Politics & Policy

Connecticut’s Gubernatorial Race and the Trump Factor

Statue of Israel Putnam on the grounds of the Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford (Photo: James Kirkikis/Dreamstime)
Republicans have a shot in a solidly blue state.

Few people conceive of Connecticut as Heartland USA, but Donald Trump is making political waves there just as surely as he is in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Eight months out from this November’s gubernatorial election, both Democrats and Republicans are facing problems with disunity. At the same time, both parties believe the election is theirs to lose. Probably the race will be quite close — and with the margin of error so slim, Republicans and Democrats alike will face tough choices when it comes to reconciling their moderate factions with their respective pro-Trump and far-left ones.

The context is a fiscal and economic crisis that has driven two-term governor Dannel Malloy’s approval rating down lower than that of any other Democratic governor in the nation. During the Malloy era, the GOP has racked up tremendous gains in the state legislature, to the point where they need to flip only five seats in the house and one in the senate to become the majority party.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Connecticut decisively, as had every other Democratic presidential candidate going back to 1992. But media reports suggesting that Trump’s a pure catastrophe for the state GOP tend to overlook the fact that he outperformed John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. That goes both for the share of the vote won by Trump and the absolute numbers.

Connecticut’s last two governor’s races, in 2010 and 2014, were decided by only 6,400 and 28,000 votes, respectively. So in November, the GOP will need the support of the roughly 38,000 people who voted for Trump but not Romney.

With more than ten candidates still contending for the nomination, most of them credible, the race is wide open. The party convention in May will exert some degree of winnowing. But it is entirely possible that six candidates will compete in the August primary, meaning Connecticut’s Republican party is many months away from clarifying how it will finesse the Trump question. The primary process has been pushing candidates closer to Trump just as the lead-up to the general election will, to some extent, surely push them away. (One tactic is to affirm that you voted from Trump, praise him for his disruptive potential, but distance yourself from his “style.”)

Democrats in Connecticut feel they have the wind at their backs, pointing to gains they made in a recent special legislative election and some municipal elections last November. Those wins exhibited strength in suburban areas such as Fairfield County, where anti-Trump sentiment runs high. The largest and wealthiest of Connecticut’s eight counties, Fairfield was the only one where Trump got fewer votes than did Romney. Suburban Democrats, though, have expressed concern over the potential of an inordinately urban orientation on the November ticket. Given how heavily Democratic Connecticut’s cities are, there is a strong argument to be made that the party should take them for granted — and instead focus mainly on pressing its advantage in the suburbs.

Another factor to watch is the Working Families Party, the far-left contingent that put Malloy over the top in the 2010 election. (Connecticut’s electoral system allows Democratic and Republican candidates to run on the “lines” of minor parties, usually in exchange for embracing elements of those parties’ agendas.) Its influence has waned in more recent years, as the drumbeat of news stories about business and household outmigration and chronic multi-billion-dollar deficits even after a slew of tax increases has created popular distaste for the WFP’s tax-and-spend agenda, but it would be unwise to count the party out. The WFP’s forthright progressivism certainly dovetails with that of many in the anti-Trump resistance. And if the past two gubernatorial elections are any indication, 2018 will be closely contested. What if, in the general election in November, the Working Families Party proves more successful in pulling the Democratic nominee to the left than Trump voters — who are not organized — succeed in pulling the GOP candidate to the right?

One crucial measure of strength for the party of federalism is how much power it wields at the statehouse level.

Trump has never shown much interest in serving as his party’s leader, but his success in that role is one way in which his presidency will be judged. Supporters of the president have long based their case on a claim that their guy can win whereas Romney, Rubio, Cruz, etc., could not. But one crucial measure of strength for the party of federalism is how much power it wields at the statehouse level. The pre-Trump GOP “establishment” had managed to lock up total control of 23 statehouses as of early 2015, whereas Democrats held only seven.

Now Connecticut looks to be within reach as well, thanks to the hash that the Democrats have made of the state budget and economy. Though there are many other, more important questions to debate about the future of the state, it will be hard to avoid making its 2018 gubernatorial election a referendum on Trump.

Stephen Eide — Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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