TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

What happens when a political party gets wiped out in elections? Typically, there are varying degrees of soul searching, hand wringing, pearl clutching – you name the cliché – among the party faithful, depending on the severity of the defeat. It’s unusual to see such activity before the general election, but if the early buzz is any indication, most Connecticut Republicans aren’t happy with the results of last week’s primary elections and are not terribly optimistic about the party’s chances in November.

Since the primaries, I’ve spoken with a number of state Republican officials and activists, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name. The mood among these people ranges from discouraged to despairing.

The upset of moderate Themis Klarides at the hands of neo-Trumpian Leora Levy in the GOP primary for US Senate seat has cut through the fog of uncertainty like a dagger. Hartford insider Klarides, the former state House minority leader, received the party’s endorsement at the party’s convention last month and was widely assumed to be the frontrunner. Levy’s 10-point margin of victory was, in the words of Sacred Heart University Prof. Gary Rose, “an upset of historic proportions,” especially when one considers that she had to split the conservative vote with fellow Trump admirer Peter Lumaj.

Levy, a prodigious GOP fundraiser and a member of the Republican National Committee, will square off against incumbent Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who is equally wealthy and well connected but who has the backing of just about every voter in the state who can’t stand Donald Trump. For some perspective, in the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden got nearly 60% of the vote in Connecticut. Biden’s approval ratings have taken a beating here, as they have just about everywhere else, but the president won’t be on the ballot in November.

Blumenthal’s approval ratings have also slipped over the years, but even Klarides faced an uphill climb in trying to unseat a man who spent 20 years as state attorney general, playing legal Superman and suing everyone in sight who might harm his state.

Themis went to great pains to distance herself from Trump and aim her barbs at Blumenthal and Biden, while Levy embraced the ex-president and received a last-minute endorsement from him. Ironically, Trump might be the only politician whose approval ratings are lower than Blumenthal’s in Connecticut.

But a number of factors came together to put Levy over the top: at about 20%, turnout among Republican voters was low; the unaffiliated voters like yours truly who might have gravitated toward Themis cannot participate in party primaries. Perhaps, as my colleague Susan Bigelow observed recently, that needs to change.

Levy also received a last-minute endorsement from Trump the day after the FBI executed a search warrant at his Palm Beach, Florida, compound. The search, which sparked outrage and conspiracy theories among Trump supporters, probably motivated more of them to come out on primary day.

In assessing the viability of a political campaign, never underestimate what I would call the fervor factor, especially in a close race. Columnist Chris Powell, who is generally sympathetic to Republicans, wrote last week of the lukewarm support for Klarides: “She didn’t give enough Republicans a reason. Indeed, she seemed to lack enthusiasm for her own campaign.” One Powell commenter put it more succinctly – and I suspect s/he speaks for many Levy voters: “Yes, Klarides was a very nice RINO, with nothing in her heart except to join the most exclusive club on earth. I just waited for any supporter of The Don to emerge.”

Another source of angst for the Republicans I’ve spoken to is GOP gubernatorial nominee Bob Stefanowski who, in a repeat performance, is trying to move the needle after his unsuccessful 2018 bid against Ned Lamont. “Repeat” is the key word here. As I wrote last month, twice since 2010, Republicans ran a wealthy businessman with no experience as a candidate for public office against Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and twice Tom Foley lost.

Twice they ran a wealthy businesswoman, Linda McMahon, against each of our Democratic US senators and she lost both times. Then they ran Bob against Ned in 2018 and lost. Now, contrary to all good common sense, they expect a different result?

Stefanowski, a former executive at GE and UBS, appears to know little about politics and the art of persuasion beyond pitching an idea in a corporate boardroom. But to be fair, he has a thankless task. Bob is trying to convince voters to fire an incumbent governor who has presided over increased fiscal stability, competent management of the COVID-19 pandemic and now has bragging rights to a series of positive reports about its quality of living, most recently from WalletHub, a personal finance website.

Yes, Connecticut is expensive, taxes are relatively high (though competitive with neighboring states) and there are long-term problems related to fiscal stability and affordability that must be addressed, but WalletHub places Connecticut 3rd in education and health, 14th in safety, 24th in quality of life and the 7th best state to raise a family. Connecticut isn’t paradise but I wouldn’t trade it for a low-tax state dominated by Christian conservatives who want to tell me and the women in my family how to live, or insist that the nation’s plague of gun violence can be addressed by better mental health services alone.

Bob has tried to give his flagging campaign a shot in the arm by hiring a new campaign manager, Patrick Sasser, who made a name for himself as the leader of a successful campaign, No Tolls CT, whose goal was to stop Lamont’s early effort to put tolls on several of the state’s highways. Last year, Sasser also managed the winning special-election campaign of state Sen. Ryan Fazio of Greenwich.

But Sasser, a Stamford firefighter, has never run anything resembling a statewide campaign. As I wrote at the time on social media, “My guess is Sasser won’t really be running the campaign per se, but will be the guy with sharp elbows who puts the press corps in its place with blunt language such as the kind he uses right here on Twitter.”

The one bright spot for the GOP seems to be the 5th District congressional race. Incumbent two-term Democrat Jahana Hayes is seen as vulnerable because Biden is unpopular and the Fightin’ Fifth is known as a swing district even though it has been Democratic since 2006, when now US Sen Chris Murphy dethroned Republican legend Nancy Johnson. Establishment Republicans I’ve spoken with are universally optimistic about the chances of Hayes’ challenger, former state Sen. George Logan.

I ran into one Logan booster on Saturday in my hometown of Salisbury. Tom Morrison, an author and retired tort lawyer, chairs the Republican Town Committee. In a letter to the Lakeville Journal, Morrison singled out Logan, a moderate Republican, as “extremely personable and charismatic.”

“George cares deeply about our District and the State,” Morrison said. “His message of lowering costs for families, supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs, improving our schools, and supporting law enforcement is sensible and realistic.”

That all rings true, except the part about “caring deeply about the district.” Logan did not live in the 5th District until recently, when he moved to a leased home in Meriden. Logan has lived in Ansonia, which lies in his old state Senate district, for 20 years. I personally don’t give a rip where my representatives in Congress live, as long as they represent me well. But not everyone is as forgiving about carpet-bagging and naked opportunism.

I’d say Logan has a chance to beat Hayes, but the incumbent has still got to be considered the favorite. Hayes has, for the most part, been cautiously centrist, and hasn’t made any big mistakes. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 5th and the Democratic presidential candidate has carried the district in every election since 2000 when the 5th was created in a mandated merger with the 6th, Johnson’s old district.

The smart money will be on the GOP getting wiped out in the marquee matchups for governor, Senate, and Congress in November. And I say that utterly without glee. At least two competitive parties are essential to a functioning democracy in any given state. The Connecticut GOP must disown Donald Trump and the far right and move back to the Yankee Republicanism of fiscal responsibility and self-reliance embodied by Johnson, Chris Shays, and Rob Simmons. Or perhaps the Republicanism of John Rowland, minus the corruption. If not, it’s lights out for the foreseeable future.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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