Francesca Capodilupo 2020 will be a test for Democrats
This past November, Connecticut joined the national surge in voter participation, with 65 percent of registered voters forming a Blue Wave up and down the ticket. But just a few months later, five special elections in Democratic-held seats — three State Senate and two House— yielded far more sobering results, with Republicans winning two of those seats amid an abysmal 14.5 percent voter turnout. The two districts Democrats lost (one Senate seat in New Britain and one House seat in East Haven) both have more registered Democrats and Unaffiliated voters than Republicans.
While there are many causes for poor voter turnout — lack of information, no early voting, and/or limited funds — it is clear that Democrats must do more to engage our base in municipal elections this year to keep the Blue Wave rolling. Because if the 2018 elections were a test for Republicans, 2020 is most certainly a test for Democrats, and we need to lay the groundwork for passing that test now.
Fortunately, a model for what we need to achieve can be found just across our western border in Westchester County, N.Y.
In April 2018, there was a special election for state senate in New York’s 37th District in suburban Westchester County where Democratic Assembly member Shelley Mayer facing off against former Rye Deputy Mayor Julie Killian, a Republican. Mayer had spent her time since the 2016 elections building a coalition that brought together traditional party committees, labor, and the newer resistance groups such as Indivisible, and in her election she put that coalition to work. The result? A stunning 58 percent victory with more than 38 percent voter turnout, despite being heavily outspent. Her win was the first Democratic victory in the Blue Wave that swept New York State in 2018 to give Democrats 39 of the 63 seats and control in the state senate.
For Connecticut’s Democrats, that means 2019 is the time we need to be building our movement by organizing on the ground.
Historically, odd years such as 2019 are viewed as “off years,” with low-turnout municipal races that garner little attention or volunteer activity. But these races define the political landscape and set the stage for next year’s state and federal races. The Democratic Party and individual campaigns must use this opportunity to build a stronger base by identifying, engaging, and turning people out to vote in municipal elections. And every voter who votes in a municipal or special election in an off-year is virtually guaranteed to turn out during even-numbered years for Connecticut’s state and federal elections.
There are a number of key districts we can look to in order to achieve our goals. Last year Democrats gained five Senate seats and closed the vote-gap enough in five additional districts indicating that those seats are winnable in 2020. The successful Red-to-Blue areas, including Cheshire, Danbury, Wilton, Lyme, and Greenwich, have a major common element: they turned out voters in force. Sen. Will Haskell in Wilton had a host of new, young voters on his side, Sen. Julie Kushner in Danbury had activist groups and labor come out in force, and Sens. Norm Needleman, Mary Abrams, and Alexandra Bergstein in the other districts all had groundswells of support from local activists, labor, and mid-propensity voters disheartened by the 2016 election. Putting focus on these districts this year will help us lay the groundwork for the 2020 elections.
Voter turnout is always a challenge in local races, but the evidence is clear that the voters are ready to get engaged if campaigns are willing to make the effort to communicate. This year’s municipal elections are the opportunity Democrats need to re-enfranchise people who don’t regularly vote in these races and get them involved now. For years, the Republicans and their deep-pocketed allies focused on local races to build their base and their bench; it’s beyond time for Democrats to catch up.
Francesca Capodilupo is the Connecticut state director at Red Horse Strategies, a political consulting firm. She splits her time between New York City and Ridgefield.