There’s an old saying attributed to former Connecticut resident Mark Twain that “if you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” But the same can be said of the political winds and fortunes that seem to shift with every election cycle, according to several Republican lawmakers.
For the state GOP eyeing November victories, some see opportunity and pitfalls ahead for a party where several veteran lawmakers are set to retire, including four Senate Republicans after decades in public life — State Sen. Dan Champagne, deputy Senate GOP leader Paul Formica of East Lyme, former deputy leader Kevin Witkos of Canton, and Craig Miner of Litchfield. In addition, nine House Republicans are also slated to retire this year.
But even as the party reels from high-profile retirements, state Republicans look to capitalize on an incumbent president who is underwater in several polls and an economy plagued by high inflation.
“Joe Biden is the gift that keeps on giving,” said State Rep. Terrie Wood, who represents Darien and Rowayton in the 141st assembly district and ran against GOP nominee Dominic Rapini for Secretary of State. “The momentum is on our side.”
The Associated Press reported back in June that more than a million voters across 43 states have switched to the Republican Party over the last year, according to voter registration data. The suburbs, where well-educated swing voters turned against Donald Trump in 2020, appear to be swinging back to the GOP.
This political shift is welcome news for Republicans across the country right with the future of Congress up for grabs. But in Connecticut, the same trend is not happening, making some Republicans speak out about what the party should do to be successful in a state where Democrats are in control.
“I think Republicans need to run on the key issues which we’re known for,” Wood said. “Respecting the rule of law, bringing down the cost of living and ensuring election integrity. Trump is no longer president. We need to focus on issues.”
Though Connecticut has not seen the same shift toward the GOP as other parts of the country, Republicans are hoping to appeal to dissatisfied Democrats as well as unaffiliated voters. Since January 2021, shortly after Biden’s victory, 20,538 state Democrats — 2.4% of the October 2020 party enrollment — have left the party, three quarters of whom are now unaffiliated, with about one quarter registered with the GOP.
“The party is changing,” said retiring deputy Senate GOP Leader Paul Formica. “We have new candidates and new faces. But as a party we have to appeal to a broader base and unfortunately some of the candidates running have brought Trump into the race. That’s not a winning formula for Republicans going into November.”
On the other side, 16,376 Republicans — 3.4% — became unaffiliated or Democrats. Among the 22,917 unaffiliated voters — 2.4% — who registered with a party during that time, 12,637 became Democrats and 10,280 registered as Republicans.
The shifts bring the state’s current voter lists to 800,834 Democrats, 453,144 Republicans and 909,331 unaffiliated voters, according to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.
“Republicans need to do a better job at messaging ourselves as a party of common sense solutions and ideas,” Formica said. “The most effective thing Democrats have done is tying every Republican in the state to Trump. We paid the price for that in 2018 and 2020.”
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“The far fringes of both parties kind of get everyone riled up, but if you really want to focus on making life better for your fellow residents, you need to be in the middle,” said former deputy leader Kevin Witkos, who is set to retire this year. “That’s the winning formula.”
Witkos acknowledged that while the extremes of both parties are the most vocal, they tend to fade away over time, and what is left is the true core of the party.
“Look at Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party movement,” Witkos said. “They both came and went. We need to be focused on not what’s creating the most noise but what’s actually helping people. What is going to make life better? That’s what we should be asking ourselves.”
With Trump-backed Leora Levy’s surprise victory over moderate Themis Klarides for the U.S. Senate in the primary earlier this month, the party’s identity seems to be more in doubt as Republicans scramble to break away from Trump while also having a candidate on the ballot embraced by him.
“We need to be proactive not reactive,” said Sen. Craig Miner of Litchfield who is also set to retire this year. “We need to run on our values. Because at the end of the day those stick while everything else changes.”
Stephen Underwood can be reached at email@example.com