Understanding the 1990 Connecticut Gubernatorial Election
first in a seriesBackground
1990 marked the end of an era in Connecticut politics in many ways. Governor William O'Neill announced that he would not seek a third term in office, ending Democrats' control of the governor's mansion that began sixteen years earlier with the election of Ella T. Grasso. Commonly remembered as a "popular" governor, O'Neill benefited by the late eighties from an improving job market and popular reception of his extensive infrastructure renovation projects. O'Neill's collaboration with a friendly legislature, which was recaptured by the Democrats in 1986 and has not shifted to Republican control to this day, meant a more active and expansive government and a slow worsening of the state's finances. Moreover, change was in the air - 1989 municipal elections saw dozens of incumbent mayors and selectmen thrown out, regardless of their party. The coalition of middle-class voters from small towns, ethnic and racial minorities and highly educated liberals that Democrats had built into a thirty-year rule of the state looked to be cracking at the seams.The Candidates and the Campaign
Lowell Weicker, the liberal Republican and former US Senator who lost his seat to Joseph Lieberman in 1988, announced the formation of a new party (named "A Connecticut Party" so as to appear at the top of the alphabetically-listed ballot) with an inchoate political organization intended solely to elect Weicker as Governor. The Republicans and Democrats were thus faced with an immense political challenge - nominating candidates to defeat a popular, fluidly partisan Connecticut political veteran possessing the ability to draw votes from both sides of the aisle. The late timing of Weicker's announcement (late July) meant that Connecticut's heavy-hitting Democrats had no time to form coherent campaigns and thus stayed out of the race, leaving Democrats to choose Congressman Bruce Morrison to run in November. Morrison suffered from poor name recognition outside his home of New Haven as well as a loss of Democratic voters' support to Weicker. Late in the campaign, Democratic politicos looked at polls showing Morrison at 10%, thirty points behind Weicker, and braced for the worst.
Republican nominee John Rowland emerged by October as the viable challenger to Weicker, profiting mainly from Republicans' discontent with Weicker's liberal tendencies (in the Senate, he was by far the most liberal Republican and, by some measures, more liberal even than Democrat Chris Dodd) and hoping that Connecticut's large Democratic electorate would split their votes between Morrison and Weicker. Discontent with Weicker's tacit support of the broad-based income tax proved to be Rowland's campaign centerpiece. His stand against the tax appealed to the wealthy suburban class of Fairfield County, negating any personal vote Weicker may have had there. When it appeared that Rowland was gaining on Weicker in the final days of the campaign, the Republicans opened up their final broadside, accusing the former Senator of insider trading. However, going into election day, every poll showed Weicker with a considerable lead.The Results
Weicker won a plurality of the vote, 40%. Rowland managed a surprisingly strong 37%, and the Democrats narrowly avoided disaster when Morrison won just over 20%. (Had he failed to, the Democratic Party would have lost official party status and would have been forced to petition its way onto every ballot until at least 1994.) Morrison won just three towns, all with the word "Haven" in their names. His strong personal vote in the New Haven area fell off dramatically elsewhere in the state, and his winning of a mere 38% in Hartford still rates as the worst performance for a Democrat in the Capitol City for more than a century. All the Democratic strongholds - Bloomfield, New London, Mansfield, New Britain - swung to Weicker's column.
Weicker's triumph could be attributed to a strong choice of running mate - lawyer Eunice Groark of Hartford - who bore the name of one of Hartford's founding families. The margins that Groark boosted in the Hartford area could certainly be said to have put Weicker over the top. Weicker won the traditionally Republican towns that were not as wealthy as some of the GOP's gold-plated Fairfield County redoubts and supposedly had less to lose from the implementation of an income tax. Towns like Woodstock, Eastford, Somers and Hartland all had large Republican votes for Weicker. Republican loyalty to Rowland, conversely, came in the wealthiest towns of the Gold Coast as well as culturally conservative and heavily Catholic locales in the Naugatuck Valley repelled by Weicker's liberal politics. The once solidly Republican Farmington Valley, additionally, began to turn away from GOP control. The process of the maturation of its suburbs from the denizens of the wealthy living in quaint pastoral surroundings into throroughly middle-class commuter towns home increasingly to low-level service and governmental employees, as prefigured by "streetcar suburb" West Hartford, began to transform the towns into moderately liberal, cultural satellites of Hartford.A New Regional Divide
1990 marked a critical moment in Connecticut political geography. Before, Connecticut's eastern counties (Tolland, Windham, New London) had voted much like the rest of the state - Democratic in mill towns, cities, and manufacturing centers, and Republican in pastoral communities - but Weicker's ACP swept to solid victories east of the Connecticut River. Much of the rejection of the two major parties could be attributed to neglect, as Republicans focused on consolidating their support in the decaying Naugatuck Valley and the Gold Coast and Democrats tried to maximize turnout among rapidly growing minority populations in urban centers.
Furthermore, the parties' leaders simply weren't from that part of the state. Morrison was from New Haven and his running mate was an unknown municipal leader in East Windsor. Rowland resided in Waterbury, his running mate in Stratford, and future Governor Jodi Rell was a state representative from Brookfield at the time. Though Weicker lived in Greenwich, eastern Connecticut supported a candidate who infuriated Gold Coast Republicans and frightened Hartford/New Haven Democrats so as to upset the traditional geographic balance of power. Mansfield, home of UConn's Storrs campus, led the way, supporting Weicker with a massive 65% of the vote and signifying also that the former Senator had won over the intellectual community and the partisan-unattached youth vote.The Abortion Question
Morrison and Weicker favored abortion rights. Rowland originally favored greater restrictions on abortion, only to reverse his position in mid-campaign in order to take advantage of Connecticut's very liberal social climate. Out of discontent with a field of three abortion-rights supporters, Joseph Zdonczyk of the Concerned Citizens Party (now an affiliate of the Constitution Party) entered the race, campaigning solely on a platform of making abortion illegal. His numerous campaigns for state offices largely failed to draw attention to his pet cause, however, and his movement was absorbed by the ascendence of social conservatives within the Republican Party. In 1990, however, Zdonczyk's best performances came in his hometown of Wolcott (2.8%) and the city of Waterbury (3.1%), home to a large Catholic population.Onward to 1994
Having won major party status and ballot access for every race, A Connecticut Party would be faced with the challenge of establishing and maintaining a statewide political organization, complete with the leadership of someone not named Weicker, through to the 1994 elections and beyond the governorship of their Governor. Conservatives, frustrated at their division and conquest in 1990, looked to exploit Weicker's deployment of the income tax and expand from the hermetic confines of their Fairfield County-New Haven County political power base. And Democrats, licking their wounds after their 1990 humiliation, hoped that the massive personality draw of Weicker would fade or disappear by 1994, leading the way for some new Democratic names, like Bill Curry or Barbara Kennelly or Jonathan Pelto, to make their marks and return the once-proud Democrats to political power.Conclusion
It would be too facile of a conclusion to say that this election marked the "short-lived Weicker era" of Connecticut political history. While the candidacy of Lowell Weicker was the first notable third-party campaign in modern Connecticut politics, it did not create an "A Connecticut Party" of any permanence or meaning. The party was not ideologically revolutionary, it did not usher in a new ruling class of novices or outsiders, and it proved to be a force unable to sustain itself beyond the leadership of its founder. What it did, however, was to make abundantly clear the shifting political allegiances of an electorate, divided by education, occupation and geography, willing to reconsider the sensibility of "lining up and casting one's vote time after time for one's father's party, one's grandfather's party".