WASHINGTON ― While President Donald Trump was delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, Democrats got the highest vote percentage they have ever received in the most Republican state Senate district in Connecticut. Democrat Greg Cava lost the election, but it was another small sign of improving electoral conditions for Democrats.
Republican Eric Berthel defeated Cava in the special election to fill Connecticut’s vacant 32nd state Senate district by a 54-44 margin, according to the official results. That doesn’t sound so great, until you look at the district’s past elections. Not only have Republicans held the seat for a century, but Cava received the highest percentage of any Democrat in recent memory.
“Early returns show that the Democrat just barely lost SD32, literally the most Republican Senate district in the state,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee communications director Carolyn Fiddler said in an email. “If true, the extreme level of Democratic over-performance in a district Republicans won 2-1 just last fall should terrify the GOP. This kind of Democratic strength will be the death of Republicans this cycle in GOP-held seats that are even remotely competitive.”
“We had a very good candidate who worked hard,” said Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D). “We also had an energized base to get out the vote.”
Ever since Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March the day after, Democrats have been inundated with a new wave of activism, from the national level to the hyperlocal.
Activists have flocked to their local Democratic Party headquarters to an extent not previously seen. Many are looking to volunteer, protest or run for office for the first time. Mark Fraley, chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Party in Indiana, previously told The Huffington Post, “I’m as busy this year as I was at any time last year in the heat of a huge election.”
Turnout was much higher than anticipated for Connecticut’s special election. In three towns, Washington, Roxbury and Southbury, the polling locations ran out of ballots and had to tabulate votes by hand.
Both candidates received small injections of outside money. Berthel was boosted by the National Rifle Association and Grow Connecticut, a Republican Party super PAC. Cava was supported by $50,000 from Wolf PAC, a super PAC aimed at enacting campaign finance reform that was founded by Cenk Uygur, host of the progressive online news show “The Young Turks.”
Democratic candidates across the country have overperformed in three special elections since the Women’s March.
In addition to the loss in Connecticut, the Democratic candidate in a Republican state House district in Minnesota recently lost by fewer than 500 votes. And on Saturday, Democrat Stephanie Hansen won a resounding 18 percent victory in a swing state Senate seat in Delaware.
Hansen’s win was aided by hundreds of volunteers inspired by the Women’s March and organized by the DLCC, local Democratic Party groups and new activist groups that have popped up in the past month.
Connecticut Democrats also won two easy victories in safe districts in special elections on Tuesday.
Duff tied the party’s good performance in Connecticut to the national mood: “If I was a Republican right now I would be shaking in my boots, because this is not good news for their brand and reputation.”
The next big test for the Democratic activism boom will be the April 18 special election in Georgia to fill the House seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a Republican.
While Price won re-election easily in 2016, the district shifted heavily toward the Democratic column at the presidential level. Trump won the district by just 1 percent over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That was a major shift from 2012, when Republican Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama by 24 percent.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Berthel’s last name.