Stefanowski concedes race to Lamont: ‘He won fair and square’

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Ned Lamont 

In a live call to a supportive morning radio team, Republican Bob Stefanowski publicly conceded the Connecticut governor’s race to Democrat Ned Lamont on Wednesday, saying after a long and see-saw night of slow returns, “He won fair and square.”

Stefanowski told “Chaz & AJ in the Morning” on WPLR that he had just called Lamont, describing a cordial end to what had been a bitter, deeply person campaign to succeed Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat whose thin victory in 2010 was not declared for three days.

“I went to bed, we were up 20,000 votes, but the last precincts to come in are in New Haven and Hartford and Bridgeport,” Stefanowski said. “They tipped the scales early this morning.”

Stefanowski’s campaign went to court Tuesday night to challenge ballots cast by late-registered college voters in New Haven and Mansfield, but he said those ballots represented hundreds of votes, insufficient to change the results.

With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Lamont had a lead of nearly 17,000 votes, according to the secretary of the state’s office. Lamont led Stefanowski, 48.4 percent to 47.1 percent, with petitioning candidate Oz Griebel at 3.9 percent. Two other candidates combined for less than one percent.

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GOP chair J.R. Romano talks to reporters after sending Republicans home. At right is Bob Stefanowski;s senior adviser, Chris LaCivita.

“It was a straight-up election. There were some minor things, but it was a straight-up election,” Stefanowski said. “He won fair and square.”

Stefanowski made his comments on the air shortly before 9 a.m. His campaign issued a formal statement about 20 minutes later.

Lamont will address reporters at noon.

In an emailed statement, Lamont said, “Earlier this morning, I received a call from Bob Stefanowski. After a long campaign, he could not have been more gracious, and I could not be more appreciative. I look forward to working with him, because we all need to come together – regardless of party – to solve our state’s biggest challenges.

“I’m humbled and I want every resident to know how grateful I am for this extraordinary honor. I will work every day – honestly and thoughtfully – to move this state forward and be a champion for Connecticut.”

Without either of the candidates making an appearance, the gubernatorial campaigns sent their supporters to bed at 1:30 a.m. with Stefanowski holding a two-percentage point point with about 75 percent of the state’s 715 precincts reporting.

High turnouts in struggling cities and well-to-do suburbs that rejected Donald J. Trump in 2016 buoyed Democrats, who correctly saw the fruits of progressive organizing since the election of a polarizing president. But officials in both parties struggled to analyze an apparent disconnect between the top and bottom of their tickets.

Results came in slowly, a result at least partly attributed to wet ballots that clogged optical scanners. Officials said some voters, wet from torrential rains, inadvertently dampened ballots as they filled them. 

“We had, believe it or not, wet ballots,” said Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat and one of just two statewide constitutional officers seeking re-election. “We’re telling them, ‘Get out your hair dryer, dry them off, put them back through.’ But in some cases thousands of ballots may have to be hand-counted.”

Merrill and Shawn Wooden, the nominee for treasurer, told a thinning crowd of Democrats at the Dunkin Donuts ballpark in downtown Hartford that they believe the election would turn their way.

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Ned Lamont greets voters at a Wethersfield poll Tuesday.

“All the numbers are not in yet. It looks like it’s going to be a late night,” Wooden said early Wednesday. “But I am very encouraged by the turnout all over the state today. I am very encouraged by the numbers that have come in so far.”

Wooden’s opponent, Thad Gray, conceded early today, as did Kurt Miller, the Republican who challenged Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo.

Lamont’s campaign manager, Marc Bradley, updated the crowd just after 1:15 a.m.  with a prediction of victory that would be validated hours later.

Though he couldn’t predict how many more hours it would take to tally the results, Bradley said, “One thing we are sure of — when the votes are counted we’re confident that Ned Lamont’s going to be the next governor of the state of Connecticut.”

At the Sheraton Hartford South Hotel in Rocky Hill, Republicans were equally upbeat, encouraged by a 20,000-vote lead. But they left on a sour note, with Republican State Chairman J.R. Romano complaining of municipalities withholding results.

“We’re up 20,000 votes, and we’re going to fight,” Romano said.

The race framed by Republicans as a referendum on the fiscal policies of Malloy and Democratic legislators, while energized progressive Democrats embraced it as a mid-term opportunity to rebuke President Donald J. Trump.

A polarizing Republican president, coupled with the GOP’s nomination of an unconventional gubernatorial candidate, allow Democrats to defy history: Lamont will be the first politician in more than a century to succeed a member of his own party in an open race for governor of Connecticut

A win by Stefanowski would have turned over a financially struggling state government to a former sub-prime lender whose campaign was built on the unlikely foundation of no governmental experience, little previous interest in politics, and an audacious promise to phase out the income tax.

