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A sharp rightward turn for Connecticut Republicans

August 1, 2018

The Republican candidates vying for their party’s nomination for governor are embracing embattled President Donald Trump, adopting his themes and proudly giving him an “A” for performance.

In doing so, the GOP is betting on a base devoted to the president — a sharp rightward turn for a party that once gave this blue state moderate Republican governors such as M. Jodi Rell and John Rowland.

“It surprised me that all five gave Trump an ‘A’,” said Ronald Schurin, a University of Connecticut political science professor.

“I thought that there would be a constituency that would be more dubious of Trump and there would be an opening for one of them,” Schurin said. “They probably all agree that the majority of the [August primary] turnout will be pro Trump.”

All five Republicans vying for the nomination support securing the borders, advocate changing collective bargaining rules, oppose gun control and offer doomsday assessments of the state’s fiscal condition.

Mark Boughton, the Republican Party backed candidate and Danbury’s mayor, has even resurrected repealing — or at least rolling back — the state’s personal income tax adopted decades ago.

David Steeves, owner of Steeves Construction in Oxford and a solid Trump supporter, said he’s not following the primary closely but he thinks Trump voters and Connecticut Republicans are one and the same.

“The Trump voter is the working class,” Steeves said. “That’s what I am. Oxford is a blue collar town and the majority are Republicans.”

Rose Shaw, a Trump supporter from Oxford, also said she’s not surprised GOP candidates echo Trump.

“I think more people support him than people realize,” Shaw said of the president.

“I’m not poor or rich,” Shaw said. “I think everyone should work; I’ve worked all my life. We bargain buy. Democrats just want to [attack] him no matter what.”

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report told the political website Axios that never-Trump Republicans have all but disappeared.

“If you’re a Trump-skeptical Republican, you have 3 options if you speak your mind publicly: Retire; be forced into retirement in your next primary; or become a CNN/MSNBC commentator,” Wasserman said.

‘Into bankruptcy’

Alex Plitsas, vice chairman of the Fairfield Republican Town Committee, said the GOP is confident heading into the fall elections and isn’t worried about the party reflecting Trump.

“Where is the Republican party headed? If I had one word it’s ‘up,’” Plitsas said. “Connecticut is the richest state in the nation, yet it’s been run into bankruptcy.”

Plitasa added “The issues facing Connecticut aren’t new and transcend everyday politics and the political divide. We believe that Connecticut voters are smarter than talking heads or those that got us in this mess. They will deliver us from this legacy of failure.”

The Republican primary candidates — Boughton, Tim Herbst, Steve Obsitnik, David Stemerman and Bob Stefanowski — have eagerly brought Trump themes into the primary race.

Boughton once claimed he voted for his dog for president in 2016 — an obvious shot at Trump — but now regularly praises the president.

Stemerman wants to cut the ranks of state employees, privatize state services and force employees and retirees to accept smaller pensions — all positions that could have been voiced by Trump.

In fact, ending pensions for new state employees and shifting to defined contribution retirement accounts is a cornerstone of every GOP candidate’s platform. Obsitnik has questioned whether pensions still exist outside of government.

Herbst has been outspoken in supporting gun owners’ rights and believes gun issues could help decide the state’s next governor. He recently announced opposition to early prison release programs, taking a tough-on-crime approach that echoes Trump.

All five candidates support Trump’s crackdown on immigration, although they don’t favor separating children from their parents.

Who’s extreme?

J.R. Romano, chairman of the state Republican Party, said it’s the Democrats who have changed, not the GOP.

“They have become anti-American and a party that believes in lawlessness,” Romano said. “There are [state] elected officials who want to abolish ICE. That’s extreme — 10 times more extreme than anything GOP candidates have said.”

Romano said support for Trump is not surprising considering the president is more popular in Connecticut than outgoing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat with the second lowest approval rating in the nation who opted not to seek re-election.

Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University, said the election will ultimately hinge on two people who are not even on the ballot: Malloy and Trump.

“Primary voters are strong partisans, who habitually vote and are mad as hell at Trump and Malloy, depending on the party,” McLean said.

But McLean said that creates a problem for Republicans, whose nominee will have to pivot to the center to win unaffiliated votes in the general election.

“Can he do it?” McLean said. “Maybe, if he can link Malloy’s eight years to his Democratic opponent.”

Meanwhile, Steeves is not worried about GOP gubernatorial candidates supporting the president or following his lead.

“You have to support him,” Steeves said.

“He’s the leader of the party,” Steeves added. “I believe [Trump] is accomplishing what he said he was going to accomplish. He’s not a politician. I never followed elections before, but I threw my support behind him and I’m still supporting him.”

bcummings@ctpost.com

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