HARTFORD, CT — What if Republican Bob Stefanowski had distanced himself from Republican President Donald Trump on just a few occasions? Or what if there hadn’t been such a bloody primary with so many candidates?
Those are just a few of the questions Republicans have been asking themselves as they try to figure out what went wrong last Tuesday when they lost the race for an open governor’s seat along with seats in the state House and the Senate.
“If you look at the map people who could afford to be offended went to the polls to punish Donald Trump,” Republican Party Chairman JR Romano said Friday, pointing to races the party lost along the Gold Coast in Fairfield County.
He said Stefanowski’s 650,113 votes outperformed past Republican candidates, according to the most recent results from the Secretary of the State’s office. The results show Stefanowski lost to Democrat Ned Lamont by 44,581 votes.
Romano said they warned local Republican Town Committees that Democratic participation would be up 10 to 15 percent. He said that in areas where local town committees worked to get out the vote, their candidates were able to hold on. He cited races in Fairfield where Republican Reps. Brenda Kupchick and Laura Devlin, and Sen. Tony Hwang, were able to win.
Tim Herbst, who lost in the five-way Republican primary to Stefanowski, said he disagrees that losses can simply be chalked up to local involvement in these races.
He said he was helping out Adam Greenberg in the 12th Senate District, which includes, Branford, Guilford, and Madison, and every time they knocked on the door of an unaffiliated voter they were told that Democrats had been there three or four times already.
“Connecticut Republicans need a political enema,” Herbst said Friday, adding that the Republican Party’s field operation was a joke.
He said in 2010 Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy and Executive Director Liz Kurantowicz had already identified 500,000 voters by April. Regardless of what was happening with the contentious five-way primary, Herbst said the Republican Party neglected to identify voters and get a field operation up and running in time for the election.
He said the party’s field offices were open in September and October, which is far too late to make a difference.
“He should have had everything in place no matter who won,” Herbst said, referring to Romano. “That’s what the two chairman before him did.”
Romano isn’t up for re-election until June and no one has publicly called for his resignation.
Herbst pointed out that if Romano wasn’t going to police the five-way primary then he should have had the field operation ready to go in August when Stefanowski surprised everyone by winning.
In 2014, when former Sen. John McKinney challenged Tom Foley in the Republican primary, they held a press conference together in Trumbull the day after the primary to show that the two were united in their fight against Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Foley even allowed McKinney to dump a bucket of ice water on his head.
Republicans didn’t hold any similar type event this year until Oct. 13, and only one of the four other candidates showed up.
By that time, Herbst said, it was too late.
Jonathan Wharton, a political science professor at Southern Connecticut State University, said there are too many divisions at the moment in the Republican Party itself.
“I think it was more a matter of the party remains divided,” Wharton said. “Argue all you want about Trump or Malloy hate, but either side cancel each other out, and it oversimplifies the bigger point that Republicans have been divided.”
He said there’s no single unifying message coming from the Republican Party or even within the results of this election.
Younger Republicans like New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart think maybe they should open up the primary to unaffiliated voters, but the position is not popular with party elders.
She said the numbers in Connecticut don’t work.
There are only 462,948 registered Republican voters, and they are far outnumbered by 791,603 Democratic voters, and 876,517 unaffiliated voters.
Stewart, who is a Republican mayor in a city where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans seven to one, said the party needs to rethink its strategy. She said putting forth the most conservative candidates is not a winning strategy.
“You need someone who is socially moderate to be able to appeal to a majority of Connecticut voters,” Stewart said, adding that getting that person on the ballot would be easier with an open primary system.
She said Republicans can’t be afraid to campaign in the cities where they might not have had success in the past, or they will struggle to survive and remain relevant.
As far as Trump is concerned, she said Stefanowski could have done a better job of distancing himself from the party’s standard bearer.
“People were looking for him to denounce some of what is going on at the national level,” Stewart said.
At the same time “candidates matter,” Stewart said, echoing what former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said last week at Fairfield University.
If the party isn’t putting forward good candidates then it doesn’t matter what they’re doing.
“The single most important rule in winning an election: Candidates matter,” Christie said according to this Hearst Connecticut article.