Twice in six days, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, has called press conferences in his Hartford office to draw a connection between state legislation filed by Republican lawmakers and the nation’s unparalleled newsmaker, Donald J. Trump.
The Connecticut Democratic Party, meanwhile, has averaged an email “alert” every other day since Trump’s inauguration, using the president’s pronouncements on Obamacare, voter fraud, abortion, financial regulation and immigration to expand and energize the Democratic base.
So far, Democrats say, Trump has produced results: Hundreds of volunteers responded to Democrats’ email appeals last month, 11 times more than in the previous January — and five times greater than in the two weeks before the November election.
“It’s a scary time for a lot of people,” Duff said. “We need as Democrats to make sure that people understand we are going to stand up for the principles that we believe in and we are going to work hard for the rights of all of our citizens.”
The influx of volunteers comes as Democrats, long in control of the General Assembly, try to rebound from the rare loss of legislative seats in a presidential election year that left them with an evenly divided Senate and the smallest majority in the history of the House.
Less clear is whether the Democrats can direct that energy into three special elections for legislative vacancies on Feb. 28, municipal elections in May and November, and then the contests for governor and every legislative seat in 2018.
“I think that the silver lining of Trump wining has been that my phone has not stopped ringing with folks saying, ‘How can I get involved? How can I add my voice? How can I back elected officials with the values I believe in?’” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford. “As a party we have to figure out how to get back to a time when we were working on the issues that bring people together behind a cause we all care about.”
Some Republicans concede that Trump has distracted voters from the issues the GOP used last fall to continue eroding the Democrats’ hold on the legislature: the state’s slow recovery from the recession of 2008, and a chronic fiscal crisis that leaves the state once again confronting a shortfall of more than $1 billion in the coming fiscal year.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said at a community forum over the weekend she resisted constituents who wanted to talk about Trump, not Connecticut issues. The president, she said, is a distraction she is intent on resisting.
“I think it’s going to be temporary,” Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, said of Trump distracting voters from the GOP message in Connecticut. “The fiscal issues have become more and more serious in the minds of Connecticut voters and taxpayers.”
“The Democrats have nothing to talk about,” said J.R. Romano, the state GOP chairman.
No one, of course, knows for certain how the two competing political narratives will play out — one involving a struggle by Democrats and Republicans over Connecticut’s finances, the other centered on an unconventionally combative Republican president, whose administration is engaged in daily, often puzzling, assaults on the media.
On Monday, Trump ignored a senior aide’s admission she had erred in accusing reporters of ignoring a non-existent “massacre” in Bowling Green, Ky., and instead doubled-down with a startling claim to a military audience that the media covered up terrorists attacks, offering no examples.
His administration later downgraded his charge from a coverup to one of insufficient coverage.
His spokesman released a list of 78 examples that included several of the most heavily covered terrorist incidents in recent years, including the deaths of 129 people during an assault on a Paris concert hall, the Boston Marathon bombing and mass shootings at a county agency’s holiday party in San Bernadino, Calif., and a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
Senate GOP leader Len Fasano of North Haven, who distanced himself from Trump throughout the campaign, said Democrats like Duff are cynically using the president to shift attention from Connecticut’s finances, which presumably will dominate the news Wednesday when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy presents his budget for the coming fiscal year.
“Bob Duff should be more concerned as a Democratic majority leader in the Senate that he has allowed, through his leadership, budgets to be passed which have failed time after time after time,” Fasano said. “He’s too worried about national politics, when he’s screwing up here in the state of Connecticut.”
Last week, Duff anticipated Trump’s nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court by holding a press conference to say that women’s reproductive rights were under attack in both Hartford and Washington. On Monday, he criticized Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education and legislation in Connecticut that he says would disadvantage the parents of special needs children.
One bill would shift the burden of proof from school systems to parents in disputes over the adequacy of an education plan for a special needs child. Duff said many parents who contest education plans at hearings cannot afford legal representation and educational consultants.
Boucher, the co-chair of the Education Committee, said she is opposed to shifting the burden of proof, but she introduced the measure at the request of school superintendents to open a debate.
Duff also noted at the education press conferences that two Connecticut Republican legislators, Rep. Vincent J. Candelora of North Branford and Sen. Michael McLachlan of Danbury, had signed a letter circulated by the Republican State Leadership Committee urging the Senate confirmation of DeVos.
Candelora said he likes DeVos’s support for local control of education.
With the national Republicans more conservative than the GOP in Connecticut, it is not new for Democrats to use those differences to their advantage, Candelora said.
“Any time we have a Republican president, it always becomes a divisive tool for the Democrats to try to portray state Republicans in a certain light,” he said. “I think that playbook is being used again today, the difference being, though, I think that the residents in Connecticut still are focused on Connecticut’s economy, Connecticut’s budget. So as much as the Democrats want to try to deflect what’s really going on in the state of Connecticut, I don’t think its really going to work, where in years past it may have.”
Michael Mandell, the executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said it is legitimate to challenge Connecticut Republicans over the extent to which they are embracing Trump’s approach to immigration, health coverage and the rollback of environmental protections.
So far, he said, Connecticut Republicans largely have remained silent on Trump, including politicians considering runs for statewide office in 2018.
Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic strategist, said Trump’s approach to immigration, reproductive health, the environment, and education are hardly issues exclusively of interest in Washington.
“Just about every single one of those issues reverberates back to Connecticut,” Occhiogrosso said. “It may not be what Republicans want to talk about, but people are concerned.”
Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican consultant who oversaw an independent-expenditure campaign funded by the Republican State Leadership Council to target selected Democratic legislators in Connecticut last fall, said Democrats are less concerned with initiating a genuine debate over Trump than they are thrilled to talk about anything other than state finances.
Republicans must be sufficiently disciplined not to get drawn into debates about Trump, but Kurantowicz said the president also could help Republicans in the states by toning down rhetoric that is directed at his existing base, not expanding it.
“It’s up to the president to create a coalition of the willing both in Washington and across the country,” she said. “There are plenty of Republicans who are as skeptical of him as Democrats. I think there is a healthy amount of skepticism across the board.”