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Gary Kleeblatt
GARY KLEEBLATT

We often think of political candidates as being the “heroes” of their campaigns. Winning and losing are attributed to the candidates’ shrewd moves or fumbled opportunities — as if their actions and decisions are the ultimate determinants of election results.

But the Connecticut governor’s race between Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and Republican challenger Bob Stefanowski shows that the candidates themselves play only bit parts. The context – what’s happening around the candidates and campaigns – is the real “kingmaker.”

Lamont will win re-election handily because the COVID crisis — pervasively touching the lives of every Connecticut resident — became the context in which we view him as a leader. COVID changed how we view Lamont and largely broke the public’s association of Lamont with the unpopular Governor Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who immediately preceded Lamont. If you’re a Lamont fan, you can say he rose admirably to meet the exigencies of the situation. If you’re a critic, you can say he got lucky.

Malloy had his own luck, and it was consistently bad. He entered office with a multi-billion dollar deficit inherited from prior administrations. He had no choice but to raise taxes, cut spending, and watch his poll numbers plummet. So tying Lamont to Malloy was damning to a public that had grown pessimistic about Connecticut’s fiscal management.

Associating Lamont with Malloy was a deliberate tactic of the Republicans. During the 2018 campaign, they argued Lamont would be an extension of Malloy. After winning by 3 percent nevertheless, Lamont made the mistake of proposing highway tolls almost immediately upon taking office. Toll opponents again used Malloy to create an unflattering comparison with Lamont. (Never mind that every surrounding state has instituted tolling that Connecticut residents pay when rolling along our neighbors’ highways.) Lamont’s approval ratings sank to less than 25 percent in 2019 as a sizable part of the public was convinced Lamont had become “Malloy: The Sequel.” It was not going well for the former Greenwich businessman.

Then the context changed; COVID hit in 2020, and the public looked to leaders for answers and comfort. Gov. Lamont, who possesses an unassuming and direct speaking style, became a daily presence on local TV news as the quarantining public had plenty of time to consume the COVID coverage. Lamont was featured on national TV as a governor who deftly navigated the crisis.

Surely and steadily, Lamont’s political fortunes rose to the point where a recent poll showed him with the highest approval rating of any Democratic governor in the nation. Recent polls show Lamont leading Stefanowski by 10 to 17 percentage points.

COVID has turned Lamont from a political 98-pound weakling to the bully who kicks sand at the beach with impunity.

COVID isn’t the only context weighing on the election. For Stefanowski, a dominant feature of the political context is that no Republican has won a statewide election since Jodi Rell won her own term as governor in 2006. Sixteen years of futility is a steep hole to climb out of, and the politically-muscular labor unions are going to make sure there are no ladders available. The disadvantages of being a Republican candidate for statewide office in Connecticut are substantial.

Stefanowski is trying to change the context himself. We’ve seen the Republican ads saying that the difference between the candidates isn’t over abortion and instead trying to make the race about inflation, the economy, and President Biden.

Of course, Lamont wants the context to be exactly about abortion and all the Trump craziness.

So the campaigns will tussle over the context and try to control the defining differences in the race. But there are no heroes here.

COVID has so forcefully and tragically affected us that we cannot overstate its many effects, and some of them may not be understood for many years. Among its less consequential outcomes is that Lamont has defined himself through it and that will sweep him to re-election. The unprecedented pandemic will provide Lamont with a second term. It’s the context that decides.

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Gary Kleeblatt

Gary Kleeblatt lives in Wethersfield and teaches public speaking at Manchester Community College.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.