CT Truth PAC, launched in February by Old Lyme businessman J. David Kelsey to produce TV commercials opposing the reelection of Gov. Ned Lamont, quit the race surprisingly early, making its last TV ad expenditure in June.
Happily for the Republican nominee, Bob Stefanowski, a new political action committee with twice the budget, Advancing Connecticut, quickly filled the void and has been airing ads questioning the integrity of Lamont and his wife.
And Kelsey, as it turns out, didn’t stop spending on trying to unseat the governor. Not by a long shot.
In filings with the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the source of the new committee’s funding is relatively opaque: Advancing Connecticut’s only donor is a pass-through entity, the Republican Governors Association.
But the association’s latest disclosure to the IRS is more forthcoming.
It shows that on the same day in June that Kelsey stopped funding CT Truth PAC, he made the first of five contributions that would make him Connecticut’s biggest donor to the RGA this year.
With the $750,000 he gave CT Truth PAC through June and $1.45 million to the RGA through September, Kelsey has contributed a total of $2.2 million the effort to unseat Lamont, a first-term Democratic governor.
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Kelsey did not return calls for comment, but the Republican state chairman, Ben Proto, says there is no back story — no juicy tale of personal animosity towards Lamont behind the generosity in service of Stefanowski.
“He’s a good Republican who believes we’d be better off with a Republican governor and Republican legislators,” said Ben Proto, the state chair. “He’s just a good Republican.”
The target of Kelsey’s largesse is aware of the spending, though unfamiliar with the man behind it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever laid eyes on the guy,” Lamont said.
As a Democrat from Greenwich, Lamont is inured to Republicans he knows writing checks against his political interest. Recent donors to the RGA from Greenwich include Thomas C. Foley, the 2010 and 2014 nominee for governor, and Linda McMahon, the 2010 and 2012 nominee for U.S. Senate. Each gave $35,000.
But $2.2 million? That demands notice.
The governor confesses to wondering if there was a specific gripe or policy disagreement on Kelsey’s part.
“If he felt that strongly, you’d think he might have reached out to the office and say, ‘Let’s talk about some things I feel very strongly about.’ I just don’t know the fellow,” Lamont said.
Another of the Connecticut donors, Denis J. Nayden, did have a conflict with the administration. After giving $100,000 to a super PAC supporting Stefanowski in 2018, he lost his seat on the University of Connecticut’s board of trustees.
This year, Nayden gave $200,000 to the RGA. Thomas McInerney of Westport, the chief executive of the private equity firm Bluff Point Associates, gave $100,000 to the RGA and earlier matched Kelsey’s donations of $750,000 to CT Truth PAC.
Kelsey is the founder of Hamilton Point Investments, a private equity company that has acquired 24,000 apartments across the U.S., including Bushnell on the Park, down the hill from Lamont’s office at the state Capitol.
Aside from the $2.2 million spent on the Connecticut governor’s race, Kelsey has contributed $2.3 million to federal candidates and political action committees in this election cycle, as well as smaller amounts to state legislative candidates and the state GOP.
Kelsey is not just a donor. Kelsey is the former chairman of the Republican Town Committee in Old Lyme, and the town’s web site lists him as the chair of its Board of Finance.
He also is the principal funder of CT Examiner, a news site that commissioned a poll that found a far closer race than recent surveys by Quinnipiac University and Emerson College, each giving Lamont double-digit leads unchanged from a month earlier.
The Examiner’s poll found Lamont leading Stefanowski, 46% to 40%, with 5% favoring Rob Hotaling of the Independent Party, and 10% undecided.
This year, three PACs have spent more $5.6 million opposing Lamont. Advancing Connecticut has spent the most, about $3 million of its $3.2 million. Nearly all of it has gone for advertising attacking Lamont.
The Democratic Governors Association also has a super PAC in Connecticut, Stronger CT, that has spent $2.7 million, nearly all of it on advertising attacking Stefanowski. It has no Connecticut donors on Kelsey’s scale.
While state law prohibits direct contributions of more than $3,500 to a gubernatorial campaign and $10,000 to a state party, there is no limit on contributions to independent groups known as super PACs.
Lamont and Stefanowski are largely self-funding their campaigns. Both opted out of the Citizens’ Election Program, which would have limited their total spending to about $8 million each for the entire campaign, most in public grants of $7.7 million.
As of Sept. 30, the Democratic governor and his Republican challenger were spending at a record pace: $14.8 million by Lamont’s campaign and $9.2 million by Stefanowski’s.
They spent half as much at the same point in 2018.
Super PACs came of age in Connecticut gubernatorial politics in 2018, with the campaigns of three Republican candidates supplemented by dedicated independent expenditures.
In 2018, Kelsey gave $10,000 to CT Rising, the super PAC that supported Mark Boughton over Stefanowski in the five-way GOP primary. He gave Stefanowski $3,500 once he won the nomination.
Another wealthy donor, Reverge Anselmo, spent more than $2 million on behalf of Stefanowski in that race. Anselmo, who then lived in Greenwich, has left Connecticut and has not been a major donor this cycle.