Not much is certain in the state elections of 2018, except this: After the first week of January, Connecticut will have a male governor over age 55, successful in business but with no significant experience in government.
That’s true whether we elect Democrat Ned Lamont, Republican Bob Stefanowski or R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel, a former Republican mounting a longshot bid as an independent.
Lamont, 64, a cable TV and digital services entrepreneur, tech investor and heir to a 100-year-old Wall Street fortune, has been a selectman in his hometown of Greenwich. He has served on a few state and local committees but has not held state or federal elected office.
Lamont beat former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman in a 2006 Democratic primary, only to lose in the general election after Lieberman petitioned his way back onto the ballot. He also lost the 2010 Democratic primary to Dannel P. Malloy, who’s now stepping down as governor amid low poll numbers.
Stefanowski, 56, of Madison, worked in ranking financial posts at General Electric, UBS Investment Bank and a London-based holding company for businesses that made short-term, so-called payday loans. He not only lacks electoral or government experience, he went at least 16 years without voting at all — until his failure to cast a ballot was reported by media outlets in the fall of 2017.
In a year of outsiders to government, Stefanowski is positioning himself as the outsider’s outsider; he was registered as a Democrat for nine months until July 2017, when he decided to run as a Republican. And Stefanowski, like President Donald Trump, who endorsed him after he beat four opponents in the Aug. 14 primary, including party-endorsed Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, holds government institutions in low regard in his public comments.
The issue, overwhelmingly, is taxes, as Stefanowski says he can eliminate the state income tax in eight years without raising other taxes. Speaking of Trump and Malloy, they’re not on the Nov. 6 ballot but they may as well be. Lamont reminds voters constantly that Stefanowski, or “Trumpanowski,” to use Lamont’s moniker, is doing Trump’s bidding in Connecticut. Stefanowski calls Lamont “Ned Malloy,” saying he will continue Malloy’s policies. Lamont, in response, is able to say he never served with or under Malloy, while Stefanowski makes the argument that Trump’s policies and character aren’t the issue in Connecticut.
That $10 billion levy accounts for fully half the state’s revenues, so nixing it altogether would require a combination of cost-cutting and economic growth so fantastical that many Republicans are not repeating it. State House GOP leader Themis Klarides of Derby, when asked by the New Haven Independent about plans to eliminate the tax by Stefanowski and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, said, "We see very silly things happen during an election."
Lamont, for his part, wants to restore a $400 million version of the property tax credit, and says Stefanowski’s plan would lead to huge local property tax increases. He implies but does not state that raising taxes, especially on wealthy residents such as himself, could be part of the state’s recovery from a broken structure with deficits as large as $2 billion starting in fiscal 2020.
Any way you slice it, Lamont’s view of the fixes is far more complex than Stefanowski’s, as the Democrat talks about investment in cities and people to make the state more attractive, and working with public employee unions, which support him overwhelmingly, to cut costs.
Other state offices
Down the ticket among the other state constitutional offices — attorney general, comptroller, secretary of the state and treasurer — Democrats hope to hold power by exploiting higher name recognition and voter registration that still leans their way. The last time the state elected a Republican in a constitutional office other than governor and lieutenant governor was 1994, when Chris Burnham won the treasurer’s seat. He left during the term to take a job with a Wall Street firm.
Two of the Democratic constitutional officeholders — Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and Comptroller Kevin Lembo — are seeking re-election: Merrill against Susan Chapman, the former first selectwoman of New Fairfield, and Lembo against Seymour First Selectman Kurt Miller.
The incumbents’ name recognition and Democrats’ numbers advantage may seem to seal their likely victories, especially since their opponents are not well known. But four years ago, Merrill barely beat feisty Republican flamethrower Peter Lumaj and Lembo outpolled a poorly financed Sharon McLaughlin by far less than expected.
Seeking the attorney general seat, which George Jepsen is vacating after eight years, are Democrat William Tong, a six-term state representative from Stamford, and Republican Sue Hatfield, a registered nurse-turned-state prosecutor from Pomfret. Trump has a very real part in that campaign.
Democrats and Tong — the first Asian American nominated for a Connecticut statewide office — see the job in large part as challenging the Trump administration’s policies on tax changes that hurt Connecticut, loosening air pollution standards and many other issues. Hatfield, who stresses her centuries-long eastern Connecticut roots, focuses on the traditional roles of the office.
For state treasurer, Democrats have nominated Shawn Wooden, a former Hartford City Council president, while Republicans picked Thad Gray, of Salisbury, who retired last year as a Wall Street fund manager. Gray is emphasizing his experience managing large pension funds like the ones the treasurer oversees. Wooden, currently bond counsel for the state pension funds in his role as a partner at Hartford-based law firm Day Pitney, says he has a deep knowledge of the industry and that his experience in politics will help him guide policy as the state restructures its pension funds.
Wooden continues the Democrats’ long tradition of nominating an African American from the Hartford area for the treasury post. But his former position in Hartford promises to generate controversy in a campaign that could grow very caustic. Hartford agreed to build a $72 million minor league baseball stadium while Wooden headed the council, and this past spring, after he left office, the capital city sought and received a state bailout that could total more than $500 million.
