Republican Bob Stefanowski opened his second campaign for governor Wednesday in the same unconventional manner he ended his first one four years ago: By calling “Chaz & AJ in the Morning” on WPLR-FM.
Stefanowski, 59, who was a newcomer in 2018 when he outflanked a crowded Republican field with an insurgent campaign focused on repeal of the income tax, makes his anticipated entrance in 2022 as the presumptive frontrunner for a rematch with Gov. Ned Lamont.
Essentially a one-issue candidate in his first run, Stefanowski stepped away from his singular focus on the income tax Wednesday and asked voters to consider the question central to Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, when inflation was a preoccupation of economists and a concern in American households, as it is becoming again.
Are voters better off than they were four years ago?
“It’s affordability. It’s about utility bills. It’s about the cost of gas. It’s about spiking in crime. It’s about government accountability and having some visibility to how they spend our money in Hartford and having some accountability around it,” Stefanowski said. “We’re going to have a much broader platform, and we’re going to address more issues that people are worried about.”
His announcement was no surprise, given his visibility since 2018 and relentless criticism of Lamont in newspaper opinion pieces, including one posted by The Hartford Courant an hour before his kickoff: It accused Lamont of failing in his response to COVID-19.
He laughed when his radio hosts jokingly suggested they were wondering what he would say.
“This is not monumental, but, you know, it’s happy to be on your show to do it,” he said.
Lamont, a Democrat, was elected with 49.38% of the vote in a four-way race. Stefanowski was the runner up, with 46.21%. His public concession came in a morning-after call to Chaz & AJ.
“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 told the drive-time DJs then. “They tipped the scales early this morning.”
Lamont’s ultimate margin of victory was 44,372 votes.
Stefanowski’s only significant rival for the GOP nomination so far is former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, who has spent $400,000 laying the groundwork for a campaign without firmly committing to going forward. Stefanowski said it is “getting late” for others.
If he wins the nomination, Stefanowski will face a familiar foe in Lamont but a different contest. In 2018, the seat was open as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declined to seek a third term, wounded by a weak economy and chronic budget challenges.
Connecticut voters have not denied reelection to an incumbent governor since Democrat Abraham Ribicoff narrowly defeated Republican John Lodge. That was 68 years ago, the year Lamont was born.
Lamont bucked an even longer trend. His victory marked the first time in more than a century that a politician was able to succeed a member of his own party in an open race for governor of Connecticut.
Chaz, a radio host who goes by one name on the air, gently challenged Stefanowski’s assessment of Lamont’s handling of the pandemic, noting he generally gets high marks.
“In fairness to Gov. Lamont, there was no playbook for COVID,” Stefanowski replied. “We’d never seen anything like this, and I think he’s honestly tried his best and, as you know, he’s been in complete control of it for the last two years under executive authorities.”
But Stefanowski, who organized the distribution of face masks in the earliest days of the pandemic when there were shortages of protective gear, said the state was unprepared for the latest surge in infections from the omicron variant. He objected to COVID patients being placed in nursing homes, but he did not otherwise outline what he would have done differently on the issues of vaccination and mask mandates.
One of the key issues of 2018 — the budget crisis — is less pressing.
The governor is seeking reelection with the state still struggling for economic growth but not facing an immediate fiscal crisis. Stefanowski’s announcement comes amid projections of a $2.2 billion surplus fueled by burgeoning tax revenues that will allow Lamont to propose tax cuts in his budget proposal next month.
Stefanowski’s campaign opened with a minor glitch. On the radio show at 7 a.m., he said a press release had gone out 10 minutes earlier. It did not go out until after he went off the air 20 minutes later.
“I have the experience, a plan to accomplish it, and as a political outsider, I’m not afraid to ruffle a few feathers if it means making Connecticut stronger, safer and more accountable,” he said in the press announcement. “And that is exactly what I am going to do as your Governor.”
Technically, Stefanowski became a candidate at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, when he electronically filed his candidate papers.
Stefanowski introduced himself four years ago as a supply-sider who saw phasing out the income tax as the key to reviving Connecticut’s economy, insisting he somehow could do so without returning to the higher sales, investment and business taxes on which the state relied prior to enacting a tax on wages in 1991.
He called his plan aspirational, and it remained the centerpiece of his campaign. It went unmentioned in an op-ed recently published in The Hartford Courant in which he called for a cut in gasoline taxes, an unspecified cut in state spending and audits to root out waste, fraud and abuse.
Stefanowski was a Democrat until three months before becoming a Republican candidate in 2017. He 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 Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
He starts his second race keeping away from Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 presidential race was rigged and Joe Biden’s presidency illegitimate.
“Joe Biden won the election, and it’s past time to move on from 2020 and focus on CT residents trying to figure out how they are going to keep the lights on, gas up their car, get a simple COVID test without waiting in line for hours,” Stefanowski said in a text message to CT Mirror before the anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Trump endorsed Stefanowski after the gubernatorial primary but played no other role.
Nancy DiNardo, the Democratic state chair, branded Stefanowski as an extremist Wednesday.
“Bob Stefanowski is too extreme for Connecticut. His economic plan for our state would have devastated schools, rolled back health care, and laid off health care workers,” she said in a statement. “He has an ‘A’ rating from the NRA and opposed commonsense legislation passed in the wake of Sandy Hook. When it comes to working families, he opposes having a minimum wage altogether. And when asked to grade Donald Trump as President, he give him an ‘A’ and called Trump’s endorsement of his candidacy ‘pretty cool.'”
Stefanowski said in his own press statement he has “invested” $10 million in his new campaign, likely an effort to assure Republicans he can compete with Lamont’s wealth.
But Stefanowski is expected to also do conventional fundraising. Lamont self-funded all but $800,000 of his $15.8 million campaign in 2018 and plans to do so again this year.
A consultant to Stefanowski’s new campaign is Liz Kurantowicz, a former adviser to Klarides.
A former executive in global finance, Stefanowski won a five-way primary as a self-funder, spending $2.3 million of his own money. But he spent only another $1 million of personal funds in the general election, relying on contributors and independent expenditures by the Republican Governors Association to compete.
He bypassed the GOP convention, qualifying for a primary by a petition drive — a first for a major-party gubernatorial nominee in Connecticut.
Stefanowski’s resume includes 13 years at GE in the U.S. and overseas, then three-year tours at a London-based international equities firm, 3i, and UBS Investment Bank. His last corporate post was a controversial one during the 2018 campaign: He was the chief executive of DFC Global, a payday lender barred from doing business in Connecticut by its usury laws.