At his first press conference in May after winning the GOP nomination, Bob Stefanowski leaves after refusing to state a position on Connecticut's new safe harbor law for abortion patients and providers. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Bob Stefanowski shifted from foot to foot on stage in Westport’s library, agitated at a fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for generating a fresh round of unwelcome stories about the GOP ’s desires to restrict abortion.

Stefanowski’s efforts to neutralize abortion and gun control as issues in his campaign to unseat Gov. Ned Lamont in Connecticut are undermined regularly, as often by his own party as by Democrats. Last week, his frustration finally spilled out.

“You saw that crazy Lindsey Graham — ”

A video of the political forum, which had not been publicized widely outside Westport, shows Stefanowski catching himself.

“And maybe people agree. I shouldn’t say crazy,” Stefanowski said. “Lindsey Graham came out and said he’s gonna mandate that abortion be illegal nationally. First of all, he can’t do it.”

Stefanowski reiterated that he and his running mate, Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield, support Connecticut’s 32-year-old law that codifies the tenets of Roe v. Wade and affirms a legal right to abortion up to fetal viability.

“Now that may upset some of you. It may calm some of you,” Stefanowski said. “But I want that fact to be out there, so when you’re out at restaurants and someone says, ‘I hear Bob’s going to take away a woman’s right to choose,’ tell them, ‘No he’s not.’”

Stefanowski describes himself as a consistent supporter of abortion rights, usually in the sparest terms possible. On guns, he no longer aligns himself with the NRA and other opponents of the gun control measures adopted by Connecticut after the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook School nearly a decade ago.

The NRA endorsed him in 2018 with an A grade for his answers on a questionnaire that neither he nor the NRA ever released and Stefanowski declines to discuss.

On abortion and guns, Stefanowski typically states his support for the status quo in Connecticut, then goes no further. Sometimes, he adds, “End of story.”

But the story never ends.

Democrats sow seeds of suspicion on both counts, employing guilt by association, Stefanowski’s shifting stance on guns, and his stubborn refusal to state a position on a newer abortion rights law that passed this year with an affirmative vote by Devlin and a signature from Lamont.     

Connecticut Democrats are capitalizing on a Republican brand that has become synonymous in national circles with hostility to reproductive rights and gun control but also on Stefanowski’s tendency to downplay their relevance in Connecticut.

His strategy of minimizing both as matters of settled law, as distractions from more pressing concerns about inflation and the cost of living in Connecticut, has opened him to Democrats’ repeated suggestions that his support is grudging, even dismissive.

A Stefanowski campaign commercial managed to both highlight his support for abortion rights and reinforce a sense the issue was unimportant. The first five seconds of the 30-second ad declared “both Ned Lamont and Bob Stefanowski are pro-choice,” then it pivoted to his major theme that Stefanowski is more committed than Lamont to make Connecticut more affordable.

His commercial labels Stefanowski and Lamont as “pro choice.”

“Just to say you’re pro choice isn’t enough,” said Attorney General William Tong, a Democrat. “Let’s just be clear. That doesn’t cut it right now. ‘I’m pro choice. Thanks a lot, good night.’ That’s not enough, OK? He needs to stand with us and draw a bright line in the sand and say that he will fight for Connecticut women patients, doctors, health care providers.”

Twice last week, Democrats staged press events asserting their party is the only one voters can trust to defend the state’s abortion and gun control laws with passion and clarity of purpose.

Pointing to an out-of-state group’s recent lawsuit testing the constitutionality of the Sandy Hook gun law, plus Graham’s proposal to ban abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, Democrats say the threats are real and relevant to the campaign for governor of Connecticut.

Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, a supporter of abortion rights, was dispatched by Republicans to offer a rebuttal at a Democratic news conference, calling the Democrats’ concerns “overwrought” and suggesting they were elements of a cynical strategy to distract from economic issues.

“It’s creating a false narrative, by hysteria and redirection from, quite frankly, their failed economic policies. There’s no one that could defend where we are economically as a state,” Wood said. “Bob and Laura have both been very clear that they support the codification of Roe v. Wade. They’ve said it dozens of times. I’ve heard him say it dozens of times. Laura has demonstrated that through her voting record. So I don’t know what more they can do.”

