The persuasion phase of Gov. Ned Lamont’s campaign remains at full throttle on TV, evident in ads that air hourly, from dawn newscasts to late-night talk shows. And his ad buy was bigger last week than the one before.

But there is a shift in tone and how the campaign is deploying its candidate. Lamont spends nearly as much time urging fellow Democrats to get out the vote on Nov. 8 as he does seeking votes from the dwindling ranks of the undecided.

With two polls giving him a double-digit lead in a state with fundamentals that favor Democrats, Lamont is campaigning against Democratic complacency as much as he is against his Republican opponent, Bob Stefanowski.

“I know you’re looking at the numbers. ‘Oh, things look pretty good.’ Maybe, you go golfing that day,” Lamont told Democratic activists in Bridgeport a week ago. “No, you’re not. I need you desperately. We need everybody to turn out.”

His latest ad, titled “Nothing We Can’t Do,” is in sync with the personality of a candidate who unabashedly cheerleads and prefers to see himself apart from the extreme partisanship and polarization of contemporary American politics.

It highlights a bipartisan election-year crime bill and flashes a headline noting the falling crime rate, an opportunity for the governor to simultaneously push back at Stefanowski’s insistence crime is “out of control” and present an idealized picture of how Lamont prefers to do business.

“By bringing Republicans and Democrats together, we’re giving law enforcement the resources they need,” Lamont says in the ad. “And we’re tackling the causes of juvenile crime. Keep kids off the streets and out of prison. I’m Ned Lamont. I approve this message, because there’s nothing we can’t do if we work together.”

With 30 days until election, Lamont essentially is making his closing argument, a luxury that comes with advantages of incumbency and polls that indicate voters know their governor and give him a positive job rating, even if they are apt to agree with Stefanowski’s dour assessment of the economy.

Last Friday, Sept. 30, a little boy educated Lamont about the ubiquity of his ad campaign after the governor spoke to Hartford school children at a fire-safety event outside the Capitol. The child happily parroted the tag line of the governor’s ads: “I’m Ned Lamont, and I approve this message.”

“How old are you?” Lamont said.

The boy was 8.

“Smart kiddy. We don’t put them on during the cartoons, so he’s watching the news,” Lamont said, laughing after the encounter. “That’s what I told him. Keep at it.”

Gov. Ned Lamont at a fire safety event on Sept. 30. Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror

Stefanowski and making the case for change

Stefanowski still is trying to shape the impression of him that voters will carry to the polls, while convincing them they are too generous in their assessment of an incumbent with a habit of declaring that Connecticut, after decades after economic stagnation, has “got back its mojo.”

“You know what the next 30 days is? It’s a job interview. You guys are interviewing me to see who the best CEO is of the state of Connecticut,” Stefanowski said last week. “We’re gonna prove to you over the next 30 days that we’ve got a better plan.”

In that promise is a tacit admission he has not yet made the case.

Unlike four years ago, when he was competing with Lamont to succeed Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Stefanowski has to both sell himself and convince voters to fire the governor who led them through the worst days of COVID, a performance overwhelmingly approved by voters in numerous polls.

Stefanowski is hampered by time and the challenges inherent in simultaneously promoting a positive image of himself and attacking Lamont.

“It’s unconscionable that the governor is going around saying we got our mojo back and things are fixed. Whether you blame him or not, it’s not fixed. You have to realize you have a problem,” Stefanowski said last week while campaigning with his running mate, Laura Devlin. “Laura and I realize it. We have plans in place that we’re going to implement to fix it.”

His plan is tax cuts, some permanent and others temporary, using surplus funds.

Bob Stefanowski in the RV that took him on a three-day tour of Connecticut that ended Saturday night. He slept in the RV, opening Thursday night in a Chili’s restaurant parking lot in Cromwell. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

There are tensions, if not contradictions, in his messaging about Lamont’s sunny approach to Connecticut’s economy and budget.

On Thursday, the day that he and Devlin kicked off a three-day, 30-community dash around Connecticut in a rented RV, he noted that Truth in Accounting ranks Connecticut last in its ranking of fiscal health.

The F grade is due in large measure to the state’s bonding debt and unfunded pension and retiree health liabilities, which the group equates to a burden of $62,500 for every taxpayer.

But Stefanowski attacks Lamont for addressing the debt burden by following protocols established by a 2017 bipartisan budget deal to mitigate the volatility inherent in an income-tax system sensitive to the gains and losses in affluent Fairfield County. 

Surging tax revenues have produced surpluses that have replenished a nearly empty rainy day fund with $3.3 billion, its legal limit of 15% of the general fund budget. And the state has made nearly $6 billion in supplemental pension payments, precisely what Truth in Accounting says the state must do.

Stefanowski says the tax cuts provided by Lamont and the Democratic legislature in the current budget are too little, given the pressures on consumers from inflation. Rather than save for a rainy day or pay down so much debt, Stefanowski says a larger portion of the surplus should have gone to tax relief and higher pay for teachers and police.

Bob Stefanowski on the campaign trail at Long Wharf in New Haven on Thursday. His running mate Laura Devlin is at center. Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror

“I heard him say some time ago on radio, paying down the unfunded liability is important, but not right now,” Lamont said. “And I think the last 10 governors have said the same thing. That’s what got us into the pickle we are in.”

By chronically short-changing contributions to its pensions, Connecticut forfeited billions of dollars in potential investment earnings over 70 years between 1930 and 2010, the year Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was elected and began making the annual actuarially required contributions.

Another contradiction in Stefanowski’s view of Lamont’s stewardship of the economy is his fulsome praise of David Lehman, the former Goldman Sachs partner who advises Lamont on economic issues and runs the Department of Economic and Community Development.

In an interview in June, Stefanowski told CT Mirror that Lehman was smart, respected by business and a model of what he would seek in his commissioners.

He said, “We need more David Lehmans.”

More recently, Stefanowski went further, telling a CBIA audience he would try to keep Lehman in his job in a Stefanowski administration.

As he campaigns, Stefanowski says he finds voters that reflect his view of Connecticut as a state plagued by crime and economic worry, reactions that make him discount the polls.

On Thursday, as he campaigned among the patrons of the food trucks parked in Long Wharf in New Haven, a young woman told him her apartment at Trumbull and Orange streets had been burglarized, and the police had been too busy with violent crime to respond that night.

A young man who identified himself as a suburban police officer told him he agreed with Stefanowski’s assessment that a police accountability bill passed in 2020 has demoralized police.

Advertising

Like Lamont’s, Stefanowski’s advertising has taken a lighter turn. 

Unlike Lamont’s, his new commercial is less about reinforcing a well-established image than combatting a liability — a 30-point gender gap among women that favors Lamont. 

The new ad is playful. It features his wife and two of his three daughters mocking an ad from a Democratic Governors Association super PAC that pronounces him as “too extreme for Connecticut.”

“But you’re pro choice,” says the first daughter.

“You support funding schools,” says the second.

“And women’s health,” says the first.

They tease him, saying that ad should say he is extremely smart, extremely good with budgets, extremely considerate, and extremely tall. His wife, Amy, joins them to add “and extremely good looking,” ending with the smiling candidate saying, “I’m Bob Stefanowski, and I’m extremely embarrassed to say I approve this message.”

A recent Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters underscored the need for the spot. Only 33% had a favorable opinion of him, 39% had an unfavorable opinion, and 27% didn’t know enough about the two-time GOP nominee to offer an opinion.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

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.