An intimate and intense political campaign comes to a close Tuesday night at a banquet hall in Farmington: Four candidates have been campaigning to be Republican state chairman, a contest in which only 74 Republicans are eligible to vote, and the winner is guaranteed little in the way of prestige, power or resources.
J.R. Romano, 40, a political operative elected to the first of his two-year terms in 2015, faces challengers who say Romano bears significant responsibility for the disastrous 2018 election cycle in which Democrats retained every statewide and congressional seat and tightened their control of the General Assembly.
But behind the issue of Romano’s culpability are broader questions about the role of the state party and state chair in an era of increasingly decentralized politics, when Super PACs outspend candidates and parties everywhere. And in Connecticut, public financing of campaigns frees most candidates of reliance on the parties.
“At the end of the day, you are chairman of what?” asked Ben Proto, a Republican activist who briefly considered seeking the job. “What are you becoming chairman of? It’s not just the Republican Party, it’s both parties. What are you chairing? You are chairing an organization that is toothless for all intents and purposes.”
Those questions are especially acute for Republicans.
Their nominee for governor, Bob Stefanowski, bypassed the state convention and petitioned his way into a five-way primary last year — a first that calls into question the relevance of the state convention and its party structure. Stefanowski, who registered as a Democrat in October 2016 before returning to the GOP in 2017, also skipped an early series of debates sponsored by the state party.
“At the end of the day, you are chairman of what? You are chairing an organization that is toothless for all intents and purposes.”
Tim Herbst, one of Stefanowski’s rivals, angrily blamed his one-time friend, Romano, for not exercising better control over an unwieldy field of gubernatorial candidates, the party’s failure to match the Democratic ground game, and a series of party-sponsored debates in which the candidates damaged each other.
“When you start wrong, you end wrong,” Herbst said.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, the runner up to Stefanowski in the primary, said the party’s challenges are cultural, not personal. Ingrained, he said, is a tendency to form “circular firing squads,” lashing out at anyone who does not conform.
“Whoever wins should recognize the party needs work,” he said.
Romano faced three challengers: Dave Mathus of Darien, a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery; Matt O’Brien, the GOP town chair in Coventry; and Richard Foley, a lobbyist, political consultant and former state chair. Mathus withdrew Tuesday morning, saying Romano had the votes to win.
Stefanowski prevailed by making his mark with early spending unavailable to publicly financed candidates, such as Herbst and Boughton. Stefanowski largely self-funded his campaign for the nomination, then turned to the state party for help in raising money for the general-election against Democrat Ned Lamont, a wealthy Greenwich businessman who self-funded his winning campaign.
Stefanowski said he had no complaints about fundraising help, but the Democrats clearly had the better ground game, helped by unions and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy.
“If I had to pick one contrast between the Republican and Democratic parties is their ability to get the ground game out,” Stefanowski said. “I’m not blaming that on the party, but being able to inherit a bit more of an infrastructure and then being able to develop it would have helped.”
Murphy underwrote a massive get-out-the-vote effort that benefitted his own re-election and down-ticket races. In the final four days of the campaign, a staff of 20 paid organizers oversaw 14,000 volunteers who Murphy says knocked on roughly 250,000 doors and made one million phone calls.
“When you start wrong, you end wrong.”
Republican Tim Herbst
Murphy had raised $12.5 million for his re-election to a second term, compared to the paltry $173,092 that Republican Mathew Corey had to win a primary and then challenge Murphy. In the five U.S. House races, the Democratic candidates collectively out-raised the Republicans, $8.8 million to $1.1 million.
“One of the takeaways from the 2018 election for all of us is we can’t have millions and millions of unanswered dollars at the federal level,” said Liz Kurantowicz, a political consultant and former executive director for the state GOP.
Romano’s challengers agree. All, to varying degrees, promised to do a better job of convincing major GOP donors that the state party is a good investment.
For the congressional races, that may be a hard sell.
No Republican has won a congressional election in Connecticut since 2006, when U.S. Rep. Chris Shays was re-elected to the last of his 11 terms representing lower Fairfield County. It is a corner of Connecticut that had sent only Republicans to Congress for 40 years: Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Stewart McKinney and Shays.
Shays was unseated by Democrat Jim Himes, who won his sixth term last year with 61.2 percent of the vote.
Even in Connecticut’s one open race in the 5th District of western Connecticut, Democratic newcomer Jahana Hayes won with nearly 56 percent of the vote over Republican Manny Santos, the former mayor of Meriden. She outspent him, $1.8 million to $76,037.
Santos said he and Corey ran respectable races, despite getting only token support from the state party.
“They wrote us off,” Santos said. “We can’t allow that to happen.”
But that cannot be laid exclusively at the feet of Romano. National donors, including the two PACs devoted to helping Republicans win races for the U.S. House and Senate, saw no reason to invest in any Connecticut race.
One of the great frustrations of Republicans in Connecticut is that the state is seen as an ATM for the national party. With significant exceptions (one Greenwich donor gave nearly $2 million to Super PACs that supported Stefanowski), those donors look to national races.
“The good news is the money still is in Connecticut. The bad news is a lot of it being invested elsewhere,” Mathus said. “The party has to re-engage with major donors in this state.”
Only four donors this year have given the maximum contribution of $10,000 to the state party.
“Connecticut is not unique in the sense that, nationally, state parties are a shadow of their former selves,” Kurantowicz said. “The party is the backbone. The things that the party is supposed to do are not the exciting things that get a lot of donors going in the morning. It’s not harsh attack ads — it’s the bones, it’s the roots. And getting donors to invest in those kinds of things is a challenge.”
Proto said the campaign for state chair itself is evidence of a problem: Too much time has been spent by Romano, his challengers and party activists on the question of who should lead the party. The election should be in January, freeing up the chair to recruit candidates and raise money.
Congressional Democrats already have $4.2 million cash for 2020, with most of the money in the accounts of the three Democrats from districts where Republicans have won in the past 15 years: $2.4 million is held by Himes, $615,285 by Hayes and $779,056 by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney of the 2nd District.
“The good news is the money still is in Connecticut. The bad news is a lot of it being invested elsewhere.”
The Republicans have done better seeking legislative seats in Hartford, making steady gains on the argument that Democrats were poor stewards of the state’s finances and business climate. In 2016, they won an 18-18 tie in the Senate in 2016 and came within four votes of 76-75 majority in the House.
But Democrats made their first net gains of state legislative seats in a decade in 2018, and they now hold majorities of 22-14 in the Senate and 91-60 in the House. President Donald J. Trump was an organizational catalyst for Democrats in the municipal elections of 2017 and state contests last year.
Romano said the 2018 results were disappointing, but not overwhelming. Stefanowski lost by 3.5 percentage points, and Republican legislative candidates came within two percentage points in losing 22 legislative races.
“This was no blue wave,” Romano said.
His challengers counter by the saying there are no points in politics for getting close.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t horseshoes,” Mathus said.
Romano said some of those losses came in comfortable suburbs, places where residents who regularly voted for Republicans are turned off by Trump. He called those votes “an act of self-indulgence.”