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Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat whose leadership during COVID-19 helped him rebound from first-year missteps and one of the lowest gubernatorial approval ratings in the U.S., won a second term Tuesday with a crushing victory over Republican Bob Stefanowski.

With the race called in his favor by ABC News and Fox News, Lamont claimed victory shortly after 11:30 p.m. The Associated Press called it for Lamont just before 1 a.m.

“Now we all come together. We work together as one, because that’s what Connecticut always does. That’s the Connecticut difference right?” Lamont told supporters at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, downtown Hartford’s minor-league ballpark.

Stefanowski, who narrowly lost to Lamont four years ago, told his supporters at a hotel in Trumbull he would wait for more returns before deciding whether to concede.

“We’ve been waiting for the right answer, and we’re going to have to wait just a little bit longer,” Stefanowski said to raucous applause. 

He acknowledged his defeat in an emailed statement at 8:14 a.m. Wednesday, but offered no clear concession or congratulations to Lamont.

While returns were incomplete as Stefanowski bid his supporters good night, sources in both parties said numbers in key suburbs left Stefanowski with no path to victory. Lamont said he and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz had no doubt about the outcome.

“We know where we stand,” Lamont said in his early morning victory speech.

Indeed, the returns eventually posted showed a Democratic rout in the cities and wealthy suburbs of Fairfield County, and wins in most of the I-91 corridor from Hartford to New Haven and across the Long Island Sound shoreline, from New York to Rhode Island.

Winning at least 57% of the vote in both places, Lamont carried his hometown of Greenwich and Stefanowski’s in Madison.

Unofficial results Wednesday morning showed Lamont with a double-digit win reflecting consistent public polling. With 97% of precincts reporting, the governor led with 56% of the vote to 43% for Stefanowski and 1% for Rob Hotaling of the Independent Party.

Stefanowski didn’t concede in 2018 until the next morning. In what essentially was a three-way race, Lamont beat Stefanowski, 49.37% to 46.21%, with Oz Griebel getting 3.89% and two others sharing half a point.

In a battle of wealthy self-funders who collectively spent more than $34 million on their rematch, Lamont showed surprising strength in suburbs Stefanowski won four years ago, resisting what the GOP had hoped would be a red wave.

Democrats maintained their strong majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, flipping two House seats in Greenwich and winning a newly drawn district centered on wealthy Wilton, a sign of the party’s growing strength in Fairfield County.

The entire statewide Democratic ticket won: Lamont, Bysiewicz, Attorney General William Tong and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal were reelected, and Stephanie Thomas, Sean Scanlon and Erick Russell won open races for secretary of the state, comptroller and treasurer.

The GOP’s only bright spot was a nearly dead heat between Republican George Logan and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District. That race had not been called Wednesday morning.

Stefanowski, who urged voters to consider the campaign a job interview, failed to convince them to fire the governor who became a reassuring presence in daily televised briefings after COVID arrived in March 2020, upending commerce, education, social life and politics.

“In terms of all that negativity on both wings out there in the political world, I’d like to think that the center is holding in the state of Connecticut,” Lamont said before the polls closed. “I like to think that we hung together during COVID, and united we stand.”

A sitting governor seeking another term has not been defeated in Connecticut since 1954, but the 2022 midterm elections were waged with inflation at a 40-year high and American politics increasingly fueled by anger and distrust in government and elections.

To win a second term, Lamont spent at least $21 million to inoculate himself against negative ads and the perils of governing a high-tax state with chronically high energy and housing costs during a volatile time of high inflation. Stefanowski spent at least $12 million.

A failed first-year effort to bring back tolls to Connecticut’s highways seemed to leave Lamont destined to serve a single term, but polling showed the tolls debacle was forgotten as the governor confronted COVID. His approval rating rebounded, and he didn’t trail in any public poll in 2022.

Lamont capitalized on the state’s streak of budget surpluses by cutting taxes in an election year, paying down Connecticut’s monstrous pension debt, and filling the rainy day fund in anticipation of recession.

Stefanowski, 60, a former executive at GE and UBS whose last corporate post was chief executive of a payday loan company, opened his 2022 campaign in January by posing the same question that propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980, another election dominated by inflation.

