What went wrong?
That’s the question more than 350 Republicans from across the state tried to answer Saturday morning at CCSU during a conference organized by House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney.
“We’re here to have a discussion about where we’re headed as a party,” Cafero said. “It’s not a meeting about assessing blame or getting personal.”
But some comments were extremely personal and more than a handful of people expressed opinions about why candidates at the top of the ticket here didn’t win on Nov. 2, even as Republicans across the nation were making big gains on their way to reclaiming the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ken Hjulstrom, Marlborough Republican Town Committee chairman, said he doesn’t know why the Republican Party wasted money on getting Susan Bysiewicz out of the attorney general’s race.
“Why did we stand in her way?” Hjulstrom asked before suggesting the electorate and possibly her own Democratic Party would have voted against her. The Supreme Court ruled Bysiewicz was not qualified to run for attorney general prior to the Democratic state convention in May.
“And I’m not going to say anything about Linda McMahon, but I was disappointed in the outcome of the convention and how the whole thing played out,” Hjulstrom added.
McMahon, the former wrestling executive who painted herself as the ultimate outsider candidate, was able to wrest the Republican Party’s endorsement from former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons at the convention in May.
McMahon, who has attended several public events since her defeat in November, didn’t attend Saturday’s meeting. But Simmons did.
Simmons said he came to support Cafero and McKinney as they assume their leadership roles as the head of the party. Since former Gov. M. Jodi Rell retired, Cafero and McKinney are the two highest ranking elected officials in party.
“In the last 20 years I haven’t seen this many Republicans in a room except for a convention,” Simmons said as he continued to greet supporters near the buffet table.
Some Republicans have said since Nov. 2 that Simmons — had he won the nomination — would have had a better shot at beating Blumenthal. Instead, McMahon lost by a significant margin and state Republicans failed to win a Congressional seat. They also lost the governor’s office—the only Constitutional office the party had held—but did pick up 15 seats in the General Assembly.
Simmons said the party needs to do at least four things to get back on its feet:
“One, it’s got to win the special elections,” Simmons said. “Two, it’s got to reverse the voter registration trend. Three, it’s got to connect its message with organizations like the Yankee Institute, which can then offer solutions. And four, it’s got to get rid of the convention system and have its primary in May.”
Simmons’ fourth suggestion was batted around a lot Saturday as Republicans, for the first time in a long time, had to try and figure out how to heal after a bruising primary fight.
Mike Clark of Farmington said the Bibb Co. “slander,” put out initially by former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele’s campaign for governor, “cost Tom Foley the election.”
“That came from the Republican side of the house,” Clark said, referring to Fedele’s attack ads regarding Foley’s management of the Bibb Co.
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s campaign picked up on the ads and ran their own version, featuring some of the same former Bibb Co. employees from Fedele’s ads. After the dust settled and the ballots were tallied, Malloy held a slim 6,404-vote advantage over Foley, who also was in attendance Saturday.
The former ambassador to Ireland promised to stay involved as he received hugs and well-wishes from supporters and friends. As he stood at the back of the room a number of Republicans he met while on the campaign trail offered him unsolicited advice about what he could have done to win.
But as Republicans were looking back and assessing their losses Saturday, Foley said he is moving forward. He said he’s spent the past few months catching up on some personal and business issues that he had ignored during the campaign.
Foley said his current efforts are focused on forming a policy foundation or institute to “make sure good policy for Connecticut has a platform.” Foley said his foundation, which he expects to launch in the coming months, will be a voice for education reform and the economy.
Meanwhile, Cafero and McKinney challenged Republicans to help them register more voters to bring the state total up to 500,000 before the next presidential primary in 2012. About 438,000 are registered Republicans in the state, which represents a 9 percent decline since the party peaked in 1986.
A handful of Republicans in attendance Saturday said the party has to do a better job of reaching voters in Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford where a majority of the electorate is made up of minorities.
Howard Jubrey of Windsor said few people in the room Saturday looked like him, but if Republicans want to win elections, then “you need people that look like me.”
“Stop being afraid of being called a racist,” he urged.
Jubrey, who lost to Rep. David Baram by 5,306 votes, said he “got hammered by a guy who said he was going to raise taxes.”
Jubrey joked that because he is a Republican his own mother wouldn’t vote for him. “I see minorities in this state moving more and more toward socialism,” he added.
Corey Brinson, a candidate for Secretary of the State who could have mounted a primary challenge against Jerry Farrell but declined to do so, said former Gov. M. Jodi Rell did well in the cities in 2006 because she said she would eliminate car taxes.
He said Rell’s message resonated with voters in the city who pay taxes on their vehicles. Even though Rell was never able to eliminate the car tax, Brinson said “that’s how you have to message campaigns.”
There also were several individuals Saturday who opined the Republican party and the Republican Town Committees were not inclusive or welcoming to the energetic members of the Tea Party movement. Many of them said they are members of the Tea Party first, Republicans second.
Tea Party supporter Bill Evans said two members of his local RTC were dead and two lived out of state before the recent RTC elections. But even after the election many members don’t show up for the meetings and Evans, who wants to participate, continues to be given the cold shoulder.
Chris Healy, chairman of the state Republican Party, said he thinks the Tea Party was successful in energizing the Republican base. He said there are simply certain demographics in Connecticut that are trending against the party. He said it didn’t help when then Gov. Rell went along with the Democrats in crafting a budget, which at the time borrowed close to $1 billion, to avoid having to make further cuts.
Healy said that by using the state’s credit card in last year’s budget, Rell deprived the party of an opportunity to create the economic pain that is supposed to go with the spending cuts necessary to close a large budget deficit. By borrowing close to $1 billion, Rell allowed the Democratic majority to ignore the real problem. Also, Healy said the Democratic National Committee poured money into Richard Blumenthal’s campaign for the U.S. Senate while the Democratic Governor’s Association provided financial support for Malloy’s gubernatorial bid — spending money on a campaign in Connecticut for the first time.
President Barack Obama and President Clinton made two appearances and so did First Lady Michelle Obama. Healy, who considered challenging National Republican Chairman Michael Steele for his job, said the party did not receive any national funds. But McMahon spent about $50 million of her own fortune on her race and the races of some of the other candidates.
Healy also said new public campaign finance rules have essentially tied his hands. He can only spend $3,000 on state House candidates and $6,000 on state Senate candidates.
“The unions can do anything and none of that counts,” Healy said. “Where we had candidates close to the ground, we won.”