How the Northeast Became Democratic, Part III: Connecticut and Vermont

In 1918, Connecticut had five representatives just like it does today. However, that year 4 of 5 were Republicans and both senators were Republicans, with Frank Brandegee being one of the chamber’s most conservative members. Today, both senators are liberal Democrats and all representatives are so as well. Likewise, the governor in 1918 was a Republican while today the office is held by a Democrat. Connecticut, however, did not join the staunchly blue fold so definitively and quickly as did Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Neither was it as definitively and staunchly Republican in its history as were those states before the Great Depression: the state voted for Samuel Tilden in 1876 and voted for Grover Cleveland thrice. Rhode Island and Massachusetts didn’t vote for a Democratic president until 1912.

After the 1896 election, Connecticut could be counted as a solid Republican state. It was even one of only six states whose voters believed Herbert Hoover deserved a second term in 1932. However, the state had grown more and more industrialized, and many of the workers in the state’s factories were Catholic immigrants from Ireland or Italy or the children of said immigrants. The origin of such immigration dated back to the time of the Irish Potato Famine, when 50,000 Irish Catholics had immigrated to the state and they tended to vote Democrat as well (Hoffman, 2014). The GOP’s grip on the state broke in 1936, when the state voted for Roosevelt and all federal Republican incumbents were defeated. However, this victory for the Democrats was short-lived as the Republicans roared back in 1938, taking all but two House seats and a Senate seat. The state was a major battleground during the 1940s, with candidates from both parties regularly elected and cast aside, depending on what party had the edge. However, in 1952, it seemed like the GOP had regained its hold on the state’s politics: all its federal elected officials were Republicans save for Thomas Dodd of the 1st district. These Republicans, however, were not like the Republicans of the 1940s and past. None of them were even close to as conservative as men like Sen. Frank Brandegee, who opposed the Versailles Treaty unconditionally, or Rep. Schuyler Merritt, who voted against Social Security. A typical Connecticut Republican in the 1950s was Sen. Prescott Bush, who was an Eisenhower Republican through and through: internationalist, socially moderate to liberal, and fiscally conservative. The root cause of increasing moderation on the part of the GOP was that the electorate had grown less conservative, and thus more moderate candidates needed to be run to win. As it was throughout much of the Northeast, the key year was 1958. That midterm election, Republicans took a beating, and nowhere more so than Connecticut. Before the election, they held all House seats and both Senate seats. The next year, only Sen. Prescott Bush would remain. The GOP would never quite regain the hold they had in the 1950s.

In my last two posts, I identified certain key figures in the state’s change: for Rhode Island, it was Theodore Green. For Massachusetts, it was John F. Kennedy. For Connecticut, it was not a senator or governor, but political operator John Bailey. Bailey, an Irish Catholic Harvard graduate, had become chair of the state’s Democratic Party in 1946, and with shrewdness and his tremendous talents in political organization, was able to lead its transition away from Republican politics. He was instrumental in John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign as well as in getting three Democratic governors elected (Sembor, 2003). The base of the state’s political power shifted away from WASP Republicans and shifted towards a winning Democratic coalition of ethnic Irish, Italian, and Jewish voters. Bailey was such a success that he kept his job until his death in 1975.

John Bailey, Connecticut Democratic Party Chair, 1946-1975

The 1960s proved rough for the GOP in the state: Connecticut voted Democrat in all three of the decade’s presidential elections and both Senate seats went Democrat. The delegation and the majority of the state’s voters favored the liberal policies of the Great Society. However, the 1970s proved to be something of a rebound as the GOP was consistently able to hold the 4th district and was able to score victories in the 2nd and 5th. Republican Lowell Weicker Jr. won a Senate seat in 1970 from Democrat Thomas Dodd, who had been censured in 1967 for using his campaign funds for personal expenses. Weicker lost his bid for a fourth term in 1988 as he had become the most liberal Republican in the Senate (and thus lost a lot of GOP support), and the GOP hasn’t represented the state since in the chamber. That same year the state would for the last time vote for a Republican for president. The GOP, however, did maintain a healthy presence in the state’s House delegation, with moderate to liberal Republicans Chris Shays and Nancy Johnson serving for over twenty years. The Bush era ultimately brought an end to the GOP presence in the Connecticut delegation, with its final incumbent, Chris Shays, losing reelection in 2008. Its Republican governor, Jodi Rell, left office in 2011.

Although the state’s modern voting for president isn’t as dauntingly Democratic as Massachusetts or Rhode Island, the state seems unlikely to return to the GOP fold anytime soon considering that even its unpopular Democratic governor, Dan Malloy, was able to narrowly win reelection in 2014, a good year for Republicans. Thus far, I have covered the New England states that were industrialized, but this still leaves Maine and New Hampshire, which constitute the more rural part of the region.

As for Vermont? It turns out I already covered the state in a previous post! Read it here:


Hoffman, C. (2014, June 22). 19th-Century Irish Catholic Immigrants Faced Unabashed Hostility. The Hartford Courant.

Retrieved from

Sembor, E.C. (2003). An introduction to Connecticut state and local government. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.



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