Behind Democrats’ win, a senator and one million phone calls

Behind Democrats’ win, a senator and one million phone calls

Jenna Shapiro woke up miserable the day after Donald J. Trump’s election in 2016. The 21-year-old daughter of Democratic activists from Manhattan, Shapiro had canvassed for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and worked on phone banks at Wesleyan, where she was a first-semester senior studying history and contemplating a career in teaching. “I felt like I hadn’t done enough, not nearly enough,” said Shapiro, whose childhood memories include her father’s arrest while protesting the Supreme Court’s Bush-Gore decision in 2000. “I never want to wake up after another election believing I hadn’t done everything I could for a candidate I believed in.”

She woke up happy after Election Day 2018.

Now 23, Shapiro — who put off a career in education for political organizing after graduating in 2017 — was the Hartford regional coordinator for Fight Back Connecticut, the field organization U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy began assembling in early 2017 for the Democrats’ statewide coordinated campaign.

In the final four days of the campaign, a staff of 20 paid organizers oversaw 14,000 volunteers who Murphy says knocked on roughly 250,000 doors and made one million phone calls.

It was an element of a Democratic ground game that helped produce the best mid-term election turnout in Connecticut since 1990, contributing to an unexpectedly strong 44,500-vote plurality for Gov.-elect Ned Lamont and the first Democratic gains in the General Assembly since Barack Obama’s landslide win here a decade ago.

Over pizza at local party headquarters in West Hartford last week, Shapiro was one of the young organizers who thanked the volunteers, a mix of first-timers and veterans, millennials and boomers, and everything in between. Joseph Hutton, the director of the coordinated campaign, peeked around a corner, standing next to Nick Marroletti, the organizing director. Hutton is 29, Marroletti, 25. Somewhere in the crowded room was Jenna Lowenstein, the 31-year-old who managed Murphy’s campaign.

“We’re going to keep it going, and we want you to stay involved, because 2016 was a wake-up call to Democrats, and I think Sen. Murphy heard that wake-up call,” state Sen. Beth Bye told them, her tone more maternal than fiery. “Young people, people of color and women did not feel represented by our party. And Sen. Murphy said, ‘Enough.’ He reached out to candidates, he reached out to you all. Look at this room. This is the Connecticut Democratic Party.”

Murphy was last to arrive. He sat near Gary Turco, a Democrat from neighboring Newington who defeated a two-term Republican state representative by 66 votes. Turco credited Fight Back Connecticut and volunteers who came from West Hartford, where they had run out of doors to knock and phones to call.

“I’ve been involved here in Connecticut politics for a long time. And I’ve ran campaigns and helped Democrats to win. There has never been a coordinated operation like Sen. Murphy and all you put together that I’ve ever seen,” Turco said. “You made it happen.”

Turco smiled and said he would be happy to reciprocate by campaigning for Murphy in Iowa or New Hampshire in 2020. Murphy politely ignored the offer. Re-elected to a second term last week with 59.5 percent of the vote, Murphy seemed content to watch Shapiro and others run the show. Murphy was 22 when he managed his first campaign, Charlotte Koskoff’s challenge of U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson in 1996. Koskoff lost by just 1,587 votes.

 Ten years later, it would be Murphy who finally took the western Connecticut seat for Democrats. He ran as an opponent of the war in Iraq, giving him common cause with Lamont, who defeated Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in a primary. Lieberman won as an independent in the fall, but retired in 2012 rather than run without a party’s backing. Murphy succeeded Lieberman in the Senate. With Gov. Dannel P. Malloy exiting after two terms, it was Murphy who took control of the statewide coordinated campaign, personally interviewing and signing off on its top hires. 

Lamont, 64, will be Connecticut’s governor in January. Richard Blumenthal, 72, is its senior senator. But at 45, Murphy is the leader of a generation reshaping the Democratic Party in Connecticut.

At a key juncture, he urged other Democratic contenders to coalesce around Lamont. And he encouraged Jahana Hayes, the 2016 national teacher of the year, to run for his old seat in the 5th District, giving Connecticut Democrats their first black nominee for Congress. Hayes will join the 116th Congress as one of the first two black women from New England to serve in the U.S. House.