Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski seemed to be taking a page from Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s playbook last month when he unveiled his “parental bill of rights,” which included a ban against transgender female athletes competing in high school sports.

Youngkin, who was in Connecticut on Wednesday for a fundraiser for Stefanowski, is facing criticism in his own state where over 12,000 students at 100 schools walked out of class Tuesday to protest new guidelines issued by his administration that would pare back protections for transgender youth.

Sacred Heart Political Science Professor Gary Rose

Sacred Heart Political Science Professor Gary Rose, who wrote a book about the 2018 race between Stefanowski and Gov. Ned Lamont, said he thinks it was a mistake for Stefanowski to invoke the culture wars and parental rights.

“I was surprised when he announced that at the Capitol,” Rose said in a phone interview Wednesday. “A lot of things have been going wrong with his campaign lately. We’ve had the staff shake-ups, then we had the debacle involving the Independent Party. I’m just wondering if this is somewhat of a hail mary with the parental bill of rights,” Rose said. 

Virginia polling data showed Youngkin’s parental rights platform motivated older conservative voters to head to the polls in 2021, but not necessarily parents. Exit polls showed Youngkin’s campaign was fueled by support from political independents, negative ratings of President Biden, and voters focused on the economy and education.

Voters who said parents should have a lot of say supported Youngkin by a 77% to 22% margin, while those who said parents should have some say supported McAuliffe by a similar 77% to 23% margin. An 86% majority of those who said parents should have little or no say supported McAuliffe.

“We’re going to get parents, not the state, back in charge of raising their kids,” Stefanowski said Tuesday following the debate.

Stefanowski said Youngkin was “a terrific example of somebody who has put parents first.”

Rose speculated that Stefanowski, who has been behind Lamont in every public poll, is probably not doing very well even in his internal polling.

“And with the polling showing him well behind, I’m wondering if maybe they felt, ‘Okay we’ve said enough about the economic and the tax issues here in Connecticut. Now let’s try something else that might elevate our campaign and rejuvenate it. Let’s go into the cultural issues,” Rose said. “Now the question is, will that fly in a state like Connecticut? It did fly in Virginia, but Connecticut is a far cry from Virginia when it comes to the social and cultural issues.”

Gov. Ned Lamont said he thinks the problem in the 2021 race where Youngkin beat Terry McAuliffe was the failure of that state to get their schools open following COVID.

“Connecticut prioritized getting our schools open,” Lamont said Tuesday. “Big difference between us and Virginia.”

But polling data fell short in the months ahead of former president Donald Trump’s election in 2016. 

“It is true that in 2016 there was a vote under the surface that the pollsters missed and so it’s possible that there is that dimension here too in this election because people, particularly conservatives, have become suspicious of pollsters and they think there’s an agenda when they contact them,” Rose said.

Stefanowski was down by double-digits in the public polls in 2018 and came within about 3 percentage points of beating Lamont.

“So with polling, there’s legitimate reason to question the findings, but when you have three different polls still showing very substantial leads, then I would say I don’t know if that’s really under the surface,” Rose added.

Rose said he doesn’t think something like parental rights is going to move the needle for Stefanowski.

“Polls are showing this election is getting pretty well baked. A lot of people have made up their minds now,” he said.