On June 11, 2013, voters in Connecticut’s 53rd State Assembly District went to the polls in a special election to replace the previous incumbent, Bryan Hurlburt (D-Tolland), who had resigned to take a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 53rd District contains most of Tolland (15K) and all of Willington (6K) and Ashford (4.3K). In 2012, Obama received 51% of the vote in Tolland, 54% in Willington, and 61% in Ashford, so he won 53.5% of the vote in the district as a whole. The candidates in the special election were Republican Sam Belsito, a member of the Tolland Town Council since 2011, and Democrat Tony Horn, a member of the Ashford Board of Finance. This district had been held by Democrats for a long time, and many people expected the election to be quite close.
However, on election day, Belsito received 58.5 percent of the vote, and Horn received only 41.5 percent. Why did this happen? Why was the Republican able to win in a district that had been held by Democrats for a long time, and that Obama had gotten 54 percent of the vote in? Well, if you look deeper into the election, then the results are less surprising than they may seem at first glance. Follow me below the fold to see why.
First, the raw election results:
Belsito Horn Total Belsito % Horn %
Tolland 1,024 794 1,818 56.3 43.7
Willington 549 181 730 75.2 24.8
Ashford 337 381 718 46.9 53.1
Total 1,910 1,356 3,266 58.5 41.5
The first thing that jumps out at you when you look at these results is the fact that turnout was very low. In 2012, more than 13,000 votes were cast in these three towns, meaning that turnout in the special election was only about 25 percent of the 2012 turnout. This clearly means that the door-knocking efforts of both candidates were vital to their efforts. It also means, of course, that a lot of people who regularly vote in Presidential elections and even midterm elections did not vote in this special election. This bodes well for our ability to take the seat back.
Now, you may be wondering why there are such big differences in vote share between the towns. Here is where it helps to remember that Belsito is from Tolland and Horn is from Ashford. An important fact about Connecticut is that many towns are very parochial, and candidates of both parties frequently outperform their town’s normal partisan baseline significantly. For example, former State Rep. Corky Mazurek (D) used to consistently win his hometown of Wolcott, despite the fact that Wolcott voted 61% for Romney in 2012. Similarly, State Rep. Christine Carpino (R) won her hometown of Cromwell with over 60% of the vote in both 2010 and 2012, despite the fact that Cromwell voted 59% for Obama in 2008 and 55% for him in 2012. Residents of Connecticut really like to vote for people who live in their town, and sometimes that trumps ideology or partisan affiliation. Thus, it was no surprise to me that Belsito won Tolland and Horn won Ashford.
What was a surprise was Belsito’s margin in Willington. I do not know for sure the reason why Belsito did so well there, however my best guess is that Horn’s campaign probably ignored Willington in favor of Tolland. One piece of evidence I have for this is the fact that Willington’s turnout was the lowest of the three towns. This leads me to believe that the Horn campaign didn’t contact many of the Democrats in Willington, and thus those Democrats did not vote. However, even if Horn had tied in Willington, he would still have lost the election due to Belsito’s margin in Tolland, which brings me to the biggest reason why Belsito won.
Belsito won because he is from Tolland and Horn is not. Tolland contains 60% of the population of the district, and the district has almost always been represented by someone from Tolland. People in Tolland are used to their town having a representative in Hartford, and as I said earlier, many people in Connecticut are very parochial. In addition, Belsito was a member of the Town Council, and so many people knew about him. Horn was virtually unknown in Tolland (and Willington, it seems, as well). This is a huge disadvantage when you are only known by 15 percent of the people in the district you hope to represent.
Thus, local Democrats made a huge mistake in nominating someone who was not from Tolland. What makes this mistake even more perplexing is that there are many strong Democrats in Tolland who could have ran for, and possibly won, the seat. Any of the three Democratic members of the Tolland Town Council would have been good candidates. However, the major reason (not the only reason, but the biggest one) why the Democrats lost the seat is because our candidate was not from Tolland. So, with all due respect to the good people of Ashford, if you want a Democrat to represent you in Hartford, then let someone from Tolland run.
There are other reasons why Belsito won as well. Someone mentioned in the DKE Liveblog Tuesday night how candidates who are listed first on the ballot have an advantage; well, Belsito was listed first on the ballot. In addition, Horn could have actually put some effort into Willington the way Belsito did, which would have turned the substantial loss he actually suffered into a respectably narrow loss. However, I firmly believe that the Democrats could have won this race if we had nominated a candidate from Tolland. As I have stated in the past, Belsito is strongly conservative and substantially to the right of the district, and many Tolland residents are not particularly happy with him, however they voted for him anyway because he is from Tolland and either they hadn’t heard of his opponent or they knew he wasn’t from Tolland.
I believe that we can take this seat back in 2014, however if we want to defeat Belsito in 2014 then we must:
1. Relentlessly criticize him and point out his extreme conservatism and his do-nothing tendencies.
2. Nominate someone from Tolland, preferably a Town Council member.
3. Campaign strongly in all three towns
I think that if we do these things, then we have better-than-even chances of defeating Belsito in 2014. Defeating an incumbent in Connecticut is never easy (as Connecticut generally likes its incumbents more than in most states), but I think it is possible and doable. We just need to make sure we don’t blow it like we did this time.