“These are all toss-ups,” GOP state Chairman J.R. Romano says of the constitutional offices. “The state is only in worse fiscal condition than it was four years ago.”
Ah, but the mood of the state is not what it was four years ago because of Trump, says Vincent Mauro Jr., the New Haven Democratic chairman and a party strategist. “The constitutional races, they largely swing on the mood of the electorate,” he says, rather than individual candidates.
The last time a Republican won a seat in Congress from Connecticut was 2006, when Chris Shays gained his final term as U.S. representative from the 4th District in Fairfield County. This year doesn’t shape up to break the Democrats’ lock, although Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, who beat Shays, faces a well-financed, attacking opponent.
Himes’ Republican challenger is Harry Arora, a financial analyst and investment manager from Greenwich who emigrated from India to attend graduate school, gained citizenship and formed a hedge fund in 2006. Himes has proved popular in the district, and, like other Democrats, will hope to use opposition to Trump as a lever to victory.
“No one running has any clue as to what the next tweet out of the White House will be,” Mauro says. “Republicans are at the whim of a guy who literally could swing an election one way or the other with a tweet or a pardon.”
Romano counters that voters, especially in blue-collar areas, want “leadership, not a resistance movement.”
Still, with the possible exception of the 4th, it’s hard to see how and where a Republican might take a victory for Congress against entrenched incumbents with voter-registration advantages and an unpopular president.
For U.S. Senate, Matthew Corey, a bar owner and commercial window-washer from Manchester, faces Sen. Chris Murphy. In the 1st U.S. House district, party activist Jennifer Nye of Manchester will try to unseat 20-year veteran Rep. John Larson; in the 2nd, Dan Postemski, chairman of Hampton’s Republican Town Committee and a veteran of the Iraq war, goes against Rep. Joe Courtney; in the 3rd, Rosa DeLauro, dean of the delegation, defends her seat against Shelton’s Angel Cadena, a Marine Corps veteran who also sought the seat two years ago.
The 5th district might have held stronger hope for Republicans as Rep. Elizabeth Esty ended her re-election bid after conceding she mishandled a sexual harassment incident in her office. But as Democrats nominated Jahana Hayes, a former national teacher of the year from Waterbury, and Republicans swept former Meriden Mayor Manny Santos to victory in a three-way primary, national political oddsmakers have declared the seat a likely Democrat win, and the National Republican Congressional Committee took CT-5 off its priority list. Hayes is poised to become the first black Democrat to represent Connecticut in Congress.
Republicans have made steady gains in recent years in both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate, with House Democrats holding a narrow 80-71 margin and the Senate split evenly at 18-18, with the lieutenant governor giving a tiebreak to Democrats.
No one can predict the outcome in the House simply because 151 seats are up for election in districts small enough that local popularity and the overall mood of voters will hold sway. It’s a toss-up in the Senate as well, as seven of the 36 seats are vacant — four Democrat and three Republican — with most of those considered fully in play.
Those vacant seats include the Milford-area district that Democratic Sen. Gayle Slossberg is leaving, and the Connecticut River Valley district that Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, is giving up. Linares ran for treasurer against Gray, and married Rep. Caroline Simmons, a Stamford Democrat.
Several other Senate races are considered close as well, including the Meriden-area district now held by Republican Sen. Len Suzio, which has swung back and forth in recent years.
Top of the ticket
The lieutenant governor candidates vie for office not separately but as part of the ticket with the would-be governors, and both LG hopefuls bring a potential target to their respective campaigns. Republican Joe Markley, a personally well-liked state senator from Southington, is considered the most conservative member of that chamber, not a balance to Stefanowski.
And Susan Bysiewicz of Middletown, the Democratic lieutenant governor nominee and former secretary of the state, is not popular in cities, where Lamont must win huge margins to claim victory.
“I think we see the enthusiasm gap in certain urban centers,” says Mauro, the New Haven Democratic chairman, but he adds, “that enthusiasm gap will lessen because there are stark differences between the candidates.”
Stark, indeed, and not just on issues. Lamont can grow excited but is mostly even-keeled and modest by political standards, sometimes flashing an aw-shucks, golly-gee side. Stefanowski, bombastic and aggressive, stood over a former opponent in a July debate, jabbing a finger toward his fellow candidate’s chest.
Both candidates have eschewed public financing and the spending limits that come with it, in favor of largely self-financed campaigns — with Lamont likely to pay a higher percentage of his own costs than Stefanowski.
Lamont held a thin-to-moderate lead in three public August polls, but that was before the traditional Labor Day start of voters’ attention, and before Lamont faced much negative light, as he had an easy primary win against Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim.
Mark Stewart Greenstein of the Amigo Constitution Party and Rod Hanscomb of the Libertarian Party qualified for the ballot in early September, bringing the total governor candidates to five.
Oz Griebel, the 69-year-old former longtime CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, the capital region’s chamber of commerce, also petitioned his way onto the November ballot. He suffered a blow in late August when a divided Independent Party threw its support to Stefanowski. With his running mate, longtime Democrat Monte Frank, a lawyer from Newtown, he’s hoping for lightning on a shoestring budget.
More likely, Griebel will help sway the election one way or the other, though even that is hard to predict in a year of shifting political sands.