Connecticut Republicans are looking at what might be their best year at the polls since 1994. National conditions largely favor them, their voters are energized thanks in part to the Tea Party movement (which state GOP chairman Chris Healy called a “godsend” for Republicans), and their opponents seem stuck in neutral. The state’s economy is in bad shape, the heavily-Democratic legislature has seemed unable or unwilling to really address the problems facing Connecticut, and the outgoing Republican governor is still one of the rare politicians who can boast an approval rating comfortably over 50 percent.
So why does this year still feel like something of a missed opportunity for Healy and the state GOP? After the dust settles in November, Republicans will likely be left wondering why they couldn’t capitalize more fully on voter angst and anti-incumbent sentiments.
A major problem for Republicans is that they don’t have a lot of familiar faces on the ballot. The most well-known Republican is still outgoing Gov. Jodi Rell, but she has proved famously unable to help other members of her party get elected to any kind of office. Connecticut’s voters seem to like Rell in spite of her party affiliation, rather than because of it, and she isn’t running this year regardless.
Two congressional candidates, Dan Debicella and Sam Caligiuri, are known reasonably well in their respective districts thanks to being members of the state senate, but they are the exception in this election, rather than the rule.
The most recognizable face of this year’s election for the GOP, Linda McMahon, is turning out to have been a bad gamble; she turned in tepid performances in debates against Richard Blumenthal and managed to be upstaged by theoretically-former rival Rob Simmons in the post-debate spin room. Worse, her poll numbers haven’t moved much in the past few weeks, and her huge deficit in support among women has remained a critical and, for some reason, largely un-addressed problem throughout her campaign. McMahon came from nowhere last year, but it seems that the more voters get to know her, the less they like her.
The rest of the GOP slate is a pack of unknowns. Tom Foley may be benefiting from the fact that people in parts of the state that aren’t Stamford don’t know all that much about Dan Malloy, either, but he wasn’t anywhere on the state’s political radar before his abortive attempt to run for U.S. Senate last year (when Chris Dodd left the field, Foley prudently jumped to the governor’s race). Ann Brickley is doing surprisingly well against U.S. Rep. John Larson, if recent polls are to be believed, but she, too, is a political newcomer. The biggest missed opportunity may be in the usually-contentious 2nd congressional district, where former TV news personality Janet Peckinpaugh is running well behind Rep. Joe Courtney.
The candidates for constitutional offices are, if anything, worse. The most notable is Martha Dean, who has made news largely because of her stance in favor of extreme right-wing positions, like the ability of the states to “nullify” federal laws they don’t agree with, and her ties to the Tea Party movement. Newington Mayor Jeff Wright, running for treasurer, is the candidate with the most actual experience in government, though you wouldn’t know it from his unintentionally hilarious “Cash Cop” series of commercials. The others, comptroller candidate and former Chris Dodd punching bag Jack Orchulli, and secretary of the state candidate Jerry Farrell, are afterthoughts. Republicans could have a good year but still fail to win a single statewide race.
The reason why Republicans are depending so heavily on newcomers is that in recent memory they have lost election after election to Democrats. In 2006 and 2008, they lost two congressional seats they’d held for decades, and they have seen their minority in the legislature dwindle every election. They haven’t held a single constitutional office apart from governor and lieutenant governor since future jailbird Paul J. Silvester lost to Denise Nappier in 1998. Republicans have a short bench in part because they have been spectacularly unable to win elections in Connecticut for well over a decade.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of bright spots. Republicans should make gains in the state legislature’s most marginal districts, and it’s still possible that Foley and McMahon could eke out wins if the conditions are exactly right. Caliguiri and Debicella may well defeat Murphy and Himes, and other congressional candidates, like Brickley, may turn in strong showings. But the state Republican Party is still reeling from two absolutely crushing election losses in 2006 and 2008, and a long decade of frustration before that.
They simply can’t rebuild overnight, which is why the slate is largely made up of new and inexperienced candidates. In previous “wave” elections in 1994 and 1984, Connecticut’s Republicans were in much better position to take advantage of national conservative sentiments; they had more incumbents and experienced candidates to take on Democrats.
If Connecticut Republicans don’t do as well as they might have hoped on election night, they can look to their dismal recent past for reasons why. They will, on the other hand, have an opportunity to build on whatever gains they can make now in future years — if they can only figure out how.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner/author of CTLocalPolitics.com. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.