With the sudden announcement of state Republican Chairman J.R. Romano’s departure last week, columnists and editorial boards wrote that it appeared obvious why he left the post: President Donald Trump’s reelection loss and the Capitol Hill insurrection. These were obvious reasons for a Republican Party official to leave ahead of their term ending in June. But politics being politics, his decision was far more nuanced than what has been suggested.
Trump gets entirely too much of the attention and blame for the problems facing Connecticut’s Republican Party. It is certainly convenient to point fingers at the president rather than to understand the longstanding internal problems of local and state party committees.
As I offered in November when Romano announced he was not running for chair again, the Connecticut Republican Party faced a variety of issues before Trump was even president. There has been a desperate need for reforming the state party committee system – Democrats included. Do the two big parties still need conventions before primary elections in choosing candidates? (Connecticut is still one of a handful of states that has party conventions.) Can the parties ever consider open primaries to get more of the state’s majority unaffiliated voters to participate? Are there pathways to having a party chair negotiate more effectively for candidates to run or consider other offices instead of having so many run for key posts? (See the 2018 state races with nearly two dozen candidates for governor as I summarized in a journal piece last year). In other words, the state’s Republican Party – and in many instances the state Democratic Party too – has been reliant on outdated committee policies that have led to decentralized party leaders as well as uninterested donors and voters.
But the one area Romano stressed for his leaving months ahead of time was the fundraising arena. With Trump’s reelection, it proved difficult for Romano and party officials to fundraise. The bigger problem was that the chairman’s salary is tied to fundraising goals. How can a Connecticut GOP chair, including Romano, fundraise let alone lead a committee in this era?
Beyond the weakening power of the party chair is the antiquated committee structure itself. With 169 municipalities and over 100 local party committees, there are too many entities.
And with one overarching state party committee including 70-plus party officials, the bureaucracy and the politics surrounding these committees makes decisions and politicking nearly impossible for a party chair. Throw in the personal dynamics and egos of these leaders, and the whole structure is chaotic. Is it any wonder why local committees and state committees are rarely on the same page about candidates and initiatives? And yet the party chair has to be the maestro, and it makes being a party leader impossible.
There have been various names mentioned for interim state GOP chair and candidates for the two-year term beginning in June. But what matters most is recognizing what a state party chair faces: internal politics, overdue reforms, limited power, post-Trumpism and fundraising challenges.
Among so many candidates, it would be most ideal to have someone who can be an actual power broker. This significant trait will be essential for any future (and overdue) party structure reforms and for dealing with the onslaught of candidates for statewide office next year. Without brokering among so many candidates for various offices, the Republican state party will remain an impossible ship to steer.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent guest on WNPR and was former chairman of the New Haven Republican Town Committee and a Republican State Central Committee member.
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