Party bases pick poor candidates in their closed primaries

While celebrating Tom Foley’s victory over veteran legislator John McKinney in the Republican gubernatorial primary four years ago, the party chairman predicted “our base will turn out in big numbers this November to overturn Malloy and his failed economic policies.”

The base did turn out but Malloy’s failed economic policies won anyway because the Republican base wasn’t enough to win the election. The base was able to give the nomination to Foley, a wealthy Republican never elected to anything in a closed primary, just as the base was able to give this year’s nomination to Bob Stefanowski, a wealthy Republican (and former Democrat), also never elected to anything. Not to be outdone, the state’s Democratic base gave its nomination to Ned Lamont, also a wealthy Democrat never elected to anything above the town level in that party’s closed primary.

But the Republican Party’s base is too small to go it alone or nearly alone in a Connecticut general election and as the third largest voting bloc out of three, it will never be. It’s true even in years like this one, when the Republicans richly deserve to beat a discredited Democratic Party in the races for governor and state legislature. But to do it, they have to nominate someone whose appeal goes well beyond the base. It doesn’t look as if they have.

Party bases, also known as true believers or extreme right- or left-wingers, depending on the party, do one thing well. They pick candidates lacking in much appeal to voters from the other party or to the ever-growing number of unaffiliated voters.  

That number of Connecticut citizens, who don’t particularly care for either party, is 857,000 and counting, nearly 100,000 more than all the registered Democrats and more than 400,000 more than all the registered Republicans.  They should have something to say in the selection of candidates but Connecticut’s two not-so-great political parties choose to maintain the myth that they have a loyal, enthusiastic base, strong enough and smart enough to go it alone.

Ned Lamont, the current Democratic gubernatorial nominee, disproved that myth more than a decade ago when, in 2006, the party’s base chose him over incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman because of Lamont’s anti-Iraq War position and Lieberman’s hawkish views.  

Lieberman ran as a third-party candidate and easily won with a little help from the Republicans, who chose one Alan Schlesinger.   Schlesinger had some renown — as a card counter banned from casinos in Connecticut and New Jersey. The Republican candidate couldn’t even get the endorsement of Republicans like Gov. Jodi Rell and George W. Bush. He received nine percent of the vote.

This time, Lamont easily won the nomination for governor because no viable Democrat chose to compete in what didn’t look like a Democratic year, thanks to the challenge of succeeding the most unpopular governor in the nation. He easily defeated a smarter politician, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who couldn’t overcome the small matter of his criminal record.

Republican Stefanowski had more opposition but managed to get more votes than four other obscure Republican candidates by the simple tactic of outspending them in TV ads. He won the nomination by attracting a whopping 29 percent of the base, getting 42,000 of the 143,000 Republican votes cast.  

In some states, he would have had to engage in a runoff vote with the runner-up, but not in Connecticut. And so, the Republicans are offering a former Democrat who didn’t bother to vote in any election in memory.  And to add to his appeal, he most recently ran a payday loan company, an institution that preys on poor people by providing them loans at usurious rates. They are illegal in Connecticut.

It’s early, of course, but so far, the two are running as conventional, boilerplate Democrats and Republicans. Neither has provided a detailed way to solve Connecticut’s principal problem: the inability to pay its expenses, especially the biggest expense incurred by the state’s unfunded and overly generous obligation to its unionized employees.

It’s doubtful many of us will buy Lamont’s plan for property-tax relief or Stefanowski’s equally dubious ideas about eliminating the income tax that produces more than half of the state’s revenue.

Looming over the race is Donald Trump. Stefanowski welcomed Trump’s endorsement the day after it was Twittered and Lamont cleverly labeled his opponent “Bob Trumpanowski,” to which Stefanowski brilliantly replied, “Ned Malloy.” A distracting argument over Donald Trump would be bad for the state and for our future.

We have to do better than that in the coming weeks, but don’t count on it.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.