This is the first in a series of reports by CT Examiner on towns across Connecticut changing partisan complexion — some red to blue and others blue to red.
Madison, Connecticut was a Republican town. Two decades ago, there were nearly twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats, and while a plurality of voters were not affiliated with either party, the town consistently elected Republicans and had a classically conservative sensibility.
“The Democratic party wasn’t even formed in Madison until the early 1960s,” said Al Goldberg, a member of the Madison Board of Selectmen. “There was no opposition party. People ran as Democrats, but they were just people who couldn’t get on the Republican ticket. The only reason there were any Democrats in town government was state law requiring minority representation.”
Goldberg said that the first contested election in Madison won by an actual Democrat was in 2006, when Democrat Deb Heinrich beat ten-term incumbent Peter Metz to represent Madison in the state legislature. On the municipal side, Goldberg said the first Democratic leader of the town was probably himself – he was elected first selectman in 2007.
Now, Madison is represented by a Democratic state senator and state representative in the General Assembly, and is led by a Democratic first selectwoman who was reelected handily in November in a year when many Democrats underperformed in local races. The town now has 700 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
The death of the ‘Yankee Republican?’
State Sen. Christine Cohen, a Democrat whose district includes Madison, said she began to notice a shift in the “traditionally Republican town” when longtime Republican State Rep. Noreen Kokoruda lost to Democrat John-Michael Parker in 2018.
“It was certainly an upset for Republicans in Madison,” Cohen said. “I don’t think Madison is a Democratic stronghold by any means, but there have been clues for a few years now that something was changing, with shifting voter registration and starting to elect more Democratic leaders.”
Kokoruda represented Madison in the state legislature for a decade, and said she’s always thought of Madison as a moderate town with “Yankee Republican” values. Joan Walker, chair of the Madison Democratic Town Committee, said that when she thinks of the archetypal “old-school Madison Republican,” she thinks about the town’s former first selectman, Fillmore McPherson.
“He was very fiscally conservative, against raising taxes and wanting to save for everything rather than go into debt – bond was a four-letter word,” Walker said. “He cared a lot about local autonomy, and even if it was more cost effective to regionalize, he wanted the town to have control over things like our health department.”
That brand of Republican used to be far more prominent at a national level, and have far more influence over the Republican party writ large, said Madison First Selectwoman Peggy Lyons, a Democrat.
“That socially liberal, fiscally conservative Yankee Republican has been pretty much kicked out of the Republican party on a national scale,” Lyons said. “I think that’s started to transition down to Connecticut.”
A ‘difficult position’
Madison Republican Town Committee Chair Amy Stefanowski said local party registrations shifted quite a bit during and after the 2016 election. She said many residents told her that they were leaving the party as a result of Trump’s politics, while others said they were inspired to join because of him, or asked how to covertly support the party without their neighbors knowing that they supported Trump.
“My head was spinning both ways every day,” Stefanowski said. “It was definitely a net loss as far as registrations, but we had a lot of new people come in as well.”
Lyons said that the Madison Republican party has tried remaining a big tent for Republicans of all stripes within town, but what she called the “silent complicity” with national Republican politics has driven some voters away from the local party.
Walker said she felt the tipping point for the local party’s attempts to encompass every type of Republican came after the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, when the Madison Republican Town Committee put out a statement that Walker saw as insufficiently specific in its condemnation of violence and riots writ large.
“When something big happens at the national level, the local party is expected to speak on it, but they don’t want to alienate anyone,” Walker said, observing that the local party had repeatedly been put in a “difficult position” by national events like the “lie that Biden didn’t win the election” or the “insurrection and attack on democracy.”
The ‘Trump effect’
Democratic Selectman Scott Murphy said he has definitely noticed a “Trump effect” in Madison, with neighbors and friends telling him that a lack of civility from conservatives at the national level had turned them off to local Republicans.
Murphy said he felt that the negativity had seeped into Madison politics, noting that in the most recent first selectman race, campaign tactics by the Republicans were “pretty similar to what happened back in 2016.”
“Every single mailer from the Republicans was attacking Peggy’s credibility or character, rather than saying what their vision was for the town,” Murphy said. “Scare tactics and negativity don’t resonate with voters in Madison, and they came out to the polls against it.”
Parker, who has served one term as a state representative since unseating Kokoruda, said he felt Trump’s brand of politics was particularly unsuccessful in communities like Madison.
“Donald Trump’s style of politics is not as popular in suburban towns, and it did some damage to folks in his party,” Parker said. “We saw that style of politics in the mailers saying that Madison can’t trust Peggy Lyons, and that overall negative style of politics based on attacking and divisiveness doesn’t work here, especially when it’s not rooted in truth.”
Walker echoed Parker’s assessment of the race, citing campaign messages that claimed Lyons “didn’t work and was never in the office.”
“Negative campaigns work in a lot of places, but they’ve never really worked in Madison,” Walker said.
Stefanowski said that the election results were at least partially about a failure of campaign messaging.
“Our first selectwoman was carried in on that blue wave, and I think we probably didn’t execute a compelling enough reason that she needed to be removed,” Stefanowski said. “People feel that she did a good job with COVID, and we obviously didn’t do enough to point out the things we thought needed changing. That’s on us.”
