Connecticut Republicans’ first state legislative losses in a regular election since 2008 are prompting hard looks at how the party can insulate itself from Donald J. Trump in 2020, but little second-guessing of its long focus at the State Capitol on economic growth and fiscal stability.
“I think the message at its core is a good message,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.
“I can’t leave my house, I can’t walk 10 feet out of this office, I can’t go any anywhere on a daily basis without people complaining they can’t afford to live here anymore, they can’t afford their home, they can’t get a job, the kids can’t afford to come back,” Klarides said. “I mean literally, I’ve never heard that more than I heard it this year. So I think the message is a good message. I think it’s a solid message.”
Her predecessor, Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., had a similar reaction in 2008, when a landslide win by Barack Obama in Connecticut helped Democrats win super majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly: 114-37 in the House, and 24-12 in the Senate. Cafero blamed a weak national ticket and the national GOP’s reliance on “God, guns and gays” as wedge issues.
“It just totally drowned out what we as Connecticut State Republicans stood for and, more importantly, actually accomplished,” Cafero said then. “I think over the past two years, and certainly continuing into this session, we have tried to position ourselves as the party of common sense.”
State legislative leaders distanced their caucuses from the national GOP, which has made opposition to abortion, gun control and same-sex marriage part of its platform for the past decade.
Despite losing top-of-the-ticket races every two years, the Republicans staged a remarkable comeback: In 2016, the GOP won an 18-18 tie in the state Senate and 72 seats in the House, just four short of a 76-75 majority.
“I think that was a smart decision, which Trump just trumped,” said former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, whose loss in 2008 left the Connecticut GOP without representation in Congress. “It began to be about God, guns and gays, and the obscene image of Trump appeal to white nationalists. Donald Trump has very harsh words about anybody who criticizes him. I never heard a harsh word from him about the far right and white supremacists.”
To too many voters, Trump has become synonymous with the GOP.
“We have a president that is such a lightning rod,” Klarides said. “This is no longer northeastern Republicans versus the national GOP.”
There is bipartisan consensus that Trump was a major factor this year in mobilizing Democrats, helping to bring 200,000 more voters to the polls last month than in the two previous mid-term elections.
One of the GOP casualties was Cafero, a candidate for probate judge in Norwalk.
“With all due respect to my opponent, it could have been a rock on the ballot and we wouldn’t have won,” said Cafero, who had never lost an election before this year. “It all had to do with Donald Trump.”
After Obama’s election, congressional Republicans engaged in a brainstorming session about how the Republican Party needed to position itself nationally. Eric Cantor of Virginia, then the House GOP whip, seemed to suggest the party step back on social issues, saying the GOP needed to be “relevant to the challenges that people in the Northeast are facing; to the challenges that educated, affluent people are facing; to the challenges that people in the inner city and African-Americans are facing.”
Cantor lost a primary in 2014. His brainstorming efforts have not improved the GOP brand in New England, where Democrats won every U.S. House seat in 2018.
“It’s not gotten any better, that’s for sure, with this president,” Klarides said.
Klarides said Connecticut Republicans will have to separate themselves from Trump at times, a tricky prospect given his popularity with the GOP base, even in Connecticut.
“I think it’s important that people understand that we do not have anything to do with who the president is, but I also think it’s important that people are very clear…that when he does something that we don’t like, we stand up, we’re vocal about it,” Klarides said. “I think that’s something we need to change. That means we may support some of the things he does, and we don’t support other things he does.”
Klarides and Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven have been wary of getting drawn into controversies generated by the president. Fasano, who also viewed the legislative losses as a consequence of opposition to Trump, had refused to serve as a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention.
“The problem is if we get so mired in that, then we don’t do this,” Klarides said in an interview in her office at the Legislative Office Building. “And our job is to make sure we have balanced budgets, and our job is to make sure that our state is affordable and there are jobs here, and that it’s moving forward technologically. I think that core message is still the right message.”
J.R. Romano, the Republican state chairman, said the GOP is doing its own soul-searching in Connecticut, though the emphasis is on infrastructure rather than message.
The GOP has showed strength in blue-collar districts in Connecticut, while losing in wealthier, college-educated communities. The Republicans lost a House seat in Glastonbury, as well as a Senate and House seat in Greenwich, long a GOP bastion.
Romano’s take is that voters in wealthier communities indulged themselves by casting symbolic votes against Trump, who was not on the ballot, even if they helped elect Democrats whom Republicans say are likely to raise taxes and make Connecticut a more expensive place to live and work.
“We’re in the process of doing a complete analysis,” Romano said. “We were working with some of the local activists and party leaders in some of these wealthy communities. We’re putting together a template for two years from now.”
Romano said the losses in 2018 were significant, but he noted that many of them were close. Democrat Ned Lamont was elected governor with 49.37 percent of the vote in a five-way race. Republican Bob Stefanowski had 46.21 percent.
In Greenwich, state Sen. Scott L. Frantz had 49.04 percent of the vote in his loss to Democrat Alex Bergstein.
“It’s a terrible consolation prize,” Romano said. “But it was one point.”