People Like Us: A Blue Wave in Western Connecticut

On November 6, 2016, political newcomer Jahana Hayes approached a podium in the Waterbury Marriott in New Haven County, Connecticut. Hayes, a former National Teacher of the Year, announced that she had received a phone call from her opponent in the race to be the next representative for Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District. He had conceded, and now she was ready to declare victory. “Today,” she said, “this history teacher is making history.”

Prevailing over her opponent by a margin of 12 percentage points and over 31,000 votes, Hayes completed her meteoric rise to progressive stardom. In just six months of campaigning, the public school administrator, age 45, had become the first black Democrat and first black woman to represent the state of Connecticut in Congress. Along with Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, she will be one of the first black women to represent New England in the House of Representatives. Hayes’ historic victory was accompanied by a strong Democratic rebound down-ballot, shutting the door on Republican attempts to grab the levers of power in the state. In a Democratic Party grappling with questions of diversity, representation, and experience, Western Connecticut’s blue wave may illuminate a path forward.

Changing Territory

The seat Hayes now represents, Connecticut’s Fifth, was not even expected to be open at the beginning of the election cycle. But when three-term incumbent Elizabeth Esty announced her retirement after allegations surfaced that she had failed to protect staffers from sexual harassment, Hayes jumped headfirst into an accelerated campaign season, announcing her candidacy with just three months until Connecticut’s August 2018 primary.

The district is Connecticut’s most conservative. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton carried Connecticut’s Fifth by just four points while romping to a 14-point win statewide. The seat, occupying much of the state’s northwest corner, is anchored in Litchfield County, the Connecticut county with the most registered Republican voters; it then stretches downward to wealthy Fairfield County, which includes the Republican-leaning Candlewood Lake area and the diversifying city of Danbury. The district has two arms reaching toward the center of the state. The northern arm encompasses some of the wealthy suburbs of Hartford, the state’s capital, and the majority-minority city of New Britain. The southern arm stretches outward to include the working class cities of Waterbury, where Hayes grew up in a public housing project, and Meriden, where Hayes’ unsuccessful Republican opponent, Manny Santos, was once mayor.

The seat was initially targeted by the NRCC, the congressional campaign arm of the national GOP.  Yet after a contentious primary against two-time lieutenant gubernatorial nominee Mary Glassman ended in a decisive victory for Hayes, the history teacher surged to a sturdy lead over Santos and out-fundraised him by an immense margin. As of mid-October, Hayes had raised a total of $1.3 million for her campaign with $610,000 cash on hand, compared to just $14,000 cash on hand for the Santos campaign. As the NRCC struggled to defend its incumbents amid a Democratic onslaught focused on healthcare and providing a check against Donald Trump, the campaign arm shifted its focus away from the seat, allowing Hayes to dominate the airwaves. Despite the competitive nature of the seat, Hayes improved on Clinton’s margins in every town in the district, even in historically conservative, heavily white communities.

Hayes’ triumph at the top of the ticket was accompanied by critical down-ballot victories for Democrats as well. Prior to the 2018 elections, Democrats held a narrow nine-seat majority in the Connecticut House, while the Connecticut Senate was split evenly, with former Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman breaking ties in favor of the Democrats. But as of January 9, 2019, Democrats have a 33-seat majority in the State House and a five-seat majority in the State Senate, an astounding rebound considering Republican predictions that outgoing Gov. Dannel Malloy’s unpopularity would be an albatross around the neck of Democratic candidates.

“The urgency around Trump was much more palpable and frightening,” said Lindsay Farrell, the executive director of the Working Families Party, in an interview with the HPR. “I think the Republicans just overplayed their hand. They saw some polling and they saw how unpopular Malloy was. And then they went crazy with Photoshop and they tried to make every single election a referendum on Malloy. But elections are more complicated than that.” The Working Families Party is a political party with branches in 13 states and the District of Columbia; it advocates for progressive causes like guaranteeing universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage, and improving the economic safety net for the working class. The party frequently cross-endorses Democrats, including Hayes.

“I was very tired of Dan Malloy’s seeming ineffectiveness,” one Democratic volunteer admitted to the HPR. This volunteer phone-banked for the Hayes campaign, supporting Democrats up and down the ballot despite the outgoing governor’s unpopularity. “I feel like our seat is kind of unique in that we have a very strong conservative movement in what would normally be a liberal county. So I felt it was important to protect the fact that we had a blue seat in the House.”

