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August 17, 2021

Is Greenwich still a GOP town? Today’s special election for a state Senate seat adds to the debate

Mark Pazniokas | CT Mirror Alexis Gevanter door knocking in Old Greenwich.

Whatever the result, today’s special election in the 36th Senate District will provide grist for the continuing debate over the political identity of this affluent corner of Connecticut, a region of outsized political and economic influence.

Greenwich is a brand synonymous with wealth and power, a community of 63,518 that trails only London, New York City and Chicago in hedge fund jobs, and where million-dollar homes are sold as tear-downs.

But its status as a bedrock Republican town — where Prescott Bush Sr. once embodied Grand Old Party values as a U.S. Senator and raised a future president, George Herbert Walker Bush — reached a tipping point this year.

Democratic voters now outnumber Republicans, 12,435 to 11,973. There are 15,917 unaffiliated voters, meaning that the GOP ranks third in Greenwich — a stunning fall that accelerated with the nomination of Donald J. Trump in 2016.

On the ballot today are three candidates vying to succeed Alex Kasser, a wealthy Democrat who spent freely in 2018 to capitalize on the animus towards Trump, unseat Republican Scott Frantz and put a Greenwich Democrat in the state Senate for the first time since the Great Depression.

Kasser was re-elected in 2020, beating Republican Ryan Fazio by 2 percentage points. She resigned abruptly in the midst of an ugly divorce. Today, Fazio faces Democrat Alexis Gevanter and a potential spoiler, John Blankley, a Democrat running as a petitioning candidate.

The 36th Senate District covers all of Greenwich and slices of Stamford and New Canaan to the north and east. All three candidates are from Greenwich.

But members of both parties are reluctant to handicap a mid-August special election in what only recently became a swing district, as did the neighboring 26th District, which covers the other half of New Canaan and six other Fairfield County communities.

“It all comes down to Greenwich, because Stamford’s going to go for [Gevanter], and New Canaan certainly is going to go for Fazio, is my bet,” said Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, who flipped the 26th District the same year as Kasser’s upset of Frantz in Greenwich.

Frantz, who supported Fazio in 2020 and is backing him again this year, cautioned against anyone trying to reach a conclusion about the district’s political leanings based on the special election.

“I think any conclusions that we make Wednesday morning will be inconclusive, because it is a special election, and turnout is ridiculously low,” Frantz said. “Next year’s election will be much more revealing in terms of what actually has happened.”

The struggles of a late-summer campaign were evident on recent rounds of door-knocking. In New Canaan, Fazio found himself trying to persuade an absent voter through a video and audio security system activated by him ringing the doorbell. Gevanter had slightly better luck trying to engage a Democrat leaving his house in Old Greenwich, dressed for the beach.

“You the Democrat?” he asked. When she nodded, he promised, “You have my vote. You have the vote of everybody in this house.”

At least with the voters at home, both candidates found voters aware of the special election and decided on their vote. At Republican doors, two voters assured Fazio they already had absentee ballots ready to cast on his behalf. Fazio, who prefers in-person voting, said promoting the use of absentee ballots was a challenge after 2020.

Trump had equated absentee ballots with fraud.

“It became political, to put it lightly — might have become a little religious last year,” Fazio said.

Fazio faces the challenge of tacking to the center while not antagonizing Trump voters. Hillary Clinton carried Greenwich in the 2016 general election, but Trump won the primary here — inviting an examination in the New Yorker by Evan Osnos, a writer who grew up in Greenwich, about the degree to which financial elites in the GOP really were turned off by Trump.

Clearly, some Republicans were.

Twenty years ago, when George W. Bush became president, the GOP dominated the voter rolls here: There were 15,107 Republicans, 6,884 Democrats and 12,434 unaffiliated.

In 2015, when Trump launched his campaign, the split was still favorable: 11,719 Republicans, 7,434 Democrats and 10,964f unaffiliated. But the differences shrank throughout the Trump administration.

On the eve of the election in 2020, the Republican advantage had shrunk to fewer than 300 voters in Greenwich. District-wide, the Democrats now hold an edge.

“The last presidential election was very kind of polarizing, and I think that caused many people to either change parties or go independent,” Frantz said. Another factor, he said, is an influx of New Yorkers during the COVID pandemic, few of whom registered Republican.

Democrats say Trump moved the party right, too far right for some Gold Coast Republicans.

“The voters have stayed the same. They still care about lower taxes, they still care about growing jobs,” Gevanter said. “Issues with the economy are still of the utmost importance to the district.”

The race is inconsequential by one metric: A Republican pickup might be a symbolic boost for a party that badly needs one, but Democrats either will resume the 24-12 advantage in the state Senate won last fall or remain in power with a considerable 23-13 majority.

The off-cycle, mid-summer race has been nationalized to a degree, with Democrats pegging Fazio as a Trump acolyte and Republicans suggesting that Gevanter, a business lawyer married to a Greenwich investor, is the second coming of Nancy Pelosi.

Fazio is a former commodities trader who works for a small venture-capital firm.

Gevanter, 39, who interrupted a legal career after the birth of the first of her two sons four years ago, joined the gun-control group “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America” after the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. She was the state chapter leader until beginning her campaign.

Fazio framed his campaign as a plea to keep the Democrats from holding a super-majority. His pitch resonated in New Canaan with Mike Allocca, a retired manufacturing executive.

“I think what we need is more balance in the country, and certainly in the state,” Allocca said.

Gevanter counters by arguing the district can best be served with a moderate voice inside a Democratic caucus led by a liberal, Sen. Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.

An arm of the Democratic National Party, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, has highlighted the race, though the influence of outside groups is limited by Gevanter and Fazio both accepting the spending limits that come with public financing.

Both major party candidates can spend about $94,000 — about $16,000 in qualifying contributions and public grants of nearly $78,000. Blankley reported having $26,000 to spend, much of it his own money.

But surrogates have flocked to the race, knowing that it never is bad politics to be seen and heard by voters who might turn out to be donors in coming races. Greenwich is home to the two Democrats expected to lead the ticket next year: Gov. Ned Lamont and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Being on the ballot for the second time in nine months is an advantage for Fazio, a 31-year-old conservative who has written for The Federalist and has turned over management of his campaign to Patrick Sasser, a pugnacious Stamford firefighter who led a successful grassroots campaign against Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal for highway tolls.

Lamont rebounded from that failure in 2019, winning bipartisan support in most polling for his management of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Lamont blocked efforts by progressives to raise taxes on the rich, insisting no broad-based tax increase was necessary. Gevanter has been happy to accept Lamont’s endorsement and campaign with him.

“I’m the partner he needs,” Gevanter said. “He said it again and again.”

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