Even as Connecticut moved increasingly toward Democrat dominance, governor was one office that Republicans could count on. Voters might perpetually give Democrats control of the General Assembly, but enough would split their tickets to place a Republican in the executive spot — a bulwark against the worst spending inclinations of the Democrats, though the approach worked better in theory than in practice.
But now that office may be moving beyond the GOP’s grasp too.
Things have changed. For two decades, from 1990-2010, no Democrat won the state’s top office, even as the party moved toward securing every U.S. Senate and congressional seat by the end of that period.
Former Republican Senator Lowell P. Weicker, running as a third-party candidate, won in 1990 and ended up pushing a most un-Republican and unpopular idea — adoption of an income tax. He did not seek a second term.
Weicker was followed by Republican Gov. John G. Rowland, who ran on a platform of repealing the income tax, but never made a serious attempt, instead signing budgets that substantially increased spending. After twice winning re-election, Rowland was driven from office and into federal prison in 2004 by a pay-for-play scandal.
Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell succeeded him, and her popularity numbers soared, largely because her honest wholesomeness was in such contrast to Rowland; plus, the economy was good. She won election as governor in her own right in 2006. Then the Great Recession hit, the state budget descended into deep deficit, and Rell opted not to run again in 2010.
Voters then elected a Democrat, Dannel P. Malloy, whose two terms were a tough slog, with Connecticut trailing other states in its recovery and the state’s fiscal affairs in constant crisis. Malloy, though his approval ratings stayed grounded under 50%, twice beat businessman Tom Foley, who, suffice it to say, was not a great candidate for the Republicans.
After Malloy, things were teed up for Republicans to regain the executive branch. In 2018, a Republican primary attracted a large field of candidates and an outsider emerged the winner, Bob Stefanowski. Like Foley, Stefanowski was a businessman and political novice. He largely funded his own campaign. His pledge to eliminate the income tax hovered somewhere between reckless and ridiculous and did not gain traction with voters.
Republicans blew their chance. It will likely be a while before they get another one as good. Democrat Ned Lamont became governor. He got off to a stumbling start, unable to get the Democratic legislative majority to back his toll proposal or to shake the rust off the state economy.
Then the pandemic hit.
Last month a Sacred Heart University poll showed 70% of respondents approving of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Lamont’s overall approval rating was 57%, roughly double his 28% approval number at the end of 2019 — pre-pandemic.
The state is enjoying a record budget surplus. Lamont has not revisited his toll proposal. And he has tamped down talk among legislative Democrats about raising any income tax rates. Billions of dollars coming from Washington due to the American Rescue Plan will also help.
Much can change between now and the November 2022 election, of course. But Connecticut approves its budgets in two-year cycles, so that will soon be behind Lamont. Coming out of the pandemic, the economy should get some steam and lower that troubling 8.3% unemployment rate. It may be Lamont’s one vulnerable spot.
Such long odds could narrow the Republican field of would-be challengers. Last month New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, a Republican who has shown the ability to gain Democratic votes but whose centrist approach is eyed suspiciously by many in her own party, said she won’t be running for governor in 2022 and is focused on her own re-election as mayor this year.
Stefanowski has stayed involved in Republican circles in hopes of a rematch with Lamont and former Republican House Minority Leader Themis Klarides has been positioning for a fight for the party nomination. But I don’t see either of them, or any other Republicans who might run, as posing a serious threat to Lamont — as things now stand.
The next best chance for Republicans may be in 2026. How about current Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz against Stewart? Place that in a time capsule and get back to me in a few years.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.