The historic votes on gun control during the last few weeks — in the General Assembly and in the U.S. Senate — have exposed deep fissures among Connecticut Republicans strugging to define their moderate brand of politics.
Some Republicans view the party leaders who helped craft the state's sweeping new gun control law as traitors guilty of selling out the Constitution.
"These Republicans stood on the throat of our forefathers and crushed the breath out of them,'' Mary Ann Turner, the outspoken Republican chairwoman in Enfield, wrote in a recent email to other town committee members in north central Connecticut. "The political cannons have been fired."
But other members of the party heaped praise on John McKinney, the GOP leader in the state Senate, and Larry Cafero, his counterpart in the House of Representatives. Both men played key roles in winning passage of the bipartisan gun bill, which includes an expanded assault weapons ban and more rigorous background checks. The measure was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy earlier this month.
"Given what happened here in Connecticut, I think our Republican leaders did a wonderful job on the bill,'' said Desiree Soli, the Republican town chairwoman in Westport. "I commend them for the work they did."
Connecticut Republicans are trying to expand their reach by backing away from the hardline conservatives that dominate the party's leadership ranks in Congress. "We don't do God, guns or gays,'' Cafero proclaimed several years ago. "That's not what Connecticut Republicans should be focused on. We're focused on fiscal accountability.''
Unlike the Second Amendment absolutists who wield enormous clout in rural red states, Connecticut's urban and suburban voter base is more accepting of gun restrictions. A Quinnipiac University poll released in early March, about three months after 20 first-graders and six women were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, found broad support in Connecticut, even among Republicans, for most gun control measures, including universal background checks and a statewide ban on all assault weapons.
Yet the deep roots of the state's firearms industry, along a strong libertarian streak, have led some Republicans to reject gun control and those in their own party who support it. Turner said she is boycotting the party's annual Prescott Bush fundraiser next month to protest the party's decision to honor McKinney with its top award.
Roiling anger over the gun vote is likely to have repercussions in the 2014 Republican race for governor. McKinney and Cafero are both pondering a run, as is another Republican who has expressed support for the new gun law, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.
Tom Foley, the party's 2010 nominee who is launching another bid, has been the target of a relentless public relations assault by state Democrats, who accuse him of dodging the issue.
Foley, who finds the attention from Democrats "flattering," said the gun control law would have looked very different had he been governor. He declined to endorse the new Connecticut gun legislation and faulted the sweeping package for failing to address both mental illness and urban gun violence.
"State mental health institutions were shut down 30-something years ago ... and have not been replaced with institutional care for the severely mentally ill,'' Foley said. "Sandy Hook is a terrible tragedy and we want to make sure it doesn't happen again, but these types of crimes are very infrequent. ... In our cities, we have people being killed every month and I don't think this bill is going to address that gun violence much, if at all.''
Foley said expanded criminal background checks for gun purchases is, "to most law-abiding gun owners", the least objectionable gun control provision, even though such a requirement could not pass the U.S. Senate. "But,'' Foley added, while he supports more background checks, they "would not have prevented Sandy Hook.''
Boughton, meanwhile, said he backs "common sense" gun reform, including the background check provision that the U.S. Senate rejected. "That bill was so watered down and so easy to support, I just don't get it," he said.
While four Democratic U.S. senators from rural Western states also voted against background checks, the vote will likely cause more problems for Republicans in states such as Connecticut, Boughton said. "I absolutely think it does hurt the party,'' he said. "Our brand is hurt when we don't explain to the people on Main Street what the problems are with a piece of legislation."
The gun divide has created one more challenge for Republican State Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. Republicans in Connecticut are outnumbered by unaffiliated voters and Democrats; they do not hold any of the state's congressional seats or the governor's office and are in the minority in both chambers of the General Assembly.
As Labriola launches an ambitious effort to reach out to unaffiliated voters and emphasize the state party's independence from the national GOP, he has to overcome the suspicions of Republicans like Turner, who feel betrayed.
"We're an open party and a big tent,'' Labriola said. "We need to be respectful of opposing views on difficult issues if we ever want to become the majority party. I want to be a chairman of inclusion, not a chairman of exclusion, expulsion or subtraction."
"To start winning elections,'' Labriola added, "the Republican Party needs to put away the angry frown and put a smile on its face."
But the smiley face and the big tent aren't resonating with many gun owners, who are expressing their outrage on Facebook, Twitter and gun-rights blogs. "I would like to nominate McKinney for the Benedict Arnold award,'' wrote one commenter on the Connecticut Citizens Defense League blog.