Area Democrats assess victories; Republicans diagnose losses

In one of Tuesday’s biggest local upsets, 22-year-old Democrat Will Haskell defeated longtime Republican lawmaker Toni Boucher in the race for Connecticut’s 26th Senate District.

Haskell pointed to voter turnout.

“I attribute our victory primarily to people who don’t normally vote every two years who decided to vote this year,” Haskell said. “I think we tried to convey just how much was at stake on Nov. 6 — environmental quality, voting rights, women's reproductive health and freedom, all of which will be decided by the state Legislature. Those non-typical voters showed up and had their voices heard.”

Haskell said an “unprecedented campaign of voter engagement and mobilization” helped him and other Democratic candidates. While acknowledging Republican President Donald Trump’s unpopularity among many voters, the Wilton Democrat refused to write too much into the president’s role in the 26th District race.

“Although my campaign spent a lot of time talking about Trump, what I saw at the polls was primarily enthusiasm about our forward thinking and positive vision, and how I hope to bring that to the Legislature,” Haskell said.

Democrats see blue wave

Haskell’s victory wasn’t the only political upset in and around Norwalk on Tuesday evening.

Democrat Douglas Stern, a first-term Norwalk councilman, defeated past school board member and former state House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. in the race for Norwalk-Wilton Probate Court.

Lucy Dathan, a New Canaan Democrat and newcomer to politics, beat Norwalk Republican Fred Wilms, a former city councilman and longtime chairman of the city’s tax board, in the race for the 142nd District seat in the state House. She traced her candidacy to the 2016 presidential election.

“I woke up after Trump won and knew I had to do something,” she said, but expressed disbelief Tuesday evening that she had beaten Wilms.

“I can’t believe we did it. My seat has never been held by a Dem and I can’t believe it,” Dathan told fellow Democrats at the Norwalk Inn & Conference Center on election night. “I feel like we’re riding the blue wave. It’s still too early to tell what happens in the rest of the country, but I really feel the blue wave is here. And we hope that we see more.”

State Sen. Bob Duff, a Norwalk Democrat, counted Dathan’s win among a number of victories by women candidates nationwide on Tuesday and noted she won in a district whose boundaries were changed.

“It was gerrymandered Republican. They said, ‘Hey, you give Cranbury, Silvermine, Brookside, West Norwalk and a little bit of New Canaan in there, and Democrats can never win,’ ” said Duff, who was re-elected. “But we have somebody here who knocked on over 5,000 doors … She knocked on the hottest day, the rainiest days, the coldest day, every day out there.”

Stern wouldn’t speculate Wednesday why he defeated Cafero — “I’m no political scientist” — but noted voter turnout was high. He said participating in a Democratic primary election for the probate race in August drew attention that otherwise wouldn’t have been paid. He said he campaigned at train stations and elsewhere and publicized his candidacy on Facebook.

“I’m not claiming that any single thing had to do with us doing well,” Stern said of Democrats’ victories. “I think it was a combination of a lot of things, some of it the political climate regarding Hartford, regarding Washington, and some of it was run-of-the-mill hard work during campaign season.”

Norwalk Mayor Harry W. Rilling, a Democrat, congratulated the local Democrats on their victories, which he attributed partly to Trump and partly to the work of the candidates themselves.

“It’s grassroots campaign that gets the job done,” Rilling said. “There’s no substitute for pounding the pavement, making the telephone calls, getting out there and meeting the public, waiving the signs, going to the railroad stations, doing the hard work to tell people who we are, what we represent.”

Ed Camacho, Norwalk Democratic Town Committee chairman, found several factors working in Democrats’ favor. High voter turnout usually bodes well for Democrats and much of that turnout came from cities, he said.

“The big cities just have larger numbers and they’re typically Democratic,” Camacho said as results were still being tallied Tuesday evening. “The fact that we had such huge (turnout) numbers and we have large cities with huge numbers, that probably will have made the difference tonight.

Voter turnout in cities such as New Haven eroded Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski’s initial lead over Democrat Ned Lamont. Stefanowski conceded defeat Wednesday morning.

Trump, party lines

Boucher, a Wilton Republican, released a statement Wednesday morning expressing confidence in Haskell and thanking voters for her 22 years service in the General Assembly.

“It is a big responsibility and and I am sure he will devote his energies to serving the people well,” Boucher said. “I am deeply thankful to the voters for having given me the rare and extraordinary honor of serving them here at home, on local boards and in the Legislature in Hartford. I have always put every ounce of passion, commitment and energy into these roles with the ultimate objective of serving my constituents well.”

Wilms, who was running for a third term, traced his loss to voters associating Republicans with Trump. He said he felt saddened and disappointed by his loss.

“I care deeply about Norwalk and our state and I devoted these past four years to making both of them better places,” he said, indicating he couldn’t overcome anti-Trump sentiment among some voters.

“There was a huge wave of anti-Trump voters who simply voted party lines, without regard to the actual candidates themselves,” Wilms said Wednesday. “I am honored that my vote total went up from four years ago, plus for the depth of support I received from thousands of Norwalkers. I wish Lucy Dathan the very best as our new state representative.”

Cafero told fellow Republicans who had gathered at The SoNo Ice House on election night that the GOP has some “soul searching” in its future.

“If we are internally uncomfortable with something that has nothing to do with finances, has nothing to do with smaller government, but might in our heart of hearts feel like it’s rude, inappropriate, cruel or mean, let’s do the right thing and call them out,” said Cafero. “Whether it’s the president of the United States or someone in our little town council.”

Mark Suda, Norwalk Republican Town Committee chairman, said Wednesday he expected his party would win some races and lose others. Cafero’s loss came as a shock.

“In all races, there always is a better candidate. Whether he’s Republican or Democratic, that person should win the race but it’s not always the outcome,” said Suda after congratulating all winners. “I felt going into this Larry was the better candidate.”

Lavielle wins narrowly

State Rep. Gail Lavielle was the only opposed Republican to be re-elected in Norwalk, but her margin of victory was the slimmest of her political career. Her race was decided by only 382 votes across Norwalk, Wilton and Westport, and she received 197 less votes than her Democratic challenger, Stephanie Thomas, in the city.

Lavielle attributed the close races in the region to local dissatisfaction with national politics.

“Clearly, a lot of people thought it was more important to send a message than it was to fix what has been going wrong in Connecticut for so long,” she said. “Quite a number of people wanted to send a message about Trump and others may have wanted to send a message about Congress.”

Thomas, on the other hand, cited her door-to-door, grassroots campaigning as the impetus behind her own success and that of other candidates including Haskell.

“We spoke with people as recently as this past weekend who said they’ve lived here for 20 or 30 years and no politician has ever come to my door,” Thomas said. “Everybody talked about feeling like nobody was listening, that no matter what voters were saying, no one was really listening.”