Democrats sound alarm over loss in Connecticut suburbs

A Republican investment analyst who narrowly won a vacant state Senate district in the heart of Connecticut’s wealthy suburbs this week has some Democrats nervous about their party’s standing ahead of crucial off-year and midterm elections.

Ryan Fazio, 31, claimed 50.1 percent of the vote ahead of Democrat Alexis Gevanter, a gun safety advocate making her first run for public office in the Greenwich-based district. A former Democrat running as an independent claimed another 2.3 percentage points.

It is the first special election held since President BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE took office in which a Republican won a seat formerly held by a Democrat.

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Fazio presented himself as a typical Republican who opposed the tax hikes that are a constant presence in Connecticut politics. But Blake Reinken, Gevanter’s campaign manager, told The Hill on Friday that Fazio’s real edge came from an excited Republican base.

“Turnout was high, for a special, and turnout was much higher than we thought it was going to be. It was much higher than anyone thought it was going to be because their base turned out, and we had to push our base to turn out as well. But it was clear there was a lot more enthusiasm, not among the activists necessarily, but among the voters than there was on our side,” Reinken said.

Reinken said the race could be a harbinger for other contests — both this year, when Virginia voters head to the polls to elect a new governor and legislators, and in next year’s midterms. Republican activists loudly protested against mask mandates and critical race theory at several events Gevanter attended in the weeks before Election Day.

“I saw a preview of what may be coming in 2021 and 2022, and I just want to warn other Democrats just to not take anything for granted,” he said. “Now that Trump is gone for the most part, we have to fight double as hard to make sure that we protect our gains.”

Fazio will reclaim a seat that Republicans held from Franklin Roosevelt’s administration to the 2018 midterm elections, when opposition to then-President TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE drove a Democratic tide in suburban districts across the country. Trump lost the district to President Biden by more than 20 percentage points in 2020.

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“The fact that this seat that Biden won by about 20 points should be scaring people,” Reinken said. “It could be really scary this time.”

Voters in the area were no Trump fans to begin with — Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE won the district by 18 points in 2016, four years after Republican nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight MORE carried the district by 9 points over then-President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report Prosecutors face legal challenges over obstruction charge in Capitol riot cases Biden makes early gains eroding Trump's environmental legacy MORE.

“In a very educated place and a very socially liberal place,” Reinken said. “We connected [Fazio] to Trump and we connected them to these issues and they didn’t have to run from it as much as we’d think.”

Both Democrats and Republicans routinely downplay the importance of special elections, which are usually held away from regularly scheduled contests, feature low turnout and earn little attention from voters or the media. 

Christina Polizzi, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said they did not see the Connecticut loss as evidence of any wave building on behalf of the GOP.

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“Democrats have had a string of special election victories in highly competitive districts across the country. In several of those races, the Democratic candidates outperformed President Biden's margin of victory. So make no mistake, we are fully prepared to challenge Republicans head-on and will continue to do so,” Polizzi said in an email. “This Connecticut district was previously held by a Republican for nearly a century before it flipped blue in 2018 — and now it’s competitive. This is hardly a boon for Republican prospects in Connecticut or elsewhere.”

But some special elections in recent years have foretold of trouble ahead: Two special elections in May 1994, in which Republicans won ancestrally Democratic seats in Oklahoma and Kentucky, were a preview of the Republican wave that swept Democrats out of control for the first time in 40 years. Two special elections in May 2008 when Democrats won deep-red seats in Mississippi and Louisiana hinted at the blue wave that would accompany Obama into office.

Biden won office, and Democrats saved control of the House in 2020, on the strength of his performance in suburban areas not unlike Greenwich. The narrow Democratic majority in the House means the party can ill afford any slippage in those neighborhoods.

“We need to get our base fired up,” Reinken said. “We can’t be afraid to admit that we’re on defense, in some ways. If you don’t acknowledge the problem, it never gets addressed.”