Bob Stefanowski and Laura Devlin at the Independent Party convention. Credit: Hugh McQuaid file photo
Susan Bigelow

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski lost the cross-endorsement of a minor party last week, and he’s been threatening to take them to court over it. This sounds petty, and it absolutely is petty, but it’s also a very bad sign for a campaign already taking on water.

It went down like this. On Tuesday, the Connecticut Independent Party met to endorse a candidate for governor. The Independent Party is one of two minor parties in the state that often cross-endorse a major party candidate for races up and down the ballot, the other being the Working Families Party. The way it’s worked over the past decade and more is that the Independents tend to endorse Republican candidates, while the WFP endorses Democrats.

This system, which I’ll admit is pretty weird at first glance, grew out of the straitjacket the two-party system has put on our politics. In this kind of system, it’s just about impossible for minor parties to attract any kind of notice at all. So here in Connecticut and in quite a few other states, some of the minor parties hit upon the idea that they could get the attention of both the media and the voters by allowing the cross-endorsement of major party candidates. This is a win-win; the minor parties get to bring their issues to the big leagues, while major party candidates have the chance to secure a second line on the ballot.

How much that second line may matter is debatable. It may matter quite a bit in close races!

In 2010, Dannel P. Malloy actually got 20,000 fewer votes on the Democratic line than Tom Foley did on the Republican line. But Malloy was cross-endorsed by the WFP, and those 26,000 votes from the WFP line were enough to put him over the top.

Now, would those voters have gone for Malloy anyway if he hadn’t been cross-endorsed? Maybe. But maybe not. Voters may check the box for a cross-endorsed major party candidate on a minor party line for a number of reasons. They could be members of that party, and want to support their own. They could also be sending a message: “I support you, but I also support the values and message of the Working Families or Independent Party, and if you want my vote you should do the same.”

Major party candidates don’t want to take the chance that they’ll get those votes regardless. Case in point: the Independent Party didn’t cross-endorse Foley in 2010, and their candidate got a further 17,000 votes. If those votes had gone to Foley, he’d have been elected governor. Foley learned his lesson, and won the Independent Party endorsement in 2014. Bob Stefanowski won it in 2018. Malloy and his successor Ned Lamont won the WFP endorsements in 2014 and 2018. Those elections weren’t close enough for the minor party-line votes to have changed the overall results.

That brings us to last week.

The WFP had already endorsed Lamont, as expected, with little drama or fuss. But when the Independent Party caucus-goers showed up in Guilford, they were ready for a fight. The party’s central committee had endorsed Rob Hotaling over Stefanowski, and were lobbying hard to get the caucus to do the same. Stefanowski supporters held firm, though, and the end result was a tie vote of 79-79. That’s when the party chair, Mike Telesca, decided he could break the tie, and threw the vote and the endorsement to Hotaling.

The result, of course, was total chaos. Did Telesca actually have the authority to do that? Was the Independent Party not following its own bylaws? Was this the result of Telesca deciding that he was going to get his own candidate on the ballot instead of Stefanowski no matter what? Or was just the Stefanowski campaign being a bunch of sore losers, and trying to strong-arm a minor party into doing what they want?

It looks like a court will decide. But even if there is a re-vote that Stefanowski wins, he may have burned up a lot of goodwill with those Independent voters.

Worse, he’s burned time.

The Stefanowski campaign, which has endured the loss and replacement of top staff over the past month, is starting to get the stench of desperation on it. They’re behind, and they know they’re behind. So far Gov. Ned Lamont has been able to do two things very effectively: tout his own accomplishments, and portray Stefanowski as too uncaring, too extreme, and without any real plans of his own. Stefanowski’s campaign has tried very hard to tie Lamont to all kinds of problems, from taxes to corruption to crime, but they have had little success. 

Next week is Labor Day, the time when people traditionally start paying attention to the upcoming November elections. If he doesn’t turn things around soon, and stop wasting his time, he’ll be joining Tom Foley in the two-time losers club.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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