an outlier. This year, Callahan said the party told its story well and reorganized the party, removing some members.
“We cleaned house and we got rid of the problems,” he said.
Rosenblatt had two reasons for the Democratic victory two years ago, partially agreeing with Callahan.
“You had the Democrats fielding an exceptionally strong Town Council slate and you had the implosion of the local Republican Party,” Rosenblatt said.
Despite losing in 2017, Callahan said Republicans put up a fight.
Vote totals “weren’t that far off. There was no landslide,” he said.
Voter turnout this month was up slightly from previous years, with 36.68 percent of eligible voters showing up at the polls. Municipal election turnout in 2017 was 35.12 percent and in 2015 was 36.13 percent.
Local elections about local candidates
McLean said statewide and national trends don’t always hold true and that the local popularity of candidates plays a big role in municipal elections.
Rosenblatt said Republicans were able to run a strong council slate by including three long-time Planning and Zoning Commission members.
“They did it from recycling candidates from other boards,” Rosenblatt said.
Callahan said support for Republicans is strong in town. Even in 2017, Republicans maintained their majorities on the Board of Education, Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Finance.
“We still controlled every other board in town,” he said.