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,” Stefanowski said then. “It’s about government accountability and having some visibility to how they spend our money in Hartford and having some accountability around it.”

Gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski speaks to his supporters in at the Marriott Hotel in Trumbull with Lt. Governor candidate Laura Devlin, saying that he won’t concede in the race against Gov. Ned Lamont as final results still come in. “We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said.

If voters thought themselves worse off, not enough of them faulted Lamont or saw Stefanowski as the solution.

Lamont, 68, a founder of a cable television company, has been a Connecticut cheerleader, pitching with some success to the Wall Street Journal editorial page the argument that the state had moved to a stronger fiscal footing, with either stable or positive bond ratings, low unemployment and a positive balance sheet.

“I just want people not voting against something. I want people voting for something,” Lamont said. “I hope I’ve given people something to vote for in terms of where we’ve gone as a state.”

Stefanowski argued throughout the spring, summer and fall that Lamont’s optimism was misplaced.

CNBC ranked the state 39th as a place to do business in 2022, down 15 places from the previous year. CNBC gave Connecticut failing grades for its cost of living and economy, offsetting passing marks for a quality workforce, good education and an administration it rated as friendly to business.

But Stefanowski’s campaign never settled into a steady rhythm, periodically returning to the economy, while faulting Lamont for signing a police accountability bill opposed by police, claiming crime was “out of control,” despite statistics that showed otherwise. He also made overtures to social conservatives and vaccine skeptics.

“I don’t think Bob Stefanowski ever found his message or his reasons for voters to vote for him over Ned Lamont. He jumped from one divisive issue to another and never really found his footing,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, a Democrat. “The one thing he’s consistently done throughout the campaign was talk trash about the state of Connecticut as a whole, and about cities in particular.”

Supporters of Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz cheer the results during the celebration of Lamont’s reelection Tuesday night. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Lamont is not a polarizing personality, but his use of sweeping emergency powers during the pandemic eventually sparked a backlash, first over the closure of restaurants and bars, then one organized around opposition to his mandate for masks in schools.

Outside a polling place in Bristol on Tuesday, two organizers of an “unmask our children” group welcomed Stefanowski late Tuesday morning.

Emily Bailey held a sign that promised if Lamont was reelected, Connecticut would mandate COVID vaccinations for children to attend school, something the governor has denied. Bailey and her co-leader, Theresa Motel, the wife of a Bristol police officer, happily took photos with Stefanowski.

Bristol is Democratic by registration, less so by recent results. The GOP captured control of City Hall last year. While Democrats have grown their base in Fairfield County suburbs that once were reliably Republican, some blue-collar communities have left the Democratic coalition.

“We’re blue collar,” said Susan Tyler, a retired police officer and Republican member of the City Council in Bristol. “We’re a working town.”

Republican Bob Stefanowski greets supporters outside of Polson Middle School in Madison before he casts his vote. Tony Spinelli / CT Public

But unofficial results showed a split in Bristol, with Stefanowski carrying the city with a tiny fraction more than 50%.

Bristol is reeling from the recent shooting deaths of two police officers, but Tyler said during the day she saw no sign the murders moved voters one way or another, even though Stefanowski has won police union support and accused Lamont of being anti-police.

“I think that message was already out there before this. I don’t know that this incident really had anything to do with politics,” Tyler said.

Overall, Stefanowski’s reliance on the crime issue in the latter weeks of the campaign appeared to fall flat in the suburbs.

State Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, said the Democrats were trying to use animus to Trump two years after his departure from the White House, an issue he says has lost its strength.

But Rich Goodwin, a Democratic poll stander, disagreed. He said both parties now mirror national politics.

“I was an unaffiliated voter until Donald Trump was elected. I went to city hall the next day and became a Democrat,” Goodwin said. “I haven’t voted for a Republican since.”

Goodwin said he regrets the change, the loss of a center in both parties.

“It’s gone too far left and too far right,” Goodwin said. “We need more moderates. I’m a moderate.”

CT Mirror staff writers Andrew Brown and Dave Altimari contributed to this 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.