Bob Stefanowski should be governor right now.
No, really. The stars aligned for this man. When he ran in 2018 against Ned Lamont, he had so much going for him: a candidate Democrats were lukewarm about, voter fatigue from the universally unpopular Malloy administration, skepticism about tolls and a general desire for change. It was the best chance a Republican had at winning the state’s top office since Jodi Rell in 2006 and he absolutely blew it.
How did that happen? People really wanted to vote for the guy! But he had no discernable ideas beyond impossible things like getting rid of the income tax, and he offered no real solutions beyond some simple business budgeting tricks like zero-based budgeting. He never explained how he’d pay for his tax cuts and he never declared any kind of Charlie Baker-esque independence from Donald Trump, so voters just rolled their eyes. The fact that he almost never bothered to vote didn’t score points, either.
In short, he took a perfectly winnable race and screwed it all up. It’s easy to blame a national blue-wave election and the presence of Oz Griebel in the race, but Stefanowski would have been able to weather both if he’d just had some substance.
He announced last week he’s running again, by the way.
In a very real sense, he never stopped running. He’s written groan-worthy editorials about the cities, he’s been active making statements and tweets and he’s stayed in the news. There was never any real question in the mind of anyone paying attention that he was running again
Stefanowski promises a campaign that focuses on more than just taxes this time. That would be great! I’d like to see that. But is it possible? Has Bob Stefanowski reinvented himself?
There are some hints that the substance may be more present this time. Stefanowski looks ready to go after Lamont where he’s strongest: his handling of the pandemic. Remember, Stefanowski made headlines during the chaotic early days of the pandemic for being able to get PPE to first responders when the government was struggling to do so – a remarkable achievement.
It may not work. Lamont is one of the very few politicians still in office at this late stage in the pandemic who is actually more popular now than he was before it all started. In Lamont’s case, that wasn’t hard to do. In 2018, I wrote that “Governor Ned will be very nice but spin his wheels and get nowhere,” which is basically how it went for him pre-pandemic. He switched positions on tolls, was caught off guard by the strength of the opposition and eventually had to give up on the idea altogether. He entered 2020 as an unpopular afterthought who everyone assumed would decide to go home and spend time with his family before getting shellacked in 2022.
But a crisis is a crucible, and the pandemic forged a Ned Lamont that nobody expected: a calm, serious, competent leader who helped make Connecticut one of the safest places to be. Despite some missteps here and there, he’s largely been able to thread the needle between the cold realities of science and the needs of the people.
So, if this really is going to be a rowdy, rockin’, rich-guy-on-rich-guy rematch, here’s how it could shake out:
If COVID-19 does, as scientists expect, enter an endemic phase where we treat it like we treat the yearly flu season, and life actually starts going back to normal, people will either think Lamont is a hero or they won’t want to hear about the pandemic ever again.
That means that Lamont will be very hard to defeat on the pandemic as an issue. He might be vulnerable on something else. Tolls seem like ancient history, bashing the cities will only work with people who were going to vote for him anyway, fiscal irresponsibility is less effective when the state has a budget surplus and voters so far haven’t cared much about the state being run by Democrats when the Republicans are the alternative.
So what would work? The first rule of elections is that, absent a crisis, incumbents always have the advantage. If the pandemic is truly over, that crisis will have to be something else. The GOP hand-wringing about crime has always seemed transparent to me, but it’s a red-meat issue that could swing some suburban votes. I could see it becoming a big deal.
Whatever Bob decides to focus on, Ned won’t be easy to beat. Connecticut hasn’t seen an incumbent governor unseated since Abraham Ribicoff defeated John Davis Lodge in 1956.
Republicans may want to consider nominating someone who hasn’t already lost to the incumbent if they want to have a hope of breaking that 66-year streak.