Engulfed by the blue wave of voter scorn for President Donald Trump, Connecticut Republicans are soul searching after Tuesday’s election casualties up and down the ticket, from governor to the legislature.
Eight years of GOP gains in the legislature — pickups of 35 seats in the House and six in the tied Senate — were washed away, along with entrenched incumbents from the Gold Coast such as L. Scott Frantz and Toni Boucher.
Now, several prominent Republicans are publicly criticizing the party’s strategy and its chairman, J.R. Romano, from its field operation to its selection of candidates. Further, the party’s nominee for governor, Bob Stefanowski, surrounded himself with consultants from out of state.
Some complained that the party got caught flat-footed when there were telltale signs of the approaching tidal wave.
The first, was when Hillary Clinton won Fairfield County over Trump in 2016. The second, they say, was the 2017 municipal election cycle, when the Trump resistance propelled Democrats to victories in towns such as Greenwich and Trumbull and even gave Republicans a scare in New Canaan, the only community in the entire state where GOP voters are the largest electorate bloc.
“We let Trump take over this race,” said longtime Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, runner-up in the party’s gubernatorial primary. “It became a referendum on Trump and you’re not going win that way.”
Boughton narrowly emerged from the GOP’s statewide convention in May with the party’s endorsement. The protracted eight-way contest was a stark contrast from Democrats’ convention one week later, when all but one of rival of Ned Lamont, now the governor-elect, stood down.
While Lamont carried 168 of 169 municipalities in the primary, the one outlier being Bridgeport, where his opponent Joe Ganim is mayor, Boughton fell to Stefanowski in a bruising five-way contest.
Stefanowski, who bypassed the GOP convention, fell to Lamont by 43,137 votes Tuesday. As an outsider who swept to victory in the primary, Stefanowski wielded substantial control over the party during the general election campaign.
And because of Stefanowski’s unusual path to the nomination as a petitioning candidate, the GOP’s unexpected standard bearer and the state party were not always in lockstep on strategy. Stefanowski surrounded himself with a cadre of political consultants, most of them from out of state, including Donald Trump’s pollster and 2016 campaign ad guru, who had their own philosophy on getting out the vote in Connecticut’s toss-up governor’s race. That dynamic did not lend itself to having GOP leaders dictate strategy to Stefanowski.
Throughout the campaign, Stefanowski was largely unwilling to distance himself from Trump, a deeply unpopular president in Connecticut. Stefanowski declined to comment for this story.
Boughton, a leading Republican, said some of the blame lies with Romano.
Romano “has not, I don’t think, done the best job managing the nominating process.”
Romano, the party’s chairman since mid-2015, said he wasn’t going to take sides in the nominating fight, but acknowledged that system needs an overhaul.
“I am not a fan of our process,” Romano said. “I also think the convention costs too much money.”
Romano said holding a primary in August doesn’t give parties much time for healing after a fractious contest.
“It’s a quick turnaround,” Romano said. “Now we fell short, no question, but we turned out more votes for the Republican candidate than ever before. That is not a consolation prize. I want to win.”
The new reality for Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide election since 2006 and are outnumbered 5-to-3 by Democrats on the voter rolls, is their next chance to break their streak of futility is in 2020 — when Trump is up for re-election.
“I’m not quite sure in Connecticut that it gets any better,” said New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, who finished second in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor. “It is going to be difficult to find candidates who want to run. I think that if the Republican Party is going to survive in Connecticut, we need to change the way we do things.”
Stewart abandoned her bid for governor to run for lieutenant governor, but lost the nomination to Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, one of the legislature’s most conservative members.
In her third term as mayor of a blue collar city, Stewart has characterized herself as a fiscal conservative who is socially liberal. She favors an open primary, in which the state’s 870,000 unaffiliated voters, the largest bloc of the electorate, could help choose the GOP nominee. That would require the party to change its bylaws, with approval by the Republican State Central Committee and delegates at a future statewide convention.