Stefanowski, 56, who was a Democrat until three months before becoming a Republican candidate last year, is a former corporate expatriate who lived abroad for 10 years, not voting in U.S. elections for several years after his return, and making no choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The win by Lamont returns the state to unambiguous one-party rule, both a burden and a blessing in an era of chronic fiscal crisis. Democrats won solid majorities in the General Assembly, where a tied Senate and closely divided House gave the GOP influence over the budget.

Lamont will take office on Jan. 9 as the 89th governor of Connecticut. The following month, the legislature will demand what no candidate offered during the campaign — a detailed proposal for how to close a projected budget shortfall of $2 billion.

Lamont, 64, of Greenwich was running in his third statewide campaign since 2006, when he briefly became a national figure as the anti-war candidate who effectively forced U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman from the Democratic Party. He won the primary, only to see Lieberman win as a petitioning candidate backed by state and national Republicans.

Lamont’s partner at the top of the ticket was U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who won a second term Tuesday. Their joint advertising sold them as a team who would work in Hartford and Washington to thwart what they called Trump’s assault on gun control, environmental protections, immigrants and the Affordable Care Act. 

Stefanowski focused exclusively on a proposal to phase out the state income tax, the source of half the state budget. A fan of supply-side economics, Stefanowski said he could wring at least $1 billion in fraud, waste and inefficiency out of state government, but didn’t say how.

Clarice Silber / CTMirror.org

Bob Stefanowski with his daughters at his polling place in Madison.

Lamont outspent Stefanowski by a 2-1 margin, but the Democrat’s advantage was largely neutralized by $7 million in spending by a super PAC funded by the Republican Governors Association. Half of Stefanowski’s budget was money he loaned or contributed to himself.

While the cities turned out, some Democrats called the legislative results the triumph of suburban women, a demographic pollsters and pundits closely tracked after Trump’s election fueled a new activism by women angered at the defeat of Clinton, who would have been the first women elected president.

“When they woke up after Election Day in 2016, they realized the country they thought they lived in was not the country they lived in, and that women’s rights were not secure — and if a man like Donald Trump can be elected president, they better get involved,” said Jillian Gilchrist, a victorious legislative candidate from West Hartford. “Everyone’s been waiting for this day.”

One of them was Shannon Wynn, a 24-year-old student at Southern Connecticut State University who voted against Stefanowski at his own polling place in Madison.

“I did a lot of research and I can’t fathom voting for somebody that supports our president right now,” Wynn said. “I think it’s absolutely disgusting, especially being a woman voter, being pro-LGBTQ. Bob Stefanowski, for example, has expressed his unwavering support for Trump, and I just can’t vote for somebody like that. I don’t want tolls on our highways but I’d rather vote for tolls than vote for anybody that supports Trump.” 

The split in voters over state finances vs. national issues was evident throughout the day.

Sanjay Sardana, 46, of Wilton brought his two sons with him to vote, and his concern was their financial future. “I think we got put into a big hole in the last eight years,” Sardana said. “I’m hoping the next governor can make Connecticut the state it once used to be.”

He voted for Stefanowski.

Outside the polling place at Danbury High School, Suzanne Whelchel, 50, said she voted straight Republican. The big issues for her are getting spending under control and reversing the trend of businesses and people leaving the state.

“When I was young, Connecticut was the place people wanted to move to,” she said. “Now it’s the place people want to move out of quickly.”

Nina Dinshaw, 46, of Wilton, saw the election on broader terms. She said she grew up in a developing country and knows that when corruption starts at the top, it will seep down. In the United States, she said, “Corruption is seeping into politics and, therefore, into society.”

On the question of values, she said she voted for the Democratic ticket, viewing them as honest. She voted for all Democrats, including Lamont and Murphy.

Democratic leaders said Stefanowski’s simplistic pledge to phase out the income tax, which was viewed skeptically in polls by half of Republicans, ultimately hurt Stefanowski, even if it helped him win a five-way primary.

“What we saw was a private-sector candidate thinking they can just run the state and that the details don’t matter. They matter,” said former House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden. “The entire state has gone through a really difficult time in the last 10 years. People have become engaged. They want to understand.”

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who ended an exploratory campaign for governor to endorse Lamont, said Stefanowski’s pledge weakened his credibility.

“The overwhelming majority of Connecticut residents knew that was not a serious or achievable proposal,” Bronin said. “I think people saw right through it.”

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