Cleveland — Republicans go home Friday to test a convention-crafted message of Donald J. Trump as the only answer for an America imperiled by Islamic jihadists, bad trade deals, Black Lives Matter, stagnant wages, environmental regulations, unchecked immigration, Washington elites, activist judges, Obamacare, gay marriage, a biased media and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Activists like Laura Roberts, a methodical woman balancing the challenges of multiple sclerosis, an I.T. job at St. Francis Hospital and duties as a GOP town chair in suburban Tolland, Conn., will assess if the convention made it easier or harder for a Republican presidential nominee to carry her state for the first time since George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988.
The challenge is to ignore the cacophony of a convention, the clamor of competing issues of dire importance elsewhere, and focus the attention of Connecticut voters on how Trump can improve their lives. Republicans say that means ignoring much of what transpired, while embracing Trump as a unique voice in a difficult time.
“Trump is not my first choice,” Roberts, the wife of a laid-off aerospace worker trying to establish a consulting business, said midway through the four-day convention. “I’m looking to support our candidate, but I’m also looking to see what he is going to do to help people.”
Roberts, one of the 75 credentialed guests of the Connecticut delegation, was hoping at midweek for details that Trump never shared in his acceptance speech Thursday night. Others insisted that the only issues of importance will be whether Trump or Clinton establish the greater credibility on economic security and public safety.
Northeastern Republicans typically go home to begin the fall campaigns burdened by a GOP brand that has not sold well in the region, with a few exceptions, like Gov. Charilie Baker of Massachusetts, who kept his distance from Cleveland.
This year, the GOP adopted a a 58-page platform that promotes coal in an age of climate change and clings to the hope of returning to the days when gays could be denied the right to marry. With the support of a Republican governor and GOP legislative leaders, Connecticut adopted same-sex civil unions a decade ago.
Connecticut Republicans say they will look past the platform, just as they largely ignored speeches to the convention by the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, and even by their nominee’s son, Donald Jr., about gun ownership as an endangered right, all evidence to the contrary given Supreme Court rulings and the NRA’s hold over Congress.
“Trump is Trump. He represents the non-establishment,” said John H. Frey of Ridgefield, a state legislator and Republican National Committee member. “Hillary is very much establishment. That’s what it comes down to. It’s not the platform. Hillary is the platform. I’ve done this nine times now, and the platform never comes up.”
J.R. Romano, who was elected state GOP chair a year ago, said Connecticut is a state ripe for Trump, who’s been using Twitter and, as he admitted in The Art of the Deal, a willingness to exaggerate to position himself as an outsider who not only is the right man for the job, but the only man for the times.
Connecticut Democrats have only to blame themselves if the state goes for Trump, Romano said. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, whose approval rating was 24 percent in the last public poll, is the face of a government struggling to grow the economy, balance the budget or keep its corporate employers happy.
“Donald Trump taps into that. You just started to get a feeling you are talking to people who aren’t political in the state who want something different. And the poll numbers are reflecting that. It’s because Dan Malloy has been a really bad governor,” Romano said. “They want a reset button. In Connecticut, we feel it more than the average state.”
Betsy McCaughey, the former New York lieutenant governor who now lives in Greenwich, gave Laura Roberts and other members of the Connecticut delegation a pep talk about Trump as the second-coming of Ronald Reagan on tax policy and business growth. Like Trump, she is a supply-sider, a believe that cutting corporate taxes will stimulate growth.
“Trump has it, the Trump turnaround plan,” she said. “It is going to reinvigorate job growth. It’s going to raise take-home pay, which is what we really need, and it s going to provide hope for the younger generation.”
McCaughey, who wrote a book about Obamacare, carries a dog-eared copy of the law in a thick binder, both a resource and prop. She hefted it as evidence of the need for a GOP administration.
Roberts is no fan of Obamacare, but as someone with a chronic illness, she is sensitive to how too many times the GOP talks about repealing it without explaining what would take its place. Trump pledged only repeal Thursday night.
“Yeah, it’s great to get rid of Obamacare, but you have to make sure how you present it,” she said.
McCaughey is sympathetic to arguments the party should narrow its message to economic and border security.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs. That’s what’s really important. People are looking for leadership in Washington that knows how to jump-start this economy, and I want to tell you, it’s not just the Democrats who are guilty of failing to do that,” she said. “There have been plenty of Republicans in Washington who haven’t paid attention to what Americans need, which is economic opportunity. They don’t want handouts. They don’t want over-regulation. They just want to go clear the field and get working. That’s why they’ve chosen a businessman to be their candidate.”
But the platform talks about coal, abortion, gay marriage and guns, and Reince Priebus, the Republican national chairman, and Trump warned again Thursday night that Clinton would do whatever she could to take away America’s guns, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s rulings that gun ownership is a constitutional right, albeit one subject to regulation.
Frey is one of the Republican delegates who voted for sweeping gun control legislation after the shooting massacre of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook elementary school. The survivors included his sister’s three kids. Others voting for the gun law were the Connecticut House GOP leader, Themis Klarides of Derby, and state Sen. Michael McLachlan of Danbury.
“We oppose ill-conceived laws that would restrict magazine capacity or ban the sale of the most popular and common modern rifle,” Republicans say in a platform adopted on a voice vote. “We also oppose any effort to deprive individuals of their right to keep and bear arms without due process of law.”
Connecticut has acted to restrict magazine capacity and ban the sale of the AR-15, the most popular rifle sold in the U.S. It was the weapon used at Sandy Hook. Connecticut also just adopted a law that requires gun owners subject to temporary restraining orders obtained by estranged spouses to surrender their weapons until a hearing.
“So what? I agree with 80 percent of it, probably,” Frey said of the platform. “It’s fine by me. We’re center right, and I think on a couple of things we moved a little further to the right. The Democrats had been center left and they’ve moved, with Malloy’s help, further to the left. Again, on both sides, who reads the platform?”
Mike Mandell has read it. He is executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party, which has been using the platform and the general messaging of the Republican National Convention to raise money all week, including at an event in Hartford at which Democrats could gather to watch Trump’s acceptance speech.
“They are doubling down on gun control,” Mandell said. “Donald Trump Jr. really went out there on guns, saying we need more guns to protect ourselves, trying to appeal to women. What are Connecticut Republican talking points on guns? It seems to be something Trump is going to run hard on, which puts them in an interesting position.”
“I think the notion that this election or any election in recent times is all about the social issues has been a masterful job on the Democrats’ part,” she said. “We have allowed it somehow. People have bought into it somehow. That’s not what this election is about. This election is very simple. It’s about the economy and national and world safety. That’s what this is about.”
McLachlan said his constituents are shaken by the economy and world events. He hears little about guns or many of the issues in the platform, but the next phase of the campaign is a fight by both parties to make stick the messaging of their conventions, the GOP in Cleveland and the Democrats next week in Philadelphia. The GOP demonized Clinton all week, portraying her as a liar and crook who barely escaped prosecution for mishandling State Department secrets on a private email server.
It’s the Democrats’ turn next week to shine a light deep into the pages of the platform and to examine whether Trump’s record matches his bravado.
“This is a dog fight,” McLachlan said. “This is going be a long battle.”