“When Republicans don’t put forth candidates that appeal to those that reside in the cities, you get what you get,” Stewart said.
Changing the date of a primary or going to a runoff would require legislative approval.
Stewart was measured in her assessment of Romano, calling him a capable leader, but one who is taking directions from the party’s 72-member State Central Committee and national Republicans who she said are out of touch with the obstacles that GOP candidates face in Connecticut.
The sharpest criticism of Romano came from former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, a Trinity College pal of Romano who finished fourth in the gubernatorial primary.
While he was out campaigning last weekend for Republican state Senate candidate Adam Greenberg in Guilford, Madison and Branford, Herbst said several unaffiliated voters whose homes he visited said that Democratic canvassers had already been by three times. Greenberg lost his bid to fill the seat of retiring Democrat Ted Kennedy Jr.
“The Democratic field operation was one of the strongest that I’ve seen and ours was a complete and utter joke,” Herbst said. “It was an unmitigated disaster. When you are in a blue state as a Republican, you’ve got to have that field program. You’ve got to touch unaffiliated voters. The Democrats kicked our teeth in when it came to the ground game.”
Herbst said that Republicans didn’t open up field offices across the state until September or October — and by then it was too late.
The twice-thwarted statewide office candidate, who ran for state treasurer in 2014, said Democrats circled the wagons a lot faster after their primary.
Romano spurned comparisons, saying that Democrats had mostly coalesced before the primary and had fewer candidates. Stefanowski, he said, preferred to meet with his former rivals individually.
Herbst said having a stronger infrastructure in place early in the election cycle could have helped endangered incumbents such as Frantz, who lost his bid for a sixth term despite Stefanowski winning Greenwich. Frantz’s district includes part of Stamford, however, which he lost to Democrat Alex Bergstein.
“We knew we had a Fairfield County problem,” Herbst said.
Herbst said Republicans also missed a golden opportunity to unseat House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who faces a recount after edging late entry Republican challenger Mike Gagliardi by 37 votes.
“No Republican should run for any office in Connecticut unless and until the state Republican Party gets a serious field operation,” Herbst said. “When you turn and you look over your shoulder and you’re charging up the hill you want to make sure people are behind you.”
Herbst also faulted Romano over candidate recruitment, saying the party should have recruited stronger candidates for Congress in the 2nd and 5th congressional districts.
Romano said he helped recruit former state prosecutor Sue Hatfield to run for state attorney general and former Meriden Mayor Manny Santos to run for Congress. Both lost. What he said he won’t do is play favorites.
The GOP boss also defended his efforts to turn out the vote, saying he challenged local Republicans to boost participation by 10 percent.
“For a year, I went town by town and explained to them that we anticipated a 10 percent uptick in Democratic participation by what was happening nationally,” Romano said.
A shining example of that response, Romano said, was in Fairfield, where incumbent GOP Reps. Brenda Kupchick and Laura Devlin won re-election, as well as state Sen. Tony Hwang.
Jamie Millington, Fairfield's Republican Town Committee chairman, empathized with Romano and said he would support him for re-election next year if he decides to seek a third term.
“It’s brutal, that position,” Millington said. “I think he did the best that he could with what he’s dealing with.”
For generations, Republicans relied on Fairfield County to churn out votes for them in statewide elections. But the blue wave was felt more acutely there and in the wealthy Hartford suburbs than rural and blue collar areas.
“These are people who can afford to be offended,” Romano said of the Trump effect. “Those voters didn’t punish Donald Trump on Tuesday. They punished single moms in Derby and Waterbury because we’re going to be getting tolls and a statewide car tax.”
Boughton said the GOP needs to broaden its tent to attract more moderates and embrace candidates like himself and Stewart, who have been successful in the cities and aren’t afraid to criticize Trump.
“People have to call him out on it,” Boughton said.
Stewart said it’s a tough time to be a Republican in Connecticut.
“I was sitting in office yesterday trying to think who do I have left as friends at Capitol?” Stewart said.