Suburban Reversion: A Test Case on Connecticut’s Gold Coast in SD36

On August 17, Connecticut’s 36th Senate District will hold a special election to fill the remainder of the term of former State Sen. Alex Kasser. Political operatives on both sides view this race with great interest. In order to understand the dynamics of the election, we must analyze the political geography and fundamentals.

Background: Fairfield County and the Gold Coast

Southwestern Connecticut is home to some of the wealthiest areas of the United States. Towns such as Darien, New Canaan, and Greenwich are synonymous with affluence and prestige. Once dominated by old upper-crust New England families such as that of George H.W. Bush, the area is now a haven for wealthy business executives in the New York area.

Image

Historically, the voting patterns of these towns mirrored those of other wealthy locales – moderate Republicans dominated the Gold Coast. But as the national GOP has veered to the right on social issues though, Democrats have been making heavy inroads as business-minded Republicans increasingly vote in line with their culturally liberal views. In 2008, Democrats finally unseated the last of Connecticut’s moderate Republicans on a congressional level, with businessman Jim Himes unseating incumbent Rep. Chris Shays. The Democratic coattails from Obama’s landslide performance (nearly 60% of the vote) were just enough to unseat Shays, particularly due to strong turnout in more Democratic-leaning areas of Stamford and Norwalk, as well as heavily Democratic Bridgeport, as shown in analyst Drew Savicki’s map.

Image

The 4th congressional district has only gotten bluer since, with Joe Biden winning 65 percent of the vote in 2020. Democrats control almost all state-level offices now, except for a few. In the 151st House District, which encompasses parts of Greenwich, Joe Biden handily won the district, but incumbent Rep. Harry Arora comfortably held on.

The seat contains all of Greenwich and portions of Stamford and New Canaan. As shown below in Savicki’s map, Biden won the district by just over 25 points, nevertheless, Kasser narrowly won re-election. Kasser flipped the 36th in 2018 very narrowly, becoming the first Democrat to represent this seat since 1930. That Republicans had held on for so long amid an increasingly blue national environment is a testament to the willingness of voters on the Gold Coast to split their tickets. This dynamic is indeed why Republicans have an outside shot at flipping back this seat that is almost as Democratic as the state of California. Hartford Courant political report Daniela Altimari has written an excellent deep-dive into the political history of this area here.

Image

Meet the Candidates

There are three people running in the race: Republican Ryan Fazio, Democrat Alexis Gevanter, and independent candidate John Blankley. All three are from Greenwich, which casts the largest block of votes.

Fazio is an investment analyst who serves on Greenwich’s Town Meeting. He ran for the seat in 2018, as the previous map shows, and beat Arora in the nomination process for this current special. Gevanter is an organizer and activist with Moms Demand Action, a gun-control advocacy group. Blankley is a former Town Meeting member and a former member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation. He unsuccessfully ran for the 36th in 2016 against then-incumbent Sen. Scott Frantz. All three are employing unique strategies in this evenly divided seat.

Gevanter is tying herself closely to incumbent Governor Ned Lamont, and says she would be “a partner to the Governor in Hartford”. Her platform focuses on three P’s: prosperity, progress, and public safety. These policy ideas manifest themselves in the forms of debt-free community college, expanding voting rights and women’s rights, and protecting the environment.

Notably, for a Democrat, Gevanter is emphasizing her support for low taxes, a wise move in this staunchly fiscally conservative seat. She opposes tax increases in state budgets and supports eliminating the Social Security tax and the estate tax. The estate tax primarily affects multimillionaires, a fairly sizeable constituency in the 36th. Furthermore, Connecticut’s high tax rates have plagued the state’s demography. The state has endured a net loss of residents to other states for nearly eight years now. To adopt the standard Democratic line on taxing the ultra-wealthy would be an unwise move, and Gevanter is smartly avoiding falling into this trap.

Fazio is running on a strong fiscally conservative platform, typical of Gold Coast Republicans. To achieve economic prosperity, Fazio proposes slashing income taxes across the board, reducing spending, and trimming economic regulations. Fazio’s fairness plank would aim to treat big corporations or unions in Hartford the same as ordinary people. He also proposes making it easier to raise a family, educate children, and help those in need. His campaign platform concludes with an appeal to all liberals, moderates, and conservatives – aware of the strong crossover that Gold Coast Republicans get. Local police unions have endorsed Fazio – they are a key constituency in an area fearful of rising crime.