‘That politician is never going to know about your protest vote’
Still, some Madison Republicans felt recent election losses were less about local campaign tactics and more about the national mood. Kokoruda has run for office 15 times, and has lost just twice – in 2006 and 2020.
“Some people vote on local issues, but I’ve always felt that a certain number of votes just go the way of the feelings about what’s happening in D.C.,” Kokoruda said. “In 2006, people said, ‘I can’t vote for you because I’m mad about the war.’ In 2020, it was, ‘I can’t support a Republican because I’m mad about Trump.’”
Bruce Wilson, the most recent Republican nominee for first selectman, said he had very similar conversations with voters, many of whom had more questions about his thoughts on President Trump than his plans for Madison.
“There’s a sense of national identity and local identity at play, and I think that local identity is what we’re seeing change,” Wilson said. “What’s unclear is whether this represents a real shift in the way people are looking at local issues, or if they’re just expressing frustration at national politics through local elections. I hate it when someone says, ‘I hate that politician in Washington, so I’m voting this way locally.’ That politician is never going to know about your protest vote.”
Kokoruda said that small towns have “not been immune” to the general sense of divisiveness and tribalism at the national level. She said voting along party lines has become far more common, even if party affiliation is not as significant in municipal races.
“The biggest change has been people caring more about the letter at the end of your name than the person,” Kokoruda said.
Not everyone is frustrated by this phenomenon. Murphy said that the same issues galvanizing voters at the national level matter at the local level, too, and that increased engagement in municipal politics is “always a good thing.”
“Regardless of how you feel about politics right now, it has made people pay more attention to local government,” Murphy said. “There’s not always a clear correlation between national issues and local ones, but if you think about healthcare, taxes, coastal resiliency…those issues have all played out at the town level as well as the national level, and they really resonate with people.”
A changing population
A different explanation for the changing political demographics could just be the demographics themselves, with new Democrats moving into Madison.
As of the 2020 census, Madison has a population of 17,691, a three percent decline in population from 2010. However, between 2019 and 2020, Madison saw a major increase in the number of people moving to town.
According to data from the United States Postal Service, 2019 saw a one percent net gain in movers to Madison, whereas in 2020, the net gain was six percent. Longtime Madison residents said that anecdotally, they’ve noticed many newcomers in town since the rise of COVID-19.
Cohen said that along with a growing hub of bioscience companies along the shoreline drawing new people to town, the quality of life in Madison has made it a tempting place to move in the pandemic.
“Before, people might have been more inclined to be in Fairfield County or nearer to some of the urban centers, but with more people working from home now, Madison has become a really desirable place to be,” Cohen said. “Madison has one of the highest-rated school systems in the state, excellent quality of life right on the shoreline, and the town is doing very well financially. If you can have all of that at your doorstep, why not?”
First Selectwoman Lyons said that many of the new residents moved to Madison from Boston and New York City, and brought with them higher expectations for municipal government, making the local Democratic party more appealing.
“They’re looking for a more involved and activist town government that will provide more services,” Lyons said. “When you live in the areas around bigger cities, you have certain lifestyle expectations, and are looking for more restaurants, cultural activities, and biking trails, and assume a quality of facilities in schools or public beaches.”
Wilson cautioned against the narrative of an “inflow of people from New York bringing liberal sensibilities,” but said that changes in Madison employers could play a role in a new, more Democratic-leaning population.
“Twenty or twenty-five years ago, the top employers were in pharmaceutical manufacturing, and we had a lot of professionals in town working for Pfizer, Bayer, and Bristol Myers Squibb,” Wilson said. “Those companies have moved away, and now, the largest employer in the area has to be Yale. Turnover from people at high levels in private industry to people working in academia could play a role.”
‘It’s just about the candidates’
Few people in Madison thought that any explanation could single-handedly explain the recent success of the Democrats. In the 2020 race that unseat Kokoruda, for example, party leaders thought that State Rep. Parker may have just been a particularly compelling candidate.
“He did a good job being out there everywhere, talking to everyone and working hard,” Stefanowski said. “He was a really appealing candidate, and he’s a good guy. Politics aside, I like him.”
Parker said he felt that his intensive campaigning – he knocked on 5,000 doors in 2018, when he lost by just 18 votes, and then made 7,500 phone calls in his 2020 race – was the main explanation for his success.
“At the local level, it really feels like it’s just about the candidates, rather than partisan affiliation,” Parker said. “People knew me, and I made people feel like I would be responsive and take time to listen to their needs and advocate for them and their values and hopes for our community.”
Stefanowski also attributed Democratic success in 2020 and 2021 races to some of the COVID-19-related changes in Connecticut elections administration, particularly no-excuse absentee ballots.
“Bruce Wilson won at the polls, but not by enough to cover the absentee ballot initiative put into place by Democrats here in town,” Stefanowski said.
Kokoruda also said her party needs to find ways to close the absentee ballot gap.
“Republicans need to find ways to emulate whatever Democrats are doing to get such an incredible number of absentee ballots,” Kokoruda said. “It’s an incredible absentee ballot program that has unheard-of margins for the Democrats.”