As the state’s voters know, Connecticut is not exactly a Republican stronghold.
Over the past 10 presidential elections, Republican candidates have won more votes in Connecticut than Democrats in just three elections: the victories for Ronald Reagan (1980 and 1984) and George H.W. Bush (1988). Since that time, Republican candidates have garnered fewer votes than every Democratic candidate, mustering just 40 percent of the votes in Connecticut, on average.
The GOP has enjoyed somewhat more success at the state level, as four of the past 11 governors have been Republicans, but that includes the ultimately disgraced John Rowland from 1995 to 2004. The biggest problem for the Connecticut GOP was the national movement of the party to the right during “the ‘Southernization’ of the national Republican Party” in the 1960s and 1970s, squeezing many moderate Republicans out of the party. Indeed, by 2014 registered Democrats in Connecticut outnumbered Republicans by 300,000.
Connecticut Democrats have predictably used this advantage when campaigning, intensifying the strategy this year by emphasizing the unrest President Donald Trump has brought to the national GOP.
“Connecticut Republicans are giving Donald Trump his candidates in Connecticut,” said Connecticut Democratic Party Communications Director Christina Polizzi. “We haven’t just seen these candidates embrace Donald Trump — they have actively campaigned on his policies and his rhetoric. The Connecticut Republican Convention is the Donald Trump show, putting his politics and his polos on display.”
No doubt, it is a logical tactic to associate Connecticut Republicans with the volatile GOP-in-Chief while simultaneously removing the focus from an extremely unpopular Democratic governor.
A Boston Globe story noted in January that “no matter how many [gubernatorial] candidates are on the stage now, analysts say the whole contest is really about two men who aren’t even on the ballot”: Trump and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “Another way of putting it: Can Republicans do a better job distancing themselves from an unpopular first-term president than Democrats can do in distancing themselves from the least popular governor in the country?”
But times change. Consider Trump’s stubborn approval ratings, up from 36.5 percent in December to 42.4 percent earlier this week, according to aggregate polls from FiveThirtyEight. Might an anti-Trump strategy backfire? And how closely should GOP gubernatorial candidates align themselves with the intemperate Oval Office tweeter?
That question is moot for Peter Lumaj, the only GOP gubernatorial candidate who campaigned as an “unabashed supporter of President Donald Trump.” Lumaj dropped out of the race last week.
The three Republican candidates to watch now are Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, and Westport businessman Steve Obsitnik — the three GOP candidates to emerge from the GOP convention as “winners.” Boughton received the party’s nomination, while Herbst and Obsitnik earned the necessary support to appear on August’s primary ballot. Of these three, Herbst is probably the most “Trump-friendly” candidate, while Boughton might be considered the least.
Last week, Herbst earned the endorsement of the conservative Family Institute of Connecticut, political advisor Peter Wolfgang noting that the Trumbull Republican “agrees with the Family Institute on several key issues, such as opposition to aid in dying legislation and support for legislation requiring minors to notify their parents before obtaining an abortion.”
The pro-2nd Amendment Connecticut Citizens Defense League, conversely, feels “Mark Boughton is the worst nominee for gun owners in the Republican Party. Our concern is having a governor who will sign whatever anti-gun legislation that comes his way. Tens of thousands of gun owners probably will not show up in a general election if he wins in a primary.”
While abortion and guns might motivate some voters, the GOP candidate who wins the nomination will be the one with the most appealing response to Connecticut’s fiscal woes. Whether it’s current University of Connecticut students or residents statewide, recent polls indicate the economy and state budget are the citizens’ primary concerns now.
In that regard, the man from the Hat City might have a leg up on his opponents. According to his campaign website, “As mayor of the city of Danbury for the last 15 years, Boughton led the city through changing economic landscapes,” keeping “taxes down, crime rates low, and continuously balanc[ing] the city budget.”
That could be a compelling story for state voters. Connecticut, after all, remains a predominantly blue state whose Republicans lean mostly moderate and whose politics remain largely local. GOP candidates, therefore, will likely disregard Trump.
Boughton said it himself: “At the end of the day this election is about Connecticut. It’s not about the national conversation that’s going on. It’s about what happens in our state and how do we get this state of ours back on a road that all of us remember.”
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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