Connecticut Republicans may be surprised to learn that a key campaign official — Elissa Voccola — was forced to sit out last year’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign. Why? Sources say the party’s nominee, Tom Foley, decided to banish Voccola from the campaign over tactical disagreements shortly after his nomination.
Members of the Republican State Central Committee say Voccola, 26, only returned to the party’s Hartford headquarters in November, a day after Foley had lost a second campaign to Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. She is now the former executive director of the Connecticut Republican Party and her resume includes work on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
Many in the party were unaware of Voccola’s absence until a meeting in December when a party member inquired about her activities. Voccola, according to several state committee members, explained that she was placed on paid administrative leave at Foley’s request.
According to sources, Voccola, who declined to comment for this story, disagreed openly with Foley regarding hiring, allocation of resources, and fundraising. Voccola was recently hired as executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Sources say she was pushed out the door at Republican Party headquarters after Foley won the party’s nomination in August.
Foley, who says he doesn’t plan on running again, declined to comment for this story.
Justin Clark, Foley’s campaign manager, also declined to comment.
According to party members, Voccola addressed the issue at the party’s meeting in December, speaking in broad terms about the disagreements between the campaign and the party over hiring decisions and allocation of resources.
Some Republicans believe the party’s chairman, Jerry Labriola Jr., should have stood up to Foley and defended his staff, while others believe he could not have done so because it would have hindered the party’s fundraising efforts.
The 2014 election was the first in which the Republican Party was able to coordinate with its gubernatorial candidate during the campaign. Since Foley was using the public financing system, the ability to raise money for get-out-the-vote efforts rested with the state party. But as their nominee, Foley had become the de facto head of the party.
However, Labriola — whose official job is to lead the state Republican Party — declined to comment on exactly what happened between Foley and Voccola.
“Elissa served our party well for many years, and the New Hampshire state party is lucky to have her on their team,” Labriola said. “Other than that, my policy is not to comment on personnel matters. Now is the time to look forward and work to build our party to elect Republicans in future elections.”
Zak Sanders, former Republican Party spokesman, said Labriola did protest the decision to put Voccola on paid administrative leave, but the Foley campaign didn’t want to listen.
“Elissa is a talented political operative and I believe the campaign would have benefited greatly, and may have even had a different result, if she was permitted to stay involved,” Sanders said.
He also said that the “episode is a glaring example of a poorly executed campaign that squandered an opportunity to change leadership in Connecticut. If campaign senior staff had spent more time communicating with voters, and less time positioning within their own party, the results would have been much different.”
Foley faced criticism following the election for micromanaging his campaign, including — according to Republican sources — refusing to get professional media training, writing his own television ads, and ignoring those who told him to hire national political operatives. Low-level staffers on the campaign also complained about disorganization in the field and the lack of communication about their assignments.
There are others who just thought Foley, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and a private equity manager, was just the wrong Republican.
“The answer is clear that this whole notion that someone successful in business with zero political experience can just grab the brass ring in a race for governor or senate — it doesn’t work that way. We’ve experimented with it as a party five or more times. It does not work,” former House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said the day after the election.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said he wasn’t privy to the day-to-day operations of the Republican Party, so Voccola’s absence wasn’t immediately noticeable. However, Boughton said Voccola explained to state central committee members at their meeting in December what had taken place with Foley. Boughton said she recounted disagreements on what was best for the campaign and how those disagreements led to her removal.
Boughton said he accepts Voccola’s explanation of the events and believes that any campaign that doesn’t understand Elissa’s value is missing out on a “smart savvy operative.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides agreed.
“She’s always been really hard working and committed and has a very good political sense,” Klarides said.
Klarides said she understands it would be easy to look at Elissa and think she’s too young to understand what’s going on, but it’s not necessarily how long you’ve been doing it. “It’s about your ability to get it,” Klarides said.
As vice chairwoman of the Republican Party, Klarides said she relied upon Elissa to let her know what was happening and was disappointed to learn she had been put on paid administrative leave.
“At some point in the middle of the summer she just wasn’t around anymore,” Klarides said.
Recounting conversations that took place at the time about Voccola and the campaign, Klarides said she “had a very big problem with the fact that she wasn’t involved in it anymore at that point and it wasn’t her doing.”
But Klarides said she doesn’t necessarily blame Labriola for the situation.
That said, Klarides said she wouldn’t want to see him stay in the job after his term is up, despite an ongoing whisper campaign by some Republicans suggesting that Labriola should seek to hold onto the chairmanship. But Klarides also said she doesn’t blame Labriola for essentially benching Elissa.
“When somebody is nominated for your governor candidate, that campaign usually takes over the state party for those months,” Klarides said.
The 2014 campaign was the first under Connecticut’s campaign finance laws that state parties and gubernatorial candidates were able to legally coordinate their resources. When that happens, generally, the gubernatorial candidate begins calling the shots for the party apparatus.
“It was my understanding that there was a difference in philosophies with the Foley campaign vs. the state party,” Klarides said. “What bothered me the most, I guess, was that we had somebody who had always been a hard worker, well-respected, good political sense, and was now not around anymore and nobody could really answer why.”
And whether Republicans want to admit it, the Republican Party doesn’t do as well as Democrats do with female voters, Klarides said flatly. She said having a female executive director was good for the party.
“I know people like her and respected her and then she was all of a sudden gone,” Klarides said.