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    Monday, May 29, 2023

    Can Bob’s $10 million buy a strategy? He needs one.

    Republican Bob Stefanowski speaks as he meets Democrat Ned Lamont in the first gubernatorial debate between the two candidates on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, at The Garde Arts Center in New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Well, it is now official. Democrats have awarded Ned Lamont with the nomination to seek re-election, while Republicans backed Bob Stefanowski to take him on in a rematch of the 2018 gubernatorial election. Lamont won by three percentage points the last time.

    There was little drama, at least at the top of the ticket, when the two major parties held their nominating conventions last weekend. Stefanowski and Lamont already have had TV campaign ads up for weeks. Lucky us.

    The big challenge for Stefanowski is how to position himself in a way that convinces a majority of voters to fire Lamont after one term. Right now, I do not see any effective way Stefanowski can do so. Lamont’s biggest challenge is not screwing up and giving his opponent an opening.

    How hard is it to beat an incumbent governor? You have to go back to 1954 to find the last time it happened in Connecticut. Democrat Abraham Ribicoff defeated Republican Gov. John Davis Lodge. Disruptions caused by the construction of the Connecticut Turnpike under Lodge’s watch had turned off voters. But the legislature did name it the Governor John Davis Lodge Turnpike. That was some solace, I suppose.

    Lamont is probably happy there is not a Ned Lamont Toll System.

    A Sacred Heart University poll released April 22 showed Lamont winning 48% to 30% if the election were held today. While that margin is certainly inflated, I don’t reckon that the poll is as far off as critics claim in suggesting the race is really a tight one.

    The opinion I held in February is unchanged: Lamont begins the race a solid favorite. If anything, the outlook for his re-election, and for the Democrats to maintain their legislative dominance in Connecticut, has improved.

    The standard tactic you can expect from any Republican gubernatorial candidate in Connecticut is to attack the incumbent Democrat and his party, which controls the legislature, for fiscal mismanagement and high taxes.

    And Stefanowski did so in his nomination acceptance speech.

    “Connecticut is the definition of a failed state — billions and billions of debt with absolutely nothing to show for it,” he said.

    But how much traction can he, and state Republicans, get from that claim when that Democratic legislature just approved a state budget that includes about $600 million in income, property tax, and gasoline tax cuts? At the same time the budget invests in social services and early childhood development, keeping the party’s core constituencies happy. And they happen to be good policies.

    This budget is possible because after years of Connecticut confronting deficits it has, during the Lamont administration, accumulated a historically unmatched $4.8 billion surplus. Even with the planned tax cuts, and investing $3.6 billion toward the state’s underfunded pension plans, the budget reserve is projected to remain a healthy $3 billion.

    Meanwhile, a state unemployment rate that stood at 11.4% in May 2020 is 4.6%.

    Given all that, Stefanowski’s “failed state” rhetoric sounds out of touch. It will play well with the Republican base, but to win in Connecticut a Republican needs to expand well outside the base and I have seen no signs of Stefanowski doing so.

    Republicans could argue, and have, that the tax cuts should be deeper or different. In his ads, Stefanowski references a cut in the sales tax, but offers no specifics. Democrats can counter they cut taxes, not talked about doing so.

    General resentment over rising inflation and high gas prices could be trouble for any Democratic incumbent, given that the party has majority control both in Washington and Hartford. But I do not believe many voters blame politicians at the state level for inflation.

    You can expect Stefanowski and the political action committees supporting him to continue to paint the Lamont administration as scandal ridden. Yet that “scandal” centers largely on one man, Konstantinos Diamantis, who Lamont fired as the deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management after reports that he had steered school construction contracts. Some poor decisions by the Lamont administration enabled Konstantinos’ alleged misbehavior, but the governor cut out the cancer and there are no signs of the scandal expanding to become a threat to his incumbency.

    Added to the Republican challenge in the state is the leaking of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion. If adopted by Supreme Court’s conservative majority, it would toss out Roe v. Wade and allow states that so choose to again outlaw abortions, while also opening the door to a federal ban.

    This threat to legal abortion could well turn out more young and other marginal voters this November, folks who tend to show up for presidential elections but not off-year ones. That, too, would be to the benefit of Connecticut Democrats.

    Stefanowski, who accumulated his wealth as a corporate CEO for various companies, has pledged to spend $10 million of his own money to defeat Lamont, who is also rich and self-funded. It should be interesting to see what winning strategy Stefanowski can invent with that money, because right now I don’t see that he has any.

    Paul Choiniere is the former editorial page editor of The Day, now retired. You can reach him at p.choiniere@theday.com.

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