HARTFORD, CT — (Updated 1:14 p.m.) Republicans lost seats in both the Connecticut Senate and House in 2018 and they failed to win back the governor’s office, but how much of that had anything to do with the Republican Party’s leadership or structure?
In less than a week, the 74 members of the Republican Party’s state central committee will get a chance to decide whether they want to keep JR Romano as party chairman.
Romano, who was first elected in 2015, is seeking a third two-year term and is being challenged by three other candidates. Coventry Republican Town Committee Chairman Matthew O’Brien Jr., former Republican Chairman Dick Foley, and David Mathus, a lawyer from Darien, believe they can do a better job than Romano.
Romano defended his record earlier this week in a phone interview.
He said he raised $1.4 million but there were things that were out of his control such as the backlash against Republican President Donald Trump, who was not on the ballot.
Romano also pointed out that he didn’t have control over how many candidates got into the race for governor and the fact that it was a three-way race hurt Republicans. At the same time, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski received more than 650,000 votes, which is the most votes for a Republican gubernatorial candidate since the 710,000 votes former Gov. M. Jodi Rell received in 2006.
As far as the General Assembly is concerned, Romano said there were 22 races within 2 percentage points and 8 recounts.
“Democrats didn’t win by massive margins,” Romano said.
He said 2020 represents an opportunity for Republicans, and “I’ve navigated these waters before.”
Romano said the party has held 150 training sessions since January and is focusing on grassroots activities in addition to changing the culture of the party.
O’Brien said $1.4 million still means Republicans were outspent by about $4.8 million.
He said he would make fundraising a priority and he would seek to optimize branding that unites the Connecticut Republican Party with the national party.
“I don’t see politics as a game. It’s serious business that affects the lives of millions of people,” O’Brien said.
He said he disagrees with Romano’s “lead from behind” stance on setting the agenda.
He said the Republican Party needs to be setting the agenda and “finding candidates that believe in Republican values, and will be incredible advocates for a greater Republican plan. It’s chaos out there right now. Everyone has different ideas with no unifying theme.”
O’Brien said he agrees with Ben Proto, who did not run for chairman but recently wrote a paper that called for the restructuring of the Republican Party, that the GOP needs to start connecting with voters on the deeper level.
He said he would focus on year-round voter outreach, including in the cities, and events that average Republicans can actually afford, not just expensive dinners like the annual Bush event.
“We need to relearn how to talk with voters, how to reach and connect with them on an emotional and heartfelt level,” Proto said in his paper. “We must develop an organization that can deliver that message throughout the year.”
Foley said the Republican Party has failed to focus on its bench.
Connecticut has not had a Republican representative in Congress since 2009.
Foley said they need to start looking for candidates to run for Congress. He said the same people continue to run year after year, and some have not raised a dollar for their campaigns.
“The single most important thing you can do to improve your lot in politics is recruit the best candidates,” Foley said. “You want people who people will vote for because they’re friends, a little league coach or a member of the church auxiliary.”
Foley said he has the proven experience to raise money and during his tenure as chairman no one brought in more financial resources to the Republican Party. Foley was chairman from 1989 to 1993. He was also involved in Steve Obsitnik’s failed gubernatorial bid in 2018.
Foley said there might have been a Trump factor in 2018, but there was a positive Trump factor in 2016 when Republicans tied Democrats in the Senate and came within a few seats in the House.
Mathus who is waging a paid campaign for the 74 votes said on his website that they need to restore the vigor of the finance committee and recruit new leaders with “influence and gravitas needed to connect with major donors.”
In a phone interview Friday he said the Republican Party’s ground game needs to be more active every quarter of every year and they need to raise a lot more money and recruit good candidates.
“We need to be aware of where there are gaps there were legislative and other races where we didn’t run any Republicans,” Mathus said.
He said a better “ground game” is his first priority, but “you can’t do a better ground game without money.”
He said they need a clear plan and a team that can execute it.
“If we rally behind a clear multi-pronged plan to rebuild our Party and retake control of our state, we can make the GOP the Party of Connecticut’s Recovery, the Party of Connecticut’s Future,” Mathus said.