A Republican asks: What is party loyalty in the time of Trump?

Donald J. Trump on a video screen at the Republican National Convention.

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Donald J. Trump on a video screen at the Republican National Convention.

As Councilman Michael J. London of Trumbull quickly found out, nothing tests the notion of party loyalty for a Republican elected official like denouncing Donald J. Trump and endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, as he did in a Hartford Courant opinion piece titled, “Why I’m a Connecticut Republican for Clinton.”

“I’ve had a very small number of Republicans saying that took a lot of courage and thank you for doing that — a handful as opposed to the former head of the state Republican Party who said I should have kept my mouth shut,” London said.

If nothing else, London’s experience illustrates why some Republican candidates on the ballot with Trump might distance themselves from the GOP nominee, but only a handful nationally and none in Connecticut have crossed that very bright line to say the Democratic nominee would be preferable as president.

“I did have a phone call from one of the leaders of the Republican Party in Trumbull asking me to retract my statement, saying that my views should be expressed only in the privacy of the voting booth, and as an elected Republican I should be silent when it comes to criticism of other Republicans,” London said. “Ordinarily, I might agree with that point of view, but when it comes to the outrageous behavior of Mr. Trump, I could no longer ascribe to that view.”

London, a five-term town councilman in Trumbull, a Republican suburb of Bridgeport where Trump crushed Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Connecticut primary, is not on the ballot this fall. Candidates for Congress and General Assembly are the ones whose fortunes will be determined by who is drawn to the polls by Trump and Clinton.

Michael J. London

Michael J. London & Associates

Michael J. London

Polling shows both the GOP and Democratic nominees are polarizing figures in Connecticut, where more voters say they view them unfavorably than favorably, though Clinton is seen by a majority as possessing the temperament and readiness for the job.

Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and Joseph I. Lieberman are reminders of the risks for politicians who alienate the base of their own parties.

Over three terms as a Republican in the U.S. Senate, Weicker frequently infuriated GOP voters, whether it was by breaking with Richard Nixon over Watergate or Ronald Reagan over everything from school prayer to federal spending. He lost in 1988 to Lieberman, who later would have his own troubles with the Democratic base over his support of George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, losing a primary to Ned Lamont in 2006.

“I was told in effect in the 1988 election I was not a Republican, that I didn’t vote the Republican Party line,” said Weicker, elected governor two years later as a third-party candidate. “That’s why I lost that election. Now, people had every right to go ahead and do that, but I think that if you maintain your principles and you see that something’s not right, you should say so.”

London, a public-relations consultant, says that was his motivation in writing the opinion piece posted online Thursday and published in the Sunday edition of The Courant.

“Trump is a power-hungry, divisive, fear-mongering bigot whose self-serving approach puts all of us at risk. His touted business acumen is a joke. The proof is in widely reported abuses of the workers on projects bearing his name, his multiple business bankruptcies — and his failure to disclose his tax returns,” London wrote. “This is not the year to vote for a frightening Machiavellian manipulator regardless of how strongly you feel on any particular issue. It is just too dangerous.”

Timothy Herbst

Timothy Herbst

London wrote the piece after Trump spent several days exchanging barbs with the Muslim parents of a U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq protecting his troops from a suicide bomber. Trump’s comments drew disavowals from Republicans such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom Trump endorsed after hinting he might support their primary opponents.

“I believe many Connecticut Republicans are embarrassed by Trump’s duplicitous ramblings. Until now, few have been willing to speak up, perhaps for fear of seeming disloyal,” London wrote. “If we want to maintain a strong Connecticut Republican Party in years to come, I believe it is disloyal not to speak up.”

Timothy M. Herbst, the chief elected official in Trumbull and the GOP nominee for state treasurer in 2014, said he can better understand Republicans who say they will vote for the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and William Weld, two former Republican governors.

“A reasonable person can say that,” Herbst said. “For Mr. London to say he is going to go out and vote for Hillary Clinton, I don’t know how any reasonable Republican in good conscience could do that, given her lack of trustworthiness. Both candidates have very high negatives. I am not going to lie. He has his first amendment rights, but I was repulsed by it. Had he spoken to me beforehand, I would have told him he was just nuts in my opinion. He doesn’t speak for Trumbull Republicans.”

On that, London and Herbst agree: London was on his own.

Lowell P. Weicker Jr. receiving the award in 1992 from the Kennedy family.

