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Gloves off, TV’s on

August 18, 2018

If you think the Republican and Democratic primary campaigns featured vicious attacks, just wait for the main event, when Republican Bob Stefanowski of Madison and Democrat Ned Lamont of Greenwich, along with the independent Super PACs aligned with each of them, raise the ante for the governor’s campaign by lowering the tone and buying up the TV time between now and Nov. 6.

Where’s the mute button?

With neither candidate joining the state’s voluntary public-financing program — and their $6.5 million spending ceilings — the sky could be the limit. The dueling duo will find themselves in the middle of a proxy fight, as Republicans try to align Lamont with the unpopular Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and Democrats liken Stefanowski to President Donald Trump, for the heart and soul of Connecticut’s blue-state reputation.

In Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, whose federal felony conviction precluded him from participating in the Citizens’ Election Fund, Lamont did not have an adversary who could attack him beyond a few uncomfortable minutes during debates. Ganim was ultimately unsuccessful in framing Lamont as an out-of-touch rich guy, and lost 168 of the state’s 169 towns.

Stefanowski, though, having been on TV since January in his successful effort to turn the traditional GOP nominating process on its head, will have millions upon millions to attack and promote his candidacy. Lamont, from Greenwich, with a personal fortune estimated between $100 million and $300 million, will be able to go toe-to-toe.

It’s likely that spending in the 2018 race for governor will exceed the more than $15 million of 2014 campaign, in which Malloy was re-elected over Tom Foley of Greenwich for a second time.

On the attack

The statewide returns hadn’t even arrived at the Secretary of the State’s Office the morning after the primary on Wednesday, and Lamont was calling his Republican opponent “Trumpanowski,” while the Republican gave the Democrat the “Ned Malloy” appellation.

Jerry Dunklee, a Southern Connecticut State University journalism professor who spent four decades in radio and TV, says that the evolution in election law means that the candidates don’t even have to truthful anymore in their ads.

“I think it’s clear that there is going to a deluge of outside money coming into both the governor’s race and the 5th Congressional District,” Dunklee said Friday. “A lot of it will be TV advertising. During the primary, I was amazed at the number of commercials on TV. It’s a boon for TV and radio.”

Dunklee, who teaches a course on media law and ethics, says that the 2016 presidential election essentially bypassed Connecticut, but this year, TV and radio will be awash in cash. Out-of-state money might filter down to the races for attorney general, state treasurer, maybe even state Senate contests.

He said that while the so-called equal-time rule is on the books with the Federal Communications Commission, exemptions have expanded to the point where talk shows don’t even have to pretend to air views on the opposite side of political arguments.

“The need for equal time has really become very flaccid and it’s not as enforced as it used to be,” Dunklee said. “I’m seeing this more and more in the national media.”

And with TV and radio stations safe from legal liability under requirements that they cannot censor political commercials, the battling candidates and PACs can say virtually anything they want. “TV has to accept the advertising of legally authorized candidates,” Dunklee said.

Key state

Judging by the initial rhetoric, Connecticut in 2018 will be a battleground.

“Today, Democrats in Connecticut doubled down on Governor Dan Malloy’s failed policies that have been disastrous for the state’s economy and for those who call Connecticut home,” said Ellie Hockenbury, Republic National Committee spokesperson, on the day after the primary.

“In Ned Lamont, Democrats have thrown their support behind a candidate who proudly speaks of raising their taxes and supporting single-payer health care — regardless of the $32 trillion price tag,” she said. “Voters have had enough of the Democrats’ destructive policies and will finally have someone who will fight for them when they elect Bob Stefanowski this November.”

“Let’s be very clear, this primary was a test of which Republican loves Trump the most,” said Connecticut Democratic Party spokesperson Christina Polizzi. “They’ve said it in debates, in mailers, and in interviews: They think Trump is doing a great job want to bring his policies to Connecticut.

“Let’s call this contest what it is: a litmus test for Trump loyalty,” Polizzi said. “That means rolling back gun-violence prevention, dismantling health care, and attacking women’s health. The stakes in this election could not be higher — and a Republican governor would bring Trump’s chaos to Connecticut and drag the state backward.”

Gary L. Rose, a Sacred Heart University professor and chairman of the Department of Government there, said it will be a grueling 11 weeks-plus.

“When all is said and done, we’ll be very exhausted,” he said. “The amount of money spent will be incredible. In many ways, Trump and Malloy are both in this race.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT

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