Neck and neck
Through the summer and fall, public-polling surveys in Connecticut showed that Republican Bob Stefanowski and Democrat Ned Lamont were in a tight race to become the state’s 89th governor.
The neck-and-neck duel continued through the evening Tuesday as local officials in 169 towns and cities tallied up the support of Connecticut voters at a decisive, divisive moment in the state and nation’s history that was reflected in higher-than-average turnout.
Unofficial returns indicated that Democrats held control of the state House and regained the majority of the state Senate with stunning losses for Sen. Michael McLachlan of Danbury and Sen. Len Suzio of Meriden.
At a late hour Tuesday, it again came down to Democratic turnout in the slow-to-report major cities, which Dannel P. Malloy depended on to win in 2010 and 2014.
Voters chose between an untested conservative Republican focused on tax cutting in his first race for public office, and a veteran Democratic also-ran, either of whom could parlay enough to win election in a state with an unsettled electorate and a massive budget crisis.
If a better-than-average midterm turnout became Connecticut’s version of a blue wave, Democrats would keep the governor’s seat and possibly regain full control of the General Assembly after a two-year tie in the Senate.
If Republicans were galvanized for President Trump, the state would take a sharp turn to the right.
While Stefanowski, Lamont and independent Oz Griebel fretted over the initial results Tuesday night, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy easily won a second term over Matthew Corey, a Republican business owner from Manchester. Democrat Jahana Hayes, a former National Teacher of the Year, won the 5th Congressional District seat being vacated by Elizabeth Esty to become the first black woman to win a congressional seat representing New England.
In New Haven and Storrs, the Stefanowski campaign filed legal complaints challenging hundreds of same-day voter registrations, with a court hearing scheduled for Friday.
Democrats hoped to at least retain their slight majority in the House, while Republicans wanted to break the 18-18 deadlock in the Senate, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman has been able to cast crucial tie-breaking votes when needed.
Stefanowski was counting on a pervasive dislike of Malloy, who in 2010 took over a state that was still reeling from the Great Recession. But with two massive concessions from tens of thousands of unionized state workers and billions of dollars in investments in the under-funded state pension plans, Malloy could not turn a corner on multibillion-dollar annual budget deficits that shackled lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
The Republican, a Madison consultant and former corporate CEO, preached an ultra-conservative, supply-side, tax-cutting plan that failed massively in Kansas, where public schools suffered and which the GOP legislature repudiated.
Stefanowski on Tuesday voted in a statewide election for the first time since 2000, presumably for himself. Accompanied by his three daughters and wife, Amy, Stefanowski voted at the Madison Senior Center around 12:45 p.m., greeting voters with a wide grin.
One woman, 99-year-old Jennie Dominick, rushed up to Stefanowski to give him a hug when he arrived as Amy held an umbrella over the pair.
A 30-year business executive who spent time at Price Waterhouse, General Electric, UBS Investment Bank and Dollar Financial Group, a controversial payday lending company, Stefanowski promises smaller government and wants to privatize state services like the Department of Motor Vehicles and Bradley International Airport.
Stefanowski waged his campaign on a promise to eliminate the state’s personal income tax, and lower taxes overall. But he offered few details and in debates, he often changed the subject when pressed. He often repeated the promise to find millions of dollars in “waste, fraud and abuse” in the two-year operating budget, which has projected $4.5 billion budget deficit starting July 1.
More than anything, Stefanowski, who never held a news conference during a tightly controlled campaign that in recent weeks featured a security detail of retired state troopers, depended on the words “tax cuts” to entice voters in millions of dollars in TV ads dating back to January. His daily schedule was rarely released and his public appearances were often restricted to small local GOP groups or quick hits at seasonal fairs and parades.
Stefanowski admits that little can be done in the way of tax-cutting during his first two years, if elected, but he has stressed the importance of forcing massive concessions from the 45,000 state workers, and has more than hinted he’s willing to test their viability in court to possibly renege on the promises made to generations of employees.
Lamont, a Greenwich investor who was a cable entrepreneur in 2006 when he upset U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, has highlighted his small-business experience and endorsements from the state unions as a way to coax further concessions, including higher deductibles on health insurance and prescriptions. Lamont also lost to Malloy in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor.
While Stefanowski, with a top rating from the National Rifle Association, has revealed little about plans on a wide variety of other issues a governor will face, Lamont favors further gun-safety measures, a $15 minimum wage, legalized recreational marijuana, the continuance of the state’s participation in the Affordable Care Act, and a variety of other issues.
Stefanowski, 56, and Lamont, 64, had sharply different campaign styles, with the Republican literally running a year-long campaign far outside the traditional nomination structure.
On TV in January, Stefanowski loaned his campaign $2 million to solidify name recognition. He then avoided the Republican State Convention in May, but in mid-August won the party primary over Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, the endorsed candidate.
Stefanowski was supplemented by political action committees, including the Republican Governors Association, with another $8 million that was mostly spent on advertising attacking Lamont, trying to label him as a clone of Malloy.
Lamont ran more of a traditional campaign, holding several news conferences every week, meeting reporters and voters, while painting a public picture contrasting his openness with Stefanowski’s aloof campaign. Lamont stressed public education and the dozens of Connecticut colleges and universities with proximity to the merging high-tech industry.
Lamont has assembled a team of business advisers and wants the next generation of high-speed Internet, 5G, to help cities including New Haven take off in the 21st Century.
Kaitlyn Krasselt contributed to this report.