Donald J. Trump was larger than life on video screens at the Republican National Convention. Read the story here. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
Charles Bruckerhoff of Chaplin cheered Trump as a 2016 delegate. He is a delegate again, but will cheer from home. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Charles Bruckerhoff, a businessman, Vietnam vet and former UConn professor, raised a Trump flag in 2016 at his home in northeastern Connecticut, then packed his bags for a circuitous road trip in his new role as a 69-year-old itinerant campaign volunteer.  

He wended his way to Cleveland for his debut as a delegate to a Republican National Convention. The route was set by campaign needs of Donald J. Trump, not Google maps. He went to Cleveland via New Hampshire, South Carolina and Texas. 

And Cleveland was only a stop. Ahead lay Wisconsin, West Virginia and New Jersey. 

On election night, he was in Pennsylvania, his last stop and a state crucial to Trump’s victory. Trump won Pennsylvania by a fraction of a percentage point, the state’s tightest presidential victory since 1840. At 3 a.m., Bruckerhoff sipped champagne.

Now 73, he is a delegate again, as enthused about a uniquely provocative president in 2020 as he was about a uniquely provocative candidate in 2016. But there is no convention to attend, effectively canceled by COVID-19.

Using proxies for the missing delegates, a skeleton crew will convene briefly Monday in Charlotte, N.C., to formally nominate Trump for a second term. The rest of the convention will be virtual.

“We’ll all be here following, as best we can,” said Bruckerhoff, reached at his home. “Everybody has a low profile in terms of getting out and being seen, given the circumstances with COVID.”

There is no road trip for Bruckerhoff this year. And not every Republican shares his enthusiasm.

One in 5 Republicans voted against Trump in CT primary

The convention will offer a four-night celebration at a time when Connecticut Republicans have little to celebrate. Trump has proven to be an unparalleled organizer for Democrats — and a source of some dissent among Republicans.

The surprising rejection of Trump by nearly 22% of Republican voters in the state’s August 11 primary is the latest sign of trouble for the GOP, especially in the southwestern Gold Coast communities that once reliably churned out votes and dollars for the party.

One-third of Republicans in Greenwich opted for either “uncommitted” or Rocky De La Fuente, a national gadfly who previously has run as a Democrat for president, as well as for U.S. Senate in several states. In nearby Darien, the defections reached 38%.

It was the same in Salisbury (36%) in the northwest corner and Stonington (31%) in the southeast. The northeast Quiet Corner was better, but not without defections.  

“On the other side of the state, I can’t say for sure what’s going on over there,” said Bruckerhoff, who lives in Chaplin, the small town to the east of UConn. He spoke on Saturday, before going to pick up two Trump lawn signs, decorations he expects will soon blossom along Chaplin’s  country roads. 

Source: Office of the Secretary of State. Data current through August 19, 2020. Hover or click for the precise numbers. Credit: Kasturi Pananjady

Trump cruised past Hillary Clinton in Chaplin, 54% to 38%. It was roughly the inverse of Clinton’s statewide victory, 55% to 41%. Minor-party candidates drew 8% in Chaplin, double the statewide number.

But even in Chaplin, 15% of the Republicans who turned out in the recent primary voted for “uncommitted” or De La Fuente.

Republican state legislators wonder what the anti-Trump primary vote portends for down-ballot candidates, though leaders say they should be comforted by the Connecticut tradition of ticket splitting.

Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, who is set to become the next House minority leader, is among those who see non-Trump primary votes as a focused protest against the president by active Republican voters who are more likely to be ticket splitters and less likely to punish their local lawmakers.

The bigger problem for Republicans will be the Democrats and unaffiliated voters who turn out only in presidential years. A Trump-led ticket will be no help among that pool of extra voters.

“Obviously, it certainly creates a drag for the ticket,” Candelora said.

Barack Obama was the last presidential candidate with significant coattails in Connecticut. Winning with 61% of the vote, the Democrat’s landslide victory in 2008 contributed to a low point for the GOP: The party won only 37 of 151 seats in the Connecticut House and 12 of 36 in the Senate.

Without winning a top-of-the-ballot race, Republicans had gained state legislative seats in 2010, held even in 2012, and gained in 2014 and 2016. But opposition to Trump showed itself in 2018. About 100,000 more voters than typically seen in a mid-term election turned out, helping Democrats win an open race for governor, re-elect a U.S. senator and all five U.S. representatives, and tighten their control of the General Assembly.

In 2016, Republicans had won an 18-18 tie in the Senate and 72 seats in the House, just four short of a majority. But in 2018, they fell back to 13 in the Senate and 59 in the House. (With subsequent GOP wins in special elections, the Democratic majorities slightly shrank to 22-14 in the Senate and 91-60 in the House.)

After the mid-term defeats of three GOP senators in Fairfield County, Sen. Tony Hwang of Fairfield is the only Republican in the upper chamber whose district is wholly within the one-time GOP stronghold.

He is not a convention delegate this year, nor was he in 2016, when he backed John Kasich over Trump. Kasich didn’t speak at the Cleveland convention, even though he was the host-state governor. Hwang did not return calls on Friday or Saturday.

