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    Monday, November 28, 2022

    What the ads tell us about status of campaigns for governor

    Voters are busy and strategists know political advertising works and, particularly, attack ads.

    Summer brings heat waves, larger crowds to Mystic, fairs and festivals and, in even-numbered years, the start of political attack ads. While the heat and crowds will exit, the attack ads will be with us until the November election.

    While still a feature of traditional television programming, political ads have also made the migration to social media and streaming services, where they are even less regulated. If you are depending on such advertising as your primary source for deciding who to support, you are more likely a more misinformed voter than an informed one.

    Yet people are busy and strategists know political advertising works and, particularly, attack ads. That is why spending on political advertising will approach $8 billion nationally this year, according to one estimate.

    In the first negative salvos exchanged in the rematch for governor between incumbent Democratic Ned Lamont and Republican Bob Stefanowski, the challenger has delivered the more effective messaging.

    A new ad attacking Stefanowski — paid for by the Democratic Governor’s Association super PAC — is the equivalent of a summer rerun. The commercial reminds us of Stefanowski’s prior job as CEO of a payday loan company. Preying on the desperate, it provided loans with interest rates so high they would be illegal in Connecticut.

    The attack ad warns that Stefanowski’s policy proposals would “bankrupt the state,” a reference to his 2018 pledge to eliminate the state income, the primary source of revenue for government services.

    “He’s too extreme for Connecticut,” warns the narrator.

    But voters have already factored all that in, including whether Stefanowski’s leadership of a payday loan business is disqualifying. And the Republican has moved on from the income tax pledge and is now pushing more reasonable ideas, such as cutting the sales tax and taxes on small businesses. I do not see the PAC’s approach as effective in prying away voters who backed Stefanowski in 2018 or in dissuading those who voted for Lamont last time from switching to the Republican in November.

    It is also telling that the Democratic Governor’s Association PAC is spending money in Connecticut. It shows the party does not consider the seat as safe.

    Lamont received good news last week, however, from a Morning Consult poll that showed him with a 58% approval rating, the highest for any Democratic governor (the eight highest ratings are all held by Republicans).

    That rating suggests Lamont is taking the right approach in keeping his own advertising positive, pointing to the state’s record surpluses under his leadership after years of fiscal crises and to recent tax cuts, while letting the outside PAC do the attacking.

    The Stefanowski campaign recognizes that it must bring Lamont’s approval numbers down, and tie him to the unpopular President Biden, if the Republican is to have any chance in prevailing in the rematch. A new attack ad that seeks to tie Lamont’s policies to spiking inflation seeks to do just that.

    It points out that the governor and the Democratic-controlled legislature recently let a 9-cent diesel tax increase, based on a pre-existing formula set by law, go into effect. It brought the tax to 49.2 cents a gallon, a 23% increase. The ad makes the case that by boosting already high diesel prices, the tax will further increase the cost of goods and services delivered by truck.

    In reality, the diesel tax will have a minimal impact on pricing, at most. The major reasons for inflation include the war in Ukraine and the sanctions placed on Russia, the ramping up of the economy after the pandemic shutdown, corporate consolidations that reduced competition, continued production shortages tied to the pandemic in China, and the trillions of dollars in recovery funds funneled into the economy.

    The state has already suspended the tax on regular gas. Doing the same for diesel — as Republicans have proposed — would starve the Special Transportation Fund on which the state is dependent to pay for maintaining transportation infrastructure.

    Still, by tying Lamont to inflation, even if the case is overstated, the Stefanowski campaign could score points.

    All signs point to advertising only intensifying. Stefanowski loaned his campaign $10 million. It has spent $4.25 million, according to the most recent filings. He has raised $1.1 million from donors. Also backing him are conservative groups such as the CT Truth PAC. Among the whales that have invested in that political action committee is David Kelsey of Old Lyme, providing $750,000. His fortune also underwrites the CT Examiner online news publication. Think about that the next time you read “objective” political reporting from that source.

    Meanwhile, the filings show Lamont has personally spent $6.3 million on his reelection. He ponied up $15 million four years ago.

    Among the challenges for Lamont and the Democrats is reminding voters, in 30-second commercial increments, about the tax cuts approved in the past legislative session. These includes a $250 per-child tax credit for lower and middle earning families; expanding eligibility for a property tax credit that increases from $200 to $300; implementing a cap that reduces the car tax in 75 communities; and exempting pension and annuity income from the state income tax for most filers.

    Those savings seem remote to folks dealing daily with sharp increases in fuel, groceries, and other goods. If Democrats can make the case they are really the party of tax cuts, it would go a long way in cementing their control of state government.

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

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