One of the State Senate districts Democrats flipped, the 24th, is contained almost entirely by the congressional seat Hayes won. It includes the city of Danbury, its suburb Bethel, and the conservative lake towns of New Fairfield and Sherman. Five-term incumbent Michael McLachlan was defeated by a sizable eight-point margin by Julie Kushner, who, like Hayes, was a first-time candidate.

A ‘Real Person Revolution’

Hayes’ campaign focused on several central themes that carried her to unexpectedly large victories in both the primary and general elections. While past holders of the moderate seat like Esty and now-Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sought to triangulate their political positions to appeal to the voters of the conservative Housatonic valley, Hayes unabashedly embraced progressive causes, including Medicare for All and marijuana legalization. Hayes’ policy priorities were steeped in populist rhetoric stemming from her compelling personal narrative. In a campaign ad entitled “Truth to Power” that garnered over 10 million views on Facebook and Twitter, Hayes describes her upbringing — she was raised by her grandmother while her mother struggled with substance abuse disorder and became a teen mother herself at age 17. Education, Hayes says, saved her life.

Hayes’ life story became key during her primary campaign, especially when her opponent, Glassman, a former first selectman of wealthy suburb Simsbury and state government bureaucrat, criticized Hayes for her lack of experience. In response, Hayes emphasized her intimate understanding of the issues faced by the lower and middle classes, and argued that a different kind of experience was needed after years of economic stagnation and broken promises by politicians. “The definition of insanity,” Hayes said in one primary debate, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” At the center of Hayes’ argument was the idea that Congress needed more ‘people like us’ — people who knew what it meant to struggle and overcome obstacles.

“Voters respond to authenticity,” Farrell explained. “One of the ways Democrats can handicap themselves by running to the center is by making it difficult for voters to suss out who they are, what they stand for, and what they fight for.” Farrell also praised Julie Kushner for her victory in the 24th State Senate District. “One of the lessons [taught], whether by Jahana Hayes, or Julie Kushner, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is ‘to thy own self be true.’”

Sal Luciano, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, agreed that authenticity matters, and noted the salience of outsider candidates like Hayes and Kushner in the 2018 elections. “Voters didn’t really want politicians this time,” Luciano said in an interview with the HPR. “They wanted people who understand what it is to work for a living, to try to put food on the table, to try to educate your children, to have healthcare that could bankrupt you, and I think that was really key to the victories this year. You listen to Jahana Hayes and you listen to Julie Kushner, and they resonate with working people.” Hayes and Kushner are both union members and were endorsed by the AFL-CIO in their respective races.

What Democracy Looks Like

As Hayes begins her congressional career, she joins a freshman class of representatives that defy conventional wisdom about what constitutes an ‘electable’ candidate. Frequently used as an argument against running female, nonwhite, and ideologically liberal candidates, the concept of electability has been thrust into the spotlight as Democrats begin their nomination process and decide who will take on Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Yet Hayes and others provide a firm rebuttal against popular narratives regarding electability. Hayes is one of the eight new black representatives in Congress who won in majority-white districts, a record number. The group also includes Antonio Delgado in the neighboring 19th District of New York and Lauren Underwood in the 14th District of Illinois, who is the youngest black woman to serve in Congress. For those who argue that Democrats would be best served by nominating a white candidate in 2020, Hayes’ 12-point victory in a district that is 73 percent white offers a compelling counterexample.

Hayes and Kushner are also part of an emerging bench of female political talent, one that is changing politics at the local, state, and federal levels. After Hillary Clinton’s surprise failure to clinch 270 electoral votes in 2016, doubt began to emerge once again about whether the country was ready for female political leadership. Yet in 2018, already dubbed the ‘Year of the Woman,’ over 500 women ran congressional campaigns;  in 2019, for the first time, over 100 women were sworn into Congress.

“I think that in 2018, voters wanted to elect people that look like them and that look like their communities, and that’s not really what you had in Congress. That’s not what you had in a lot of places,” Luciano said when asked about Hayes and Kushner. “I think the fact that they were diverse, the fact that they were good candidates, and the fact that they had values that resonated with people were really the key.”

In the majority-white Fifth District, Jahana Hayes managed to transform her ‘someone who looks like us’ appeal into a powerful advantage, winning her the support of many voters who did not look like her at all. Because for Hayes, a ‘people like us’ platform always meant so much more than just demographics. It was a call to all of those who felt left behind, betrayed, and ignored by politicians of the past. Now, those voters will have new blood at all levels of government.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Louis Velazquez

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