In a single week in June, the Republican-installed conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed that guns and abortion would be issues in 2022 with opinions overturning New York’s strict gun-control law and Roe v. Wade, the landmark that had established a legal right to abortion for nearly half a century.

Stefanowski responded cautiously in May to the leaked copy of the draft decision that presaged the actual opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which resulted in the end of Roe and created a rush of Republican efforts to curtail or ban abortion in several states.

Initially responding only by text messages or emails, Stefanowski said the end of Roe would have no impact in Connecticut. And he offered no opinion about a Connecticut law passed in late April that gives abortion patients and providers a safe harbor against so-called vigilante lawsuits authorized by Texas.

By remaining silent, Stefanowski declined an opportunity to support his running mate, who was one of only seven House Republicans to vote for the law, and underscore his own willingness to defend reproductive rights. (Wood, who defended him against Democrats, also was one of the seven.)

Lamont exploited his silence.

“I think that any candidate for governor has got to speak up and let us know where you stand,” Lamont said at a ceremonial signing of the bill outside the Capitol. “What have I heard from the Republican candidate for governor? Crickets.”

Gov. Ned Lamont signed the abortion safe harbor bill then challenged Bob Stefanowski over his refusal to take a position on the new law. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Stefanowski’s silence on the safe harbor law, coupled with his support for passage of a parental notification provision that would replace a counseling requirement for minors under 16, were received by the leader of the Family Institute of Connecticut as welcome gestures to social conservatives.

Stefanowski finally took questions about abortion on May 18 in his first news conference after being formally crowned as the GOP nominee. 

“I get it. Roe v. Wade is a big deal. I understand that people across the country are concerned about it. It’s emotional. It’s intense,” Stefanowski told reporters. “As you guys know, it’s codified in Connecticut state law.”

He emphasized his difference with Lamont on parental notification, then tried to move on.

Would he have signed the safe harbor law? a reporter pressed.

“I’m not going to answer hypotheticals,” Stefanowski said.

Did he agree with his running mate? asked another.

“It’s not my place to agree or disagree with her. She represents the district of Fairfield. She can make her own vote. She’s made 100 votes,” Stefanowski said. “What I’m telling you, you can keep asking me the question, but I’m telling you, it’s law, I’m not going to change it. End of story.”

Last week, on the same day when Stefanowski showed his frustration with Graham at the little-publicized Westport event, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewcz joined Tong and other Democrats in asking why the Republican was not more outspoken.

“Bob, why haven’t you stood up to Senator Graham?” Bysiewicz said. “Why haven’t you spoken out? Why didn’t you stand up to Donald Trump when he nominated Brett Kavanaugh? Why are you supporting Leora Levy and her radical anti-choice agenda?”

Stefanowski did not formally endorse Levy, an anti-abortion candidate who defeated Themis Klarides, a supporter of abortion rights, in the Connecticut Republican primary for U.S. Senate. But he made the maximum contribution allowed by law to Levy’s campaign.

In two public settings in a three-hour period last week, Stefanowski did speak out, twice on abortion and once on guns, both times insisting he was the victim of false attacks on his commitment to preserving the status quo.

On WPLR-FM’s “Chaz & AJ in the Morning” show, Stefanowski said he would defend Connecticut’s abortion law against political or legal challenges.

“So regardless of my personal views on abortion, I am going to enforce that law, and I am not going to take away a woman’s right to choose,” Stefanowski said. “They’re going to have it under me. I’m going to fight for it. I’m going to maintain it.”

In a brief telephone interview later, Stefanowski was annoyed when asked to clarify what he meant saying that his vigorous defense would come “regardless of my personal views on abortion.” 

Stefanowski said his personal and public-policy views were the same: He believes reproductive choice is a right for every woman, including his three young adult daughters.

In Westport, he told his audience that he and Devlin were just as supportive of gun control.

“Connecticut has the toughest gun laws in the nation. Laura and I are gonna uphold them. Again, some you may like that, some you may not like that,” Stefanowski said. “But that is it — period. End of story.”

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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.