Yesterday, Democrats secured an impressive trifecta in Connecticut state government. Their gubernatorial candidate, Ned Lamont, prevailed over Republican Bob Stefanowski, and Democrats gained seats in the state house and senate, after net losses in the three previous election cycles. These results are profoundly disappointing to conservatives, who had good reason to think that this year’s race was theirs to lose.
Stefanowski was a generic “businessman-outsider” candidate. Given that all recent businessman-outsiders running for statewide office have lost, the Connecticut GOP ought to rethink its attraction toward this kind of candidate. But Stefanowski did offer a clearer justification for his candidacy than Lamont. Over the past few years, Connecticut voters have given many indications that what they want most of all from state officials is a different direction on fiscal and economic matters. Accordingly, Stefanowski refused, to a fault, to be baited into a debate over social issues. Lamont’s efforts to engage him on matters like the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings or public education mostly fell flat. Republicans thus won the debate over what to debate—but their guy still lost.
Any political consultant would have advised a Republican candidate for governor of Connecticut this year to stick to taxes and the economy. Connecticut is a high-wealth, low-poverty state, but it has been suffering, of late, from low levels of economic growth, chronic multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls, the loss of many high net-worth residents, some high-profile corporate relocations, and onerous debt and debt-like obligations, such as for public retirement benefits. In certain blue jurisdictions, like New York City, Democrats can explain high taxes as worth the amenities that they pay for. They can’t make that argument in Connecticut, where so much of the current tax burden goes toward funding past costs. The Connecticut “model,” so to speak, is high costs and declining services, and it’s growing increasingly hard to sustain.
Republicans took great encouragement from incumbent Democratic governor Dannel Malloy’s rock-bottom approval ratings, long among the lowest of any governor in the nation—a distinction achieved without suffering any significant scandal during his two terms in office. Malloy’s pugnacious personality was a turn-off to many. (No type of politician crashes harder to the ground than a “fighter.”) But his biggest problem was that voters had no faith in his response to the state’s ongoing fiscal and economic crisis. And that response was distinctly Democratic: two major income-tax hikes, overly generous concessions to government unions, and passing off cosmetic changes to the state’s pension system as valuable reforms.
In Lamont, the Democrats fielded an “it’s my turn” candidate. No one was particularly enthusiastic about Lamont, who promised fatuously that the state’s budget challenges could be met without sacrifices by taxpayers or government unions. Lamont at times tried to distance himself from Malloy, but he was also heard, just days before the election, telling unions at a rally that “we’re going to be fighting for you.” As Journal Inquirer columnist Chris Powell wrote in early October, “Lamont is presenting himself as the candidate of both change and continuity. This is incoherent.”
Stefanowski pitched himself to voters as a “pocketbook” candidate, but that wasn’t enough to overcome distaste for the Republican Party in areas such as Fairfield County. Fairfield voted Republican in the 2010 gubernatorial election, but in 2014 and 2018 it broke for Democrats, and the margin appears to be growing. High turnout in cities may have ultimately proved pivotal for Lamont’s victory, but voting trends in places like Greenwich, Wilton, and Weston should be of more concern to the GOP. Political analysts drawing a connection between Stefanowski’s loss this year and those of other Republicans in suburban America are onto something.
There’s a deeper lesson here, though. Washington Examiner columnist Timothy P. Carney once pointed out the fraudulence of many Republican politicians’ claims to being “fiscally conservative, socially moderate.” But the same criticism that Carney made about figures like former New York governor George Pataki can also be directed at voters. It’s common, among Connecticut’s large professional class, to meet people who describe themselves as committed liberals on social questions, yet open to centrist or conservative solutions to fiscal challenges. And yet, in a state election in which fiscal and economic concerns dominated, such voters happily locked arms with progressive Democrats. How to reconcile such a deep and longstanding disapproval of the Malloy administration with the rejection of the only candidate, Stefanowski, who forcefully repudiated Malloy’s agenda? Ned Lamont is not the only Connecticut resident guilty of political incoherence these days.