Trump factor could benefit Connecticut Republicans

Several factors will determine whether Republicans can translate voter frustration over Connecticut's continuing fiscal problems and lagging economic recovery into Election Day victories that challenge Democratic dominance in the state House and Senate.

An analysis of those factors suggest that Republicans will pick up seats in both chambers and potentially could take control of the Senate, where they would need to add four seats to turn their 21-15 minority status into 19-17 Republican control.

While I consider that unlikely, it could happen.

The first factor is how effective will Republicans be in making this an election about ending one-party rule and about the unpopularity of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

So far, I don’t see Republicans doing a great job of this, but it is still relatively early.

A Republican candidate seeking to unseat a Democratic incumbent has to make the race not about the incumbent, but about the incumbent’s party and its role — after controlling the House, Senate and governor’s chair for the last six years — in creating the state’s problems.

State Republican Party Chairman J.R. Romano told me the party is well aware of that strategy and has plans to execute it, though he said he could not reveal its “battle plans.”

I envision a TV ad campaign that targets Malloy as if he were running himself, with a general “vote Republican” message to curb Malloy’s power and that of the Democrats.

The second factor is how damaging will the weak candidates the Republicans are running in U.S. Senate and congressional races at the top of the ticket hurt their chances of doing well in state House and Senate contests.

Conventional wisdom is that voters largely pay attention to races at the top of the ticket and that performing badly there drags down party candidates lower on the ballot.

But this is not a conventional year.

There is a decided lack of enthusiasm among Democrats for their presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. The passion for Barack Obama that existed in the past two elections drove large turnouts in the state’s Democratic urban strongholds.

“He was a rock star,” Romano conceded.

I just don’t see that happening this year. If that urban vote is depressed, it will mitigate the impact of weak Republican candidates in Senate and congressional races and give down-ticket Republicans a chance to pick up victories in state races.

Which leads me to the Trump factor.

Many have seen Trump as a disaster for Connecticut Republicans, his unpopularity here blunting the opportunity for the GOP to challenge Democratic control in Hartford. I had this perspective early on.

Having watched the race evolve, however, I now see the Trump factor as benefitting many lower-ticket Republicans, particularly here in eastern Connecticut. While I still see Trump losing the state because of the urban vote (thank goodness), I expect he will win most rural and suburban towns in eastern Connecticut, the kind of places where Republican challengers have the best chance of defeating Democratic state legislators.

And core Trump supporters are enthusiastic.

Interestingly, the State Elections Enforcement Commission has ruled that Democrats using state funds to run their campaigns under the Citizens’ Election Program cannot attack Trump in their advertisements, because that would benefit another candidate, one running for federal office — Clinton — using state funds.

But because Malloy is not a candidate, he is fair game for Republican attack ads using the public campaign money.

The Republican focus should be on the state legislative races. Like developing a minor league baseball system, electing more state candidates could lay the groundwork for the party’s future. A failure to gain legislative seats would be an opportunity lost.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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