Why you should care

Because the land of Prescott Bush is turning to Democrats in the Age of Trump.

Margaret Van Vliet had long known who Donald Trump was. She had seen him at a few well-to-do New York City parties, and often when she was visiting the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan for business. But it wasn’t until they crossed paths at a private Atlanta hangar that they spoke for the first time. Trump was going up a set of stairs: Van Vliet was going down them. As they passed each other, Van Vliet could feel Trump’s eyes scan her body. “Where do you think his eyes rested? Right on my crotch,” she says. 

The anger in Van Vliet’s voice is not what you would expect to hear on a quiet Saturday morning at Le Pain Quotidien in downtown Greenwich. But in this Connecticut town best known for its tony privilege, manners and restraint, Trump’s name inspires strong feelings of aversion even among lifelong Republicans like Van Vliet, who voted for every GOP presidential candidate from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney and whose grandfather was a GOP state senator. 

That sentiment is spreading across wealthy Fairfield County, commonly referred to as the Gold Coast of Connecticut. The concern isn’t just about a Trump-approved tax bill that disproportionately damaged wealthy homeowners in high-tax states like this, although for some, that was damning. No, the criticism is much more elemental. “His whole persona is just so insulting to me, and to the women in this area,” Van Vliet, 61, says. And that’s hurting the Republican Party in a former bastion.

Indeed, the Gold Coast is where the Bush family had its roots, from Prescott to George Sr., and these ritzy towns spawned GOP Reps. Stewart McKinney and Chris Shays — before 2016, when they flipped from easy victories for Romney to landslide wins for Hillary Clinton. That leftward shift continued in the 2018 midterms, two years into Trump’s presidency. And while it likely won’t affect the Electoral College — no Republican has won Connecticut’s seven votes since George H.W. Bush in 1988, even when the Gold Coast voted red — it could affect the GOP’s purse strings in the 2020 presidential race and down ballot.

I’m not that party devoted that I would vote for it at any cost.

Kim Parent, former Republican voter 

That’s particularly so because the Nutmeg State has historically been a disproportionately lucrative gold mine for fundraisers: Despite being only the 29th-biggest state, Connecticut was the 19th-highest source of political donations last cycle. “The funds raised in Connecticut don’t stay in Connecticut,” says Gayle Alberda, a political scientist at Fairfield University. “They go to the swing states that are purple — and they need them to get across the finish line.” 

The numbers don’t lie: Conservative bankrollers have ceded serious ground since Trump became president. In the 2013–14 midterms, Connecticut donors gave $15 million to Democrats and $14 million to Republicans, essentially a draw. But in the 2017–18 midterms, Connecticut donors gave $24.5 million to Democrats and just $11.5 million to Republicans, according to Federal Election Commission data gathered by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. In federal elections across the state, nearly four-fifths of all donations to candidates went to liberal contenders.

 

The voting booth reflects a similar shift. Republican voter registration dropped in Hartford suburbs such as Simsbury and Glastonbury. Avon, one of those Gold Coast towns, saw Democratic registration increase by 100 while Republican registration fell from 4,145 after the 2016 election to 3,969. To add insult to injury, 22-year-old Democrat Will Haskell, a Georgetown graduate and recent intern to Sen. Chris Murphy, upset a two-decade incumbent to win the 26th state Senate district — held by Republicans since the 1970s.

Trump has put a lot of Yankee Republicans in a “tricky situation, because you may still have traditional Republican values, but you don’t agree with the leader of the party,” Alberda says. That has alienated the Greenwich elite types while also helping the Republican Party see major growth in more rural parts of the state, such as eastern Connecticut, as well as in working-class regions like the Naugatuck Valley, reflective of the way Trump has recast conservatism nationwide. 

To be sure, Trump isn’t the only reason why the Gold Coast is changing its voting patterns. It’s a demographic effect too. The state is seeing a brain drain, with higher-earning residents leaving (oftentimes for lower-tax states), which leaves more small-donation voters who typically lean Democrat, says Alberda. An analysis by The Connecticut Mirror shortly after the midterms showed that cities and towns where Latinos made up more than 25 percent of the population saw significant increases in turnout. Connecticut is now 15 percent Hispanic, the 11th-largest share of any state and by far the most diverse in lily-white New England. Greenwich, in particular, has become a much more diverse city in recent decades, with non-White residents — who, on average, are much more likely to vote Democrat — growing from around 10 percent in the 2000 census to around 26 percent of the current population.

Trump’s struggles with well-educated women make a Republican rebound even harder here. “I’m really morally opposed to him,” says Greenwich resident Kim Parent, a former Republican, who, along with her husband, can’t stomach backing Trump. “And I’m not that party-devoted that I would vote for it at any cost.”

Will the party shift stick? Parent and Van Vliet say their vote is lost to this version of the Republican Party. It’s hard to forecast too far ahead though, and only time can tell if this is a lasting trend or a one-off. Either way, there’s still much at stake in Connecticut for the GOP. The state’s governor races and two of its five U.S. House seats are competitive for the right candidate. And across the country, every Republican candidate, from the president to dogcatcher, would love to mine the Gold Coast for donations once again.

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