Southeastern Connecticut boasted a formidable group of young politicians running for office last week, but the three 20-somethings all lost their races for state representative.

Baird Welch-Collins, 25, Caleb Espinosa, 20, and Lauren Gauthier, 25, all ran competitive campaigns, though Welch-Collins’ was the most competitive.

The Democrat lost in his bid to unseat Republican Rep. Kathleen McCarty. She was elected to a fourth term representing the 38th House District by a vote of 7,269 to Welch-Collins’ 6,924 votes. The district encompasses all of Waterford and part of Montville.

Fifteen-term Democratic state Rep. Kevin Ryan defeated Republican challenger Espinosa, 5,743 votes to 4,768, to retain his 139th House District seat. The district includes Montville, Norwich and Bozrah.

Democratic state Rep. Christine Conley won a third term representing the 40th House District, fending off a challenge from Gauthier, a Republican, by a vote of 5,253 to 3,671. The district includes Groton and Ledyard.

So, what’s the next maneuver for these young politicos?

Welch-Collins had a nearly identical loss in 2018 to McCarty, who beat him by 350 votes that year. He’s already involved in local government as a member of Waterford’s Representative Town Meeting. He said he was “invigorated” by this year’s results, which, he said, proves “that there is definitely a future in politics for me.”

“I certainly would not rule out another run for this same seat, and I would not rule out a run for another position,” Welch-Collins said. “I’ll see where I am in a year or two. I don’t intend to stop being involved in politics. People who want to be successful start young and lose a lot. It’s like anything, you’ve got to fail at it and learn how to do it a long time before getting good at it.”

Espinosa surprised some in how close he kept his race with Ryan. Before Norwich’s absentee ballots were counted, Espinosa and Ryan were almost neck and neck. Though Ryan’s name recognition won out, Espinosa said the area took a liking to him as he knocked on as many doors as possible, and he may run for the same seat in 2022.

“If I run again, it will probably be for this seat. I don’t think I’d run for anything else,” Espinosa said. “If I was to get elected, the one place I think I should serve in is Hartford in the General Assembly. We’ll see what’s going on in January 2022 before I pull the trigger.”

Gauthier earned 41% of the vote in her race for the 40th district, which includes Groton, a Democratic stronghold. Gauthier ran for state representative in the 38th District as a Green Party candidate in 2016. In 2019, she unsuccessfully ran as a Republican candidate for Groton Town Council but was elected to the Groton RTM. She, too, is considering her future in politics.

“Honestly, I don’t know if I’m going to run again,” Gauthier said. “It’s something that I’m interested in, but my end goal is policy, whether that’s a legislative function or an advocacy group function, that’s the goal.”

Gauthier said that it would take a moderate, unconventional Republican to win the 40th district but that it’s possible, and the seat used to be Republican in the past.

“I intend to stay on the RTM, I think it’s a great body here in Groton. I ran in 2019 for Town Council, I’m likely to do that again,” Gauthier said. “If I run for state legislator again, that’s a potential I haven’t ruled out, but it’s not something I’m gearing toward right now.”

Both Gauthier and Espinosa cited anger toward President Donald Trump, bolstering Democratic turnout; the COVID-19 pandemic; and heavily Democratic absentee voting numbers as reasons for their losses. Welch-Collins also lamented the pandemic, which severely limited door-to-door campaigning.

“It’s hard to convey the nuance of my being a moderate Republican when the opposing party’s only line is, ‘Every Republican is Donald Trump,’” Gauthier said.

All three young candidates were generally supportive of mail-in voting, even though Republicans nationwide have not been as accepting of the practice. The most striking similarity among the three is their rebuke of party-line voting: Each ran against politicians who normally vote with their party. Gauthier in particular said the current binary political system isn’t working, and she  supports ranked-choice voting.

Gauthier and Welch-Collins are longtime friends who went to the senior prom together in high school.

“She hates when I tell reporters that, but I think it’s a great story,” Welch-Collins said. “She and I have always joked that we’re going to face off against each other for governor or something some day.”

Welch-Collins ran Gauthier’s Green Party campaign, which, she said, she engaged in as a way to support third parties.

“I think we both got involved in the Green Party less ideologically and more because we’re disappointed in the two-party system,” Welch-Collins said. “I remain disappointed in the two-party system, and I’m somewhat unrepentant in that.”

Republicans found success in several state races in the region, which Espinosa and Gauthier found encouraging.

“The Republicans who won are all very moderate, they’re all independent thinkers,” Gauthier said. “This idea that Democrats put out that each of these people are hardline Trumpers is absolutely false, which is why they were able to succeed in increasingly Democratic areas. What I want to know is, what is the Democrats’ message in a post-Trump political landscape?”

Welch-Collins also said Democratic messaging in the region needs to improve, though he saw Republican success partly as an incumbency advantage.

“People down here in southeastern Connecticut want to feel like they have a representative focused on local issues because our part of the state is often overlooked,” Welch-Collins said. “Some of those Republican candidates did a great job at least giving the impression that they’re focused on local issues.”

Still, Espinosa said he felt local Republican Town Committees could have done more. He said some were initially dismissive of his run because of his age.

“This is the problem with local Republicans: They eat each other for personal gain, and the RTCs have very little motivation,” Espinosa said. “There are some people on RTCs who get out and fight for candidates, there’s other people who show up to RTC meetings once a month and go home, like it’s bingo night or something.”

Espinosa, Gauthier and Welch-Collins all said younger politicians would break through and start winning these close races soon, highlighting increased engagement among young people in the political process. Gauthier noted how younger politicians are more concerned with how decisions will have an impact 10 years or more down the line, so they wouldn’t kick the can down the road on issues such as tolls or underfunded pensions.

“I think we’ll see it within this decade,” Espinosa said. “I’ve met younger people who see me, Baird, Lauren, they see other people are making an effort, and that could be the push they need to step in the ring.”

s.spinella@theday.com





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