JFK Library

Lowell P. Weicker Jr. receiving the Profile in Courage Award in 1992 from the Kennedy family.

Chris Healy, a former GOP state chairman, said he sent London a private message criticizing him.

“We do have long memories. Lowell Weicker is the perfect example,” Healy said. “It eventually caught up with him in 1988.”

He suggested that London may find the GOP to be a chilly place.

“If you are elected and given the confidence of the voters, part of the deal is you don’t openly trash someone in your tribe,” Healy said. “If you don’t want to live with that deal, don’t be surprised if you’re not re-nominated in two years.”

John F. Droney Jr., a former Democratic state chairman who stayed loyal to Lieberman after he lost the primary to Lamont and was elected for a final term as an independent, said elected officials have a special duty to their party.

“I’m afraid I’m old school. And I’m not a Republican, so I really can’t speak for the Republicans,” Droney said. “But if you are going to have a political party and you’re going to accept the nomination of that party, you’re going to accept the process where the people have voted on it. You ought to listen to what they have to say and support it. Otherwise, you have nothing.”

But Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic consultant and former adviser to Lieberman and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said staying with Trump carries its own risks.

“At the rate this guy is going, by Labor Day he may be flailing out there on his own. He’s had maybe the worst week I’ve ever seen a presidential candidate have in his campaign,” Occhiogrosso said. “It’s hard for me to see a Republican voter going to the polls and voting against a candidate for the legislature because he said something bad about Donald Trump.”

As the New York Times noted Saturday, Republican members of Congress in close races are working to keep their distance from Trump, even if they are not taking the rarer step of actively trying to defeat him. Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster working on many races this year, told the Times there are no easy answers for Republicans.

“Do we run the risk of depressing our base by repudiating the guy, or do we run the risk of being tarred and feathered by independents for not repudiating him?” Bolger said. “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

Two Republican members of Congress announced plans last week to vote against Trump. Rep. Richard Hanna of New York endorsed Clinton, and Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia told The Times on Friday he is voting for Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico.

“I’ve always said I will not vote for Donald Trump, and I will not vote for Hillary Clinton,” Rigell said. “I’m going to vote for the Libertarian candidate.”

Hanna and Rigell are both retiring. U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is not facing re-election this year, told MSNBC recently he doesn’t see himself voting for Trump, but he has not endorsed an alternative.

Connecticut Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who has spoken out against Trump’s anti-Muslim statements and declined to be a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention, made clear in a letter to the editor of The Courant last week that he was tired of discussing Trump.

“Although I have already repeatedly stated that I have not endorsed Trump, The Courant, in an attempt to create a ‘gotcha’ moment, continues to ask me to respond to Trump’s comments every time they end up in a national headline,” Fasano wrote. “The Courant is fixated with Trump’s comments and Connecticut Republicans, but the paper shows less motivation regarding Democrats.”

He suggested the newspaper spend time asking Democratic candidates for office what they think of the Democratic Party’s refusal to turn over emails sought by the State Elections Enforcement Commission in its investigation of the party’s fundraising in support of Malloy’s 2014 re-election.

Fasano said in an interview with CT Mirror he never could support Clinton, whom he views as dishonest, but reiterated he see no obligation to talk about Trump.

“I never endorsed him. I purposely didn’t go to the convention. I don’t feel I have to defend or attack every statement he makes,” Fasano said.

Fasano said his focus is Connecticut’s fiscal crisis and electing a Republican majority to the state Senate, where Democrats hold a 21-15 advantage.

“That’s why I’ve take a hands off attitude,” Fasano said. “He is the nominee of our party. I respect that. But I don’t feel I have to defend him every step of the way.”

Weicker wishes Fasano well, saying Connecticut would benefit from a stronger competition of the two parties, regardless of his fondness for many Democratic officeholders.

But he calls Trump “disgusting,” an opinion he says he formed a quarter-century ago when Trump questioned the racial purity of the Mashantucket Pequots as part of a pitch to be able to compete in Connecticut with the tribe’s Foxwoods casino.

“I said they certainly were Indians. And he said, ‘They’re not, just take a look at them.’ I called him a bigot. He called me a fat slob. That was our interchange. So, the man’s not changed,” Weicker said. “Quite frankly, I think it’s up to every Republican now to stand up and say that’s wrong.”

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