New Haven’s Republicans wagered this election year on individual candidates, hoping street-level campaigns about quality-of-life issues could offset bright-blue New Haven’s disgust with the national brand of far-right politics embodied by President Trump.
“The difference this time is we’re campaigning. It’s not we don’t have support and interest,” said Jonathan Wharton, the chairman who has tried to rebuild the party in his three years on the job. “We got a platform, a website, social media, and money. We check all those boxes.”
On Tuesday night, they lost the bet. The Grand Old Party got trounced, losing by as much as 5-to-1 in one citywide race. Its best showing was a 2-to-1 loss. Running as fiscal conservatives in just three races in the city — not torch-bearing white nationalists or Bible-thumping culture warriors — the party still couldn’t gain a foothold, failing to shake Democrats’ 64-year hold on City Hall, dating back to Harry Truman’s presidency.
At a post-election gathering the party’s unofficial headquarters of City Point Kitchen, Wharton, a political science professor at Southern Connecticut State University, sought to strike an upbeat tone. He was joined by 20 party supporters, including a crew from Southern, who chomped on burgers and downed beers.
Wharton trawled Twitter looking for vote totals, occasionally exclaiming, “Oh god.”
When he announced that it was official — Toni Harp had won a third term as mayor — the Republicans in the room groaned.
“Let’s move!” someone yelled from the bar.
Republicans didn’t run for mayor. They did field one citywide candidate, for probate judge, a position opened up for the first time in 32 years by the retirement of Jack Keyes. Democrat Clifton Graves Jr. won 84 percent of the vote, with a total of 8,253 votes, while Republican Melissa Papantones, an respected and known figure around town, claimed just 16 percent, with 1,648 votes.
The two GOP alder candidates, who campaigned energetically, also lost by large margins. (New Haven has 30 alders.) Incumbent Democrat Dolores Colon beat Republican John Carlson 223 to 98 on the machine vote (not including absentee ballots) in City Point’s Ward 6, and Democrat Sal DeCola bested Republican Joshua Van Hoesen 609 to 175 on the machines in Morris Cove’s Ward 18.
Papantones took the floor first at Tuesday night’s post-mortem. After reading out a concession email she’d sent to Graves, she said she was proud of the campaigns her fellow Republicans had run. “It was the right thing to do. We showed them that the Republican Party is alive and well in New Haven,” she said. “We worked hard and we’ll do better next time.” She won cheers.
Wharton thanked her for putting her name into a tough citywide race, and he pointed out how much progress the party had made. The party created a platform and raised money, he said, and the media and the state party both paid attention to their work.
“I don’t see this as a loss; I see this as potential for new ground,” he said. “We have to admit one thing: We attempted to do something in creating a platform and running candidates. I would hope that, in two years, we have more candidates to run, we get more voters, including these unaffiliated voters, because there are a lot of angry people out there who are just sick of it and want more variety. We’ve got to find a way to do more outreach outside the party, because you just can’t do it with 2,500 registered voters. I look to you all for that.
“Whatever I can do to continue to be your chairman, I appreciate it. We’ve got to get you guys elected.”
Carlson and Van Hoesen said they both plan to continue working on local issues over the next two years, proving to neighbors that they’ll be a force in the community regardless of the election results.
After the party members cleared out, Wharton walked out to the parking lot and parted with Carlson. The candidate joked that, after hearing two independent candidates had claimed seats on the previously all-Democratic Board of Alders, he might not show up at the next town committee meeting. “I’m an independent now!” he said, smiling. Wharton continued up to the yacht club, where he found out that two of his sailor buddies hadn’t voted. He ordered himself a cosmo at the bar.
“I don’t know what’s missing,” Wharton said, “except the numbers. I thought the turnout would be higher, that there’d be an attempt to go beyond one-party rule.”
The national environment didn’t help the local GOP’s efforts. In keeping with a national trend this year that swept Democrats into power in Virginia, New Jersey and Washington, the Elm City proved it is still dyed in the deepest shades of blue, confounding Republican leaders who are trying to reinvent the city’s dormant opposition party.
As the ice melted in his martini glass, Wharton contemplated what could he do differently two years from now. Find a mayoral candidate whose coattails might help alders down the ballot? Maybe pick off a figure with name recognition to become the opposition’s standard-bearer? Mayoral competitor Marcus Paca had, after all, been showing up at their events. Or take a more patient approach and slowly build a bench by appointing more board members and commissioners? Or they could just fundraise enough out-of-town money to cut the advantages?
As a first step, Wharton said, the party needs “a presence in town” and “more reaching out to independents.”
But he also needs to find out if his party os ready to put up another fight.
“It’s something we need to talk about. I want to hear from everybody else,” he said. “I can’t say I have the game plan or ideas.”
“A lot is up for debate,” he went on. “I just don’t know.”