Kasich accepted a speaking role this year. But it was at the Democratic convention.

By and large, candidates for re-election are keeping their distance from a convention once scheduled for Charlotte, N.C., then moved to Jacksonville, Fla., and finally transformed into a virtual event, as staged last week by the Democrats.

No Senate Republican is a delegate or alternate. There are five House members on the list, four of whom are seeking re-election.

In 2016, Rep. Tony D’Amelio of Waterbury was the first, and for a time, only Republican in the General Assembly advocating for Trump. He is a delegate, as are Reps. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, Rosa Rebimbas of Naugatuck, and Lezlye Zupkus of Prospect.

All are from Trump districts, though the lure of a national convention often is more than fealty to a candidate. A member of the 2016 delegation, Pavalock-D’Amato said she had been looking forward to politics and pageantry, as well as the re-nomination of the president. Rebimbas, also a 2016 attendee, and Zupkus could not be reached.

Rep. John H. Frey of Ridgefield, who is not seeking another term, automatically is a delegate as one of Connecticut’s two elected members of the Republican National Committee. Frey and Leora Levy of Greenwich, the other RNC member, were in Charlotte for a two-day committee meeting.

J.R. Romano, the state chair, was expected to join them Monday on the only day of convention business. Proxy votes for Trump’s nomination will be accepted. Frey said there will be no vote on changes to the 2016 GOP platform or rules.

“It’s a three-hour session, and that’s it,” Frey said.

Frey will fly home Monday. He was thinking about driving, but the airfare to Charlotte was $26, less than the bridge and highway tolls on the route.

In a telephone interview from Charlotte, Frey said the COVID pandemic is ever-present, even with the greatly down-sized one-day session. Attendees are required to get a rapid-result COVID test, and they are tracked with a blue-tooth device to ease contact tracing, in case of an infection. 

North Carolina’s tight COVID protocols drove Trump to move the key moment of the convention — his acceptance speech Thursday night — to an arena in Jacksonsville, Fla. The president predicted in February that COVID is “going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

It hasn’t. 

With a spike in COVID cases, no one is going to Jacksonville. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is the featured speaker Monday. First Lady Melania Trump is scheduled to speak Tuesday, possibly from the White House. Vice President Mike Pence is on for Wednesday from Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

Trump, who thrives on the energy of arena crowded, is scheduled to accept the nomination Thursday in a speech from the South Lawn of the White House. He will appear every night during primetime, his campaign said Sunday.

A Waterbury watch party subs for a convention trip

D’Amelio, the early Trump supporter in 2016 and speaker at a Trump rally in Waterbury before the 2016 primary, will be watching from Verdi, the restaurant and banquet facility he runs on a golf course in Waterbury. He is hosting a watch party.

“It’s just to get together and have a little excitement for ourselves,” D’Amelio said.

A video feed will be shown outdoors, a concession to Connecticut’s COVID rules.

D’Amelio is the honorary Connecticut campaign chair this year. In 2016, D’Amelio and his son, a Trump supporter who also attended the convention, were escorted to a holding room before the rally at Crosby High School to meet Trump.

Rep. Tony D’Amelio at the 2016 convention. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
Rep. Tony D’Amelio at the 2016 convention. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

“I couldn’t believe how grounded he was,” D’Amelio said of Trump. “He was engaging. He was so easy to talk to. At that moment he was just talking to me and my son. ‘I appreciate your support. My family thinks I’m crazy for doing this.’ ”

D’Amelio said expects Trump to lose blue Connecticut, but be re-elected. 

The theme of the convention is “Honoring the Great American Story,” but Trump is expected to sound some of the darker themes played in 2016. His view of America then was bleak: a nation unable to fight Islamic terrorists, control its border with Mexico or quell simple street crime.

Last month, Trump used racist tropes to stoke suburban fears about low-income housing, suggesting Joe Biden would aggressively push housing integration under the supervision of a Black man, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

“The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me,” Trump said in a Tweet. “They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood. Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey (sic) Booker in charge!”

The protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement also have been a foil for a president, as have been proposals to shift funding from police to social services. Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple arrested after pointing guns at Black marchers, are among the speakers scheduled for Monday.

Over the objections of police unions and nearly every Republican lawmaker, Connecticut adopted a sweeping police accountability bill in July. It is certain to be an issue in state legislative races, one that echoes the president’s campaign.

D’Amelio’s district includes a portion of suburban Middlebury, and he thinks the protests over police brutality and calls to “defund the police” rattles voters in the suburbs. In the Naugatuck Valley, at least, D’Amelio says he can hear the stirrings of a silent majority.

Door-knocking in 2016, Bruckerhoff said he found that support for Trump sometimes was quiet. “People were cautious about saying anything,” he said.

Laughing, he recalled a day in Wisconsin when a man opened the door, spied Bruckerhoff’s Trump shirt, lowered his voice and said, “Let me tell you right now, I’m in favor of Trump, but you go away. My wife is not.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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