The unpopularity of President Donald J. Trump in Connecticut helped Democrats increase their sizable majorities in the General Assembly on Tuesday as close to 80% of the state’s 2.3 million voters cast ballots at the polls or by absentee.
With a record number of votes cast by absentee due to the COVID-19 pandemic, legislative leaders braced for a long night awaiting returns, but the results available by midnight showed Democrats picking up House seats in the Farmington Valley, Fairfield and Waterbury, while losing a couple in eastern Connecticut.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Democrats made a net gain of at least seven seats, and he informed his caucus by email early Wednesday that they will convene in January with a majority of 98-53 — and possibly 100-51, if two close challenges of Republicans fall their way.
Democrats currently hold majorities of 91-60 in the House and 22-14 in the Senate.
“It could be 100 or it could be 95,” Ritter said Tuesday night of the House margin before settling on either 98, 99 or 100 early Wednesday. Whatever the final tally, Ritter will succeed Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, as speaker of the House in January.
Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who will become the House minority leader, said he expected a net loss of about five seats. Most of the losses were in affluent areas, once reliably Republican, that have been trending Democratic.
“They continue to gain the affluent districts and Republicans continue to hold and pick up the more blue-collar, working-class communities,” Candelora said.
In the Senate, a net gain of at least one seat for Democrats seemed likely. Democrats claimed to flip two Republican seats, defeating Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, in the 17th and Sen. Gennaro Bizzarro, R-New Britain, in the 6th District. Republicans were hoping to offset those losses by recapturing a seat in Greenwich.
But Democrats said Alex Kasser of Greenwich appeared to be holding on against Republican Ryan Faznio. Republican leaders could not be reached. If she holds her seat, the Democratic majority in the Senate would increase to 24-12 in January.
In the House, the parties traded two prominent seats: the ones held by Aresimowicz and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. Neither leader sought re-election, and both flipped. Democrats had long conceded Republicans would win the seat in Berlin, while the Klarides seat was seen as more competitive.
Democrat Mary Welander of Orange, the winner of Klarides’ seat, was running for the second time.
At least three Democratic women who became activists after Trump’s election in 2016 and candidates in 2018 won GOP House seats this year. They are Eleni Kavros DeGraw of Avon, Aimee Berger-Girvalo of Ridgefield and Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk.
Kavros DeGraw unseated Rep. Leslee Hill, R-Canton, in a rematch of their close 2018 contest in the 17th House District of Avon and Canton, one anticipated by Democrats who saw voter registration tilt their way during Trump’s four years in office.
Unclear was whether the same trends would topple Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton. His 11-town 8th Senate District includes Avon, Canton and Simsbury, all communities that rejected the president and increased their Democratic rolls.
With most precincts reporting, Democrat Melissa Osborne of Avon trailed Witkos, who had 51% of the vote. But Osborne said she believed there were hundreds of absentee ballots to be counted, and she did not expect to know who won until Wednesday. Witkos could not be reached.
In Ridgefield, Democrat Aimee Berger-Girvalo won an open seat she nearly captured in 2018 against Rep. John H. Frey, who did not run again. Thomas, who fell short against Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, in 2018, won the open seat this year.
Democrat Jennifer Leeper unseated Rep. Brian Farnen, R-Fairfield, in the 132nd House District, where Trump lost by 18 points in 2016, Democrats said. She narrowly lost to him in a special election last year.
In Waterbury, Democrat Michael DiGiovancarlo unseated Rep. Stephanie Cummings, R-Waterbury, in the 74th House District. Cummings was elected in 2016, when the GOP made stunning gains in the legislature despite Trump’s loss.
Democrats said they believed John-Michael Parker had unseated Rep. Noreen Kokoruda, R-Madison, in a rematch afte losing in a recount two years ago. Republicans called the race too close to call. The identity of the winner appeared to rest in uncounted absentee ballots.
In addition to picking up Aresimowicz’s open seat, Republicans unseated two freshman Democrats in eastern Connecticut: Rep. Pat Wilson-Pheanious of Ashford and Kate Rotella of Stonington.
Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, a prominent conservative who sued the administration over COVID restrictions, lost to Democrat Jim Jinks, Ritter said.
Candelora said Democrats also won the open race for the 57th House District of East Windsor and Ellington, an opportunity once Rep. Chris Davis, R-Ellington, declined to run again. Democrats said numbers obtained at the polls showed Jaime Foster, a Democrat cross-endorsed by the Working Families and Independent parties, beating Republican David Stavens.
The Connecticut vote Tuesday for Joe Biden over Trump never was in doubt: The Associated Press called the state for Biden shortly after the polls closed. Less clear was how anti-Trump voters would treat down-ballot races — ignore them, vote Democratic, or split their vote.
Democrat Rick Lopes of New Britain defeated Bizzarro, who won a special election over Lopes in 2019. But a rematch in a presidential year favored the Democrat in the 6th Senate District of New Britain, Berlin and Farmington. Trump lost the district by 23 points in 2016.
Logan was one of the Democrats’ top targets. He faced a rematch from Jorge Cabrera of Hamden, whom he beat two years ago by 85 votes in a recount.
Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, who spent the day greeting voters at the polls throughout the 14-hour voting day, as he does every election whether on the ballot or not, said he never had seen such an enthusiastic reaction from voters.
He arrived to find a long line of voters waiting at Manchester High School for the doors to open at 6 a.m. More than 2,000 voters had passed through by 4 p.m.
“This definitely feels like the highest turnout and the best response for Democrats that I’ve seen,” Luxenberg said. “So, I’m expecting some good results tonight.”
One of the reasons for his optimism was Nancy Fuggetta, 73, one of the voters who assured him of their vote — and their desire to cast a vote against the president in person.
“I didn’t want to mail it in. This was such an important election, I wanted to come right in and do it myself. I didn’t want to take any chance,” Fuggetta said, standing near the entrance. Her father, a Pearl Harbor survivor, voted by absentee in North Carolina. He’s 101.
Fuggett shot a dark look down the sidewalk at Tina Listro, who held a sign promoting local Republicans and “Women for Trump.” Fuggetta shook her head.
“Trump calls women dogs,” Fuggetta said, her voice low. “I didn’t want to start anything.”
Listro said the voters were cordial to her.
In Fairfield, where Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, was leading even as a local House member was losing, a young Republican voter called the suburb purple. Jackson Shostak, 19, who stood at the polls in support of local Republicans, said Trump signs would be hard to find in town.
“It would be a little bit more divisive, and it could hinder support for the candidates,” he said.
Shostak, a student at American University, said politics should be seen through a local lens — and hoped that some anti-Trump voters felt the same way. The best hope for his candidates was that “people will vote and think locally about the problems Connecticut is encountering.”
Kelan Lyons contributed to this story.