Gov. Ned Lamont, Republican Bob Stefanowski and Independent Party candidate Rob Hotaling. Credit: Courtesy of NBC Connecticut

WEST HARTFORD, CT – About 20 minutes into their first televised debate of the election, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski accused Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont of lying to Connecticut voters on his stance regarding abortion rights.

“Gov. Lamont has been spending $500,000 a week to attack me on TV,” Stefanowski said. “Roe v. Wade is codified in Connecticut state law. I’m going to protect a woman’s right to choose.” 

The clash occurred about halfway through the gubernatorial forum held at NBC Connecticut’s studios in West Hartford, which also included Independent candidate Rob Hotaling. Stefanowski seemed annoyed by the persistence of the abortion issue, which Democrats have sought to keep in the headlines since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

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Bob Stefanowski addresses reporters after the debate. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

“He’s been lying for four months about my position,” Stefanowski said. “I can’t say it any clearer. I’m going to protect a woman’s right to choose. I don’t know what else I can say. Governor Lamont, you really should stop doing it because it’s not right for you. You talk about Connecticut values, you shouldn’t be trying to scare the women of Connecticut.”

“I think you’re scaring the women of Connecticut,” Lamont said moments later. “Actions speak louder than words, Bob. You had a choice to make just a few months ago. You could’ve donated money to a pro-choice senate candidate for here in Connecticut.”

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Gov. Ned Lamont during a post-debate Q&A. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Stefanowski cut in as Lamont attempted to point to his rival’s donations to the campaign of Leora Levy, an abortion-opposed Republican candidate running against U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Levy received a surprise endorsement by former President Donald Trump before beating out Themis Klarides, a pro-abortion rights candidate who had been favored to win the primary race.

Stefanowski countered that Lamont had donated to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock who is an avid supporter of the Second Amendment. He said giving to a candidate does not mean you support all of their positions. 

“Stop the nonsense,” Stefanowski said. 

The exchange was among the most heated moments in the hour-long debate, which touched on topics ranging from tax policy to the affordability of health insurance in Connecticut. 

Stefanowski had good reason to come out swinging. The event followed the release of the third poll this month to find Lamont with a double-digit lead over the Madison Republican who he defeated in 2018.

In addition to suggesting the first term Democrat held a 15 point lead, the survey by CT Insider, Channel 3 Eyewitness News, and Western New England University, reinforced another trend identified by previous polls: Lamont appears to be winning among women voters. Tuesday’s survey put that advantage at a stark 62% to 32%.

The poll results are similar to two previous surveys, one from Quinnipiac University that showed Lamont with a 63% to 35% lead among women and one from WTNH and Emerson College that suggested he held a 50% to 32% advantage among women. 

But while Stefanowski may suffer from a gender gap, the polls have also suggested that voters are more concerned about economic issues than they are reproductive rights. The recent Quinnipiac University poll found that the top two issues on voters’ minds were inflation and taxes. 

During the debate, Stefanowski said Lamont has chosen to focus on abortion because he did not want to answer questions like one asked by the moderators about a single mother who was struggling to pay for her child’s health care. 

Meanwhile, Stefanowski, Lamont and Hotaling offered different takes on the current state of Connecticut’s economy and how to place more people in jobs. Lamont sought to contrast the state’s finances with the conditions he inherited when he was first elected. 

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Rob Hotaling during a post-debate Q&A. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

“Our GDP was the one of the strongest over the last three quarters,” Lamont said. “Connecticut is getting its mojo back.” 

Stefanowski said Connecticut fell 16 points in CNBC’s annual survey of business friendliness. 

“They gave us an F for affordability. They gave us an F for the economy,” Stefanowski said. “That to me is not having our mojo back.” 

Hotaling, a bank executive, used some of his time to explain inflation and federal monetary policy and how it impacts residents in the state. He said the state should use its surplus to pay down its pension debt and maybe use some of the money to close the achievement gap and recalibrate its education cost-sharing formula. After the debate he said he would spend just 15% of the surplus and keep the rest for a rainy day.

“Connecticut’s a tale of two cities,” Hotaling said. “We have some of the best schooling systems in the entire country, we have 10 of the best high schools, nationally ranked in top 10 for education, but then we also have the worst achievement gap in the nation and some of the worst high schools.”

Lamont was non-committal on whether he would use the budget surplus to lower what low and middle-class families will have to pay to heat their homes this winter. Stefanowski is proposing to give about $2 billion of the surplus back to taxpayers. 

“They have spent the rainy day fund, these two, three times over already and that’s just the type of governance that got us into this pickle over the last 30 years,” Lamont said.

While the candidates were unable to agree on what to do with the budget surplus, which is $4 billion this year and will be $2.3 billion next fiscal year, they also were unable to agree on how to address the double-digit increase in health insurance premiums. 

“Ask any small business, medium-sized business across our state whether health care and insurance costs have gone down since Gov. Lamont came into office they’ll laugh at you,” Stefanowski said. “It’s not funny because it’s choking small business and medium-sized business.” 

Stefanowski said he agrees with Lamont that they need to work on lowering prescription drug prices, but they also need to address the issue of surprise bills when a provider is out-of-network. 

“We need to stop talking about it and actually do something about it,” Stefanowski said. “People are struggling. Nothing has happened in the last four years.” 

Lamont suggested that the single mother who pays $400 a month in health care premiums, but had to spend her $6,000 deductible when she took her son to the hospital should consider a plan on the exchange. He said that would dramatically reduce her premiums. 

He failed to point out that every plan on the exchange is a high-deductible plan and this mother may have had one of those plans. 

Stefanowski said is they were focused on directing people to the best care, at the best cost then prices wouldn’t be up over 20% this year. 

He said why would anyone think that’s going to change if they re-elect Lamont? He suggested Connecticut voters need to take a new approach. 

Stefanowski, who is behind in all the public polls, said that he doesn’t pay attention to public polls. He said he has his own polling which has him up within the margin of error. 

“Quinnipiac had us losing by 15 points last time and we came within 45,000 votes,” Stefanowski said. 

He said the debate they just had will help let voters know where he stands on the issues. 

“When I’m out in the field, which I am quite a bit, people are struggling to afford Connecticut, they’re worried about their safety. Parents are concerned about raising their kids. We’re going to make it safer, we’re going to make it more affordable, and we’re going to parents not the state back in charge of raising their kids,” Stefanowski said. 

Lamont said the polls show people believe they’re making progress in the state. 

“We were in a pretty tough place four years ago and four years later our fiscal house is better positioned. We’ve got a lot of jobs. We’re making progress,” Lamont said. 

He said his goal with the debates is to keep it substantive and not make it personal. He said he felt the debate Tuesday did just that. 

“It’s a chance for me to explain to people what I do and why I did it,” Lamont said.