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Five candidate primary doesn’t help Republicans

With Connecticut enjoying an economy that’s better than Louisiana’s and worse than the other 48 states, this would appear to be a likely year for the election of a Republican governor. 

Although a deep blue state, Connecticut has occasionally tired of long Democratic runs and given the Republican Party a chance to show what it can do with a governor — but not often a legislature — to call its own.  This looks like one of those years but it’s far from certain.

Before the eight-year reign of Dannel Malloy, the Republican Party had its opportunity to contribute to the sorry state we’re in by winning four consecutive gubernatorial elections, marred only by the interruption of Gov. John Rowland’s third term because of his resignation and imprisonment. After his successor, Lt. Gov. Jodi Rell, was given a single term of her own, the Democrats returned to legislative and executive control with Malloy’s election in 2010. It’s been downhill ever since.

In the 60 years I’ve lived in Connecticut, also known as modern times, we’ve had two Republican governors in addition to Rowland and Rell, and five Democrats. One of the Republicans, Tom Meskill (1971-75), transformed a $260 million Democratic deficit into a $65 million Republican surplus in his single term. But his success wasn’t enough to vie with his absence from the state during a disastrous ice storm. He left politics to become a highly regarded federal judge.

The other, renegade Republican turned independent Lowell Weicker, gave the state an income tax in his single term (1993-97) and wisely decided not to run again, leaving the state to Republican Rowland and his pledge to repeal the tax, a pledge that’s been revived this year.

So here we are, the richest state in America with the 49th worst economy and a race for governor taking shape but only after an August primary to determine who the actual candidates will be.

The parties have endorsed Democrat Ned Lamont, who has had little experience winning elections and Republican Mark Boughton, the longtime mayor of one of Connecticut’s more successful cities, Danbury. Lamont is expected to survive a primary challenge from Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, whose candidacy is somewhat clouded by his record: not his mayoral record, but his prison record.

But the Republican primary could be a different matter because the endorsed candidate has four — count ‘em, four — challengers. That could be a huge problem for the Republicans and ultimately, for the state. In a party primary in the dead of summer, few people bother to vote, and in a crowded primary that means the worst man could win. 

Boughton’s challengers are fellow moderates Steve Obsitnik and David Stemerman and the farther right Tim Herbst and Bob Stefanowski.  (There are no women running for governor of this supposedly enlightened state in the second decade of the 21st century.)

Gary Rose, the chairman of the Department of Government, Politics and Global Studies at Sacred Heart University, one of the brightest observers of Connecticut’s politics, predicts a messy Republican primary.  

“It’s going to result in a nominee with a very small percentage, a very small plurality, which is not the best way to begin a general-election campaign,” Rose told The Connecticut Post.  

Only 79,000 Republicans showed up in 2014 to give the party’s nomination to Tom Foley over John McKinney, which means a candidate with only a few thousand votes could win what’s expected to be a nasty and divisive race.  

There aren’t that many Republicans to begin with. Of the state’s 2.1 million voters, only 450,000 say they’re Republican. There are 790,000 who admit to being Democrats, but the most voters, 831,000, prefer to be affiliated with neither party. 

And Connecticut, unlike 27 more enlightened states, does not permit unaffiliated voters to participate in its party primaries. As a result, party primaries mostly attract each party’s most devoted members, its true believers, sometimes known as its extremists.

This won’t make much of a difference in the Democratic primary with only one blemished challenger to the endorsed candidate, but with five vying to be identified as the most Republican Republican, complicated by also being the Trumpiest Trumper, things could get complicated.

With mostly true believers casting votes, the candidates occupying the farthest right could emerge as the favorites. Professor Rose, who’s working on a book on Connecticut’s governor races, thinks so. “If I had to say there is an edge, the edge could be given to the conservatives,” Rose told the CT Mirror. 

For that reason, Rose says the nominee may be one of the more conservative candidates, Herbst or Stefanowski. This would be a plus for the party faithful but it could hurt the party in the race it should win this year, the big one in November. 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.