Blankley, a former Democrat, is running on a similar platform to his 2016 run. He told the Greenwich Times the following: “In exploring this race, I have not altered my long-held opinions for any political purpose. I believe strongly in the positions I have taken on matters important to the district, and I believe I share these with an overwhelming number of voters in Greenwich, North Stamford, and New Canaan.” Running as an independent petition candidate, he is aiming to win over the growing portion of unaffiliated voters in the district: “I am pitching to the broad middle of this district – disaffected Republicans, disaffected Democrats.” Taken together, the three candidates are running three different campaigns, aimed at three different bases.

Dynamics of the Race

Given that Kasser won re-election by just over two percentages points, while Biden brought out thousands of Democrats to support her on the ticket, the turnout dynamics of a special election could hold the secret to a flip. A district such as the 36th, which has only begun to shake off its deep Republican roots down-ballot, is a prized target for Republicans aiming to hone a viable suburban message. Should Fazio win, Democrats in Hartford would lose their veto-proof majority in the Senate, forcing bipartisan compromise. In a district where split-ticket voting is old habit, Fazio is strongly emphasizing this fact. In an interview, he told the Greenwich Times that “I think the eyes of the state are on this race to render a verdict about whether or not the status quo and one-party rule is acceptable or whether we can do better as a state and find more common-sense solutions and can improve the economy and public safety and social services.”

Particularly noteworthy is the Blankley candidacy, which Democrats believe will produce a spoiler effect in favor of Fazio. Governor Ned Lamont, who is a resident of Greenwich, has personally made overtures to Blankley in an attempt to get him to drop out of the race. These efforts have so far been unsuccessful. In a close race, Blankley could be the key to a Fazio victory, especially if enough weakly identifying Democratic voters opt to support the independent candidate. These circumstances are sheer bad luck for Democrats, as so far there is no proven connection between the Blankley candidacy and any surreptitious GOP effort to undermine Democratic support, as has been shown in other races in Montana and Florida.

This special election has garnered attention all across Connecticut. Republicans in the area such as former Sen. Scott Frantz, Sen. Tony Hwang from Fairfield, as well as national figures from the Republican State Legislative Committee have gotten involved. On Gevanter’s side, 4th District Rep. Jim Himes, Senator Richard Blumenthal, and Governor Lamont have all gotten involved. Both parties expect the race will be close, and that turnout will be the key to victory. One Democratic organizer Elections Daily spoke with said that “Fazio has learned how to run an effective campaign, and will be very tough to beat”. Fazio himself that his race will not be easy, and acknowledges that a more in-person style of campaigning compared to the coronavirus-stricken 2020 season will be helpful to his chances.

Conclusion

As with all special elections, there are a number of factors at play. Given that this is a district Biden won by over 20 points, on paper this should be a Democratic hold, but the Gold Coast’s Republican roots run deep. Fazio is an A-tier recruit for the Republicans, with a campaign and a message sharply tailored to the district’s moderate pragmatic streak. Gevanter is a dogged campaigner too, bringing the entire national and state Democratic Party apparatus and its social liberalism to bear. Finally, Blankley, like a berserker in battle, is lighting the race up with his third-party energy, throwing chaos into the forecast. In the view of Elections Daily, the conclusion is as follows. The 36th district is the epitome of the ideology described as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal”. Fazio represents the fiscally conservative, and Gevanter represents the socially liberal. The people of the Gold Coast shall have to choose which of these camps they align with more. Right now, given the turnout dynamics, third-party challenger, as well as the redder down-ballot nature of the seat, the only rating that is sensible to issue is a Tossup. If the election were held today, we estimate that Fazio would narrowly win, but there are a few more days left until the 17th when the race is actually held. Both sides will be eager to turn out their bases to send a message to Connecticut and to America.

The election is on August 17th. Join Elections Daily then to understand what is happening, as we break down the results.

Armin Thomas is a recent graduate of Yale University specializing in statistics. His interests include politics, elections, music, and the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. His Twitter is @thomas_armin and he can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Comment