Rural voters play outsized role in election

Connecticut’s rural voters may be playing an outsize role in deciding who will get the Republican nomination for governor this May — and who will win control of the governor’s mansion this November.

Just five percent of the state’s population lived in rural areas in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But rural voters play a particularly important role in the Republican Party, and could help to counter the Democratic Party’s strength in urban areas.

In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney won just one county in Connecticut: rural Litchfield County, known as the “Quiet Corner” of the state. Higher rates of gun ownership among rural voters could lead them to coalesce against state Sen. John McKinney ’86 in the Republican primary. McKinney co-sponsored SB-1160, which passed just over a year ago and banned dozens of assault weapons and required the owners of banned firearms to register them with the state.

“Many rural voters in Connecticut, as they are in other parts of the country, are gun enthusiasts,” said Gary Rose, chair of the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University. “That is emerging as a very important issue in the context of the Republican Primary, and it’s not favoring John McKinney.”

Rose said he believes rural Republicans’ anger over SB-1160 will drive them to support Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton or Tom Foley, who lost the 2010 gubernatorial contest by just 6,000 votes.

Last week, Boughton dropped out of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an organization that supports stricter gun control laws. Chris Cooper, a spokesman for Foley’s campaign, said Foley would support altering SB-1160 to reduce restrictions on “law-abiding gun owners.”

A Quinnipiac University poll released last month showed 36 percent of registered Republicans support Foley, compared to 11 percent who support Boughton and just 3 percent who support McKinney.

McKinney said he has made the case to rural voters that in supporting SB-1160, he was carrying out the wishes of his constituents.

“I try to talk to every voter, one voter at a time and explain that I was representing the people of the 28th district who were largely in favor of the bill,” McKinney said. “And many people, especially in rural areas, are represented by state senators who followed their wishes, which were to vote against the bill.”

McKinney said he thinks economic issues are the biggest concern for all voters, including those who own guns. Rose agreed, adding that the significance of rural voters as a bloc is downplayed in the general election.

In a tight election, however, Connecticut’s largely rural agricultural sector could play a major role. According to a recent report by the U.S. Census, the number of farms in the state increased from 4,900 to nearly 6,000 over the last five years. The agricultural industry employs 28,000 people statewide, according to a 2010 study by the University of Connecticut.

Last week, Gov. Dannel Malloy announced a deal with the federal government to allocate $8 million towards farmland preservation. The money will be used to purchase the development rights from farmers, meaning the land cannot be used for any purpose besides agriculture. For farmers who don’t intend to sell their land to developers, the program provides immediate revenue for participating farmers and lessens the value of the land, reducing participants’ tax burden. Terry Jones, owner and operator of Jones Family Farms and a board member of Working Lands Alliance, an organization that works to preserve farmland in Connecticut, said this “significant” initiative reflects the governor’s record of involvement in agriculture.

Jones said his organization and other agriculture NGO’s reached out to both Malloy and Foley during the 2010 campaign, but Foley never met with the Working Lands Alliance or any other farming groups, as far as Jones knows.

“We are very bipartisan and even our Republican members acknowledged that Foley just kind of ignored us,” Jones said.

Jones said the Working Lands Alliance plans to reach out to both Malloy and the Republican candidate ahead of the general election.

The agricultural industry contributes $3.5 billion to the Connecticut economy each year, according to the UConn study.

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