Despite being locked in a primary battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont has launched a new television ad billing himself as an "independent voice" and even stealing a favorite line from Connecticut's last third-party governor, Lowell P. Weicker Jr.
"What you want to do is go up to Hartford and be your own man, be independent, with no strings attached," Lamont said in the 60-second spot released over the weekend. "And that's one of the promises I'm making to the people of Connecticut, you know. I'm going to be nobody's man but yours."
It's an unusual strategy for a candidate in a primary, where success often depends on motivating the party base. In the case of Democrats that means labor, activists and other liberals.Those constituencies could be critical in deciding whether to give the nomination to Lamont, the challenger, or stick with party-endorsed candidate Dan Malloy.
A more traditional message for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate might include broad statements of support for labor, middle-class property tax relief, education and health care - items Malloy emphasized in his first television spot, released earlier this month.
Mansfield political consultant Jonathan Pelto called Lamont's approach "risky," adding the message is aimed more at unaffiliated voters frustrated with state government than at core Democratic Party members likely to vote in the August primary.
"'Bizarre' is actually a term that comes to mind," Pelto, a former strategist for the Connecticut Democratic Party who ran the last successful Democratic gubernatorial campaign - the 1986 re-election victory of then-Gov. William A. O'Neill. He has not been working for any of the current gubernatorial candidates.
"I don't know why he's channeling, modeling, trying to adopt Weicker's image," Pelto said, noting that Weicker's base in the 1990 general election included independent voters, a few Republicans, and Democrats dissatisfied with the decision of the party base to back U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison. "None of these people are the people who vote in a Democratic primary," he said.
The "nobody's man but yours" line was a favorite of Weicker, a former Republican who left his party two years after his ouster from the U.S. Senate in 1988 to run for governor. Weicker won the 1990 gubernatorial contest with about 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race against two sitting congressmen, Morrison and Republican John G. Rowland.
Likely Democratic primary voters "are the core of the hard core," Pelto said, adding they aren't swayed by comparisons to Weicker. "They are the most activist and aggressive voters in the state."
What Lamont's ad could do, though, is strengthen his numbers among the general electorate, where he already has a lead in the polls. If that is viewed by hard-core Democrats as a sign Lamont can end the Democrats' 24-year- drought in gubernatorial elections, Pelto said, then it could pay dividends.
"They are trying to capitalize on the anger and fear of the electorate at the national and state level," he said. "That is a very good general election strategy. Ned is pushing up his general election numbers and saying to party activists, 'you may not like me that much, but I'm the one most likely to win in November. How badly do you want the Democrats to win?'"
Former Democratic State Chairman John F. Droney Jr., a Hartford-area lawyer who led the state party from 1986 through 1992, said Lamont's ad "could prove to be a clever strategy."
"Democratic primary voters are really a universe usually made up of the left of the party for the most part: labor, gay activists, socialists, you take your pick," Droney said.
But Lamont's ad creates "a boogie-man that really no longer exists," he said, referring to the ad's implication that blind loyalty to party and party bosses is plaguing state government. "We haven't had bosses for years. We don't have a system that's subject to boss-ism. But Ned's created a straw man that needs to be knocked down."
The new commercial opens with footage from Lamont's 2006 bid for U.S. Senate. Riding a wave of opposition to the war in Iraq, Lamont stunned incumbent Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who had been endorsed by the Democratic convention, to capture the party nomination four years ago. But he lost the general election to Lieberman, who remained in the race as a petitioning candidate.
"He took on the political establishment, Republicans and Democrats alike, to bring about real change," a narrator says immediately after the opening shot of Lamont addressing his 2006 supporters. "Ned Lamont - now he's running for governor because we need an independent voice to shake up things in Hartford and do what's needed to help families, create jobs, and get our economy back on track."
The ad lists several Lamont platform points, including eliminating no-bid contracts, ending corporate tax "giveaways" and helping small businesses.
"Fierce independence is one of Ned's defining characteristics," campaign spokeswoman Justine Sessions said. "He started up his business by challenging the established cable companies. He made his name in Connecticut politics by standing up to the Democratic and Republican political establishment, and it's how he'll lead our state out of this mess as Connecticut's next governor."
Despite distancing himself from partisan affiliations in the new ad, Lamont still had not captured 50 percent of the Democratic gubernatorial primary vote according to a late May poll by Quinnipiac University in Hamden. That survey found Lamont leading former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy 41 percent to 24 percent in the primary, but with 30 percent of Democrats remaining undecided.
"Every few years Ned re-invents himself, or tries to re-invent himself, usually by using his own money," Malloy campaign spokesman Roy Occhiogrosso said. "Ned doesn't seem to know who he is. First he's opposed to the income tax, now he's for it. He's for campaign financing, then he's against it. First he's for debates, now he's against them. It's kind of confusing.
"Now he's channeling Lowell Weicker," Occhiogrosso added. "For someone who's claiming to be an independent and not a politician, it's a pretty political thing to do."