DAN HAAR

Trou­ble in the mid­dle for con­tenders

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Front Page - DAN HAAR

By the end of many close elec­tions, the Demo­crat and Repub­li­can have slinked to­ward the mid­dle. Their bases se­cure, they hope to cap­ture a ma­jor­ity in the moder­ate turf where most peo­ple live.

That’s how it works in Pol­i­tics 101, es­pe­cially in this state, with 41 per­cent unaf­fil­i­ated — but not in Con­necti­cut 2018.

Lib­eral Demo­crat Ned La­mont and con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can Bob Ste­fanowski have mostly hewed to their ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, leav­ing the moder­ate vot­ers won­der­ing which one, if ei­ther, is their man.

The rea­sons are slightly dif­fer­ent for each, al­though one rea­son they’ve stuck to their base mes­sag­ing is the same for both: It’s who they are.

La­mont, 64, is more moder­ate in style and back­ground, as a wealthy busi­ness en­trepreneur and civic vol­un­teer from Greenwich. His sup­port­ers say that alone will help him pick up moder­ate vot­ers, and they re­mind us he’d be the first busi­ness founder and CEO to oc­cupy the gov­er­nor’s man­sion (yeah, I know, the Ex­ec­u­tive Res­i­dence) in gen­er­a­tions.

Ste­fanowski, 56, has a per­sonal brand built on anti-gov­ern­ment anger as an out­sider not only to elected of­fice but to civic ac­tiv­ity as a whole. That’s a nat­u­rally less moder­ate stance. When the Madi­son ex­ec­u­tive and con­sul- tant votes for him­self Tues­day, he’ll cast only his sec­ond bal­lot in 18 years, in any elec­tion.

Both have part of the recipe that would have al­lowed them to sneak into the mid­dle, and both lack a key in­gre­di­ent.

La­mont has the broad pol­icy po­si­tions to pull off a cen­trist raid. For ex­am­ple, he has said ev­ery­one must step up to the ta­ble to solve Con­necti­cut’s $ 2 bil­lion bud­get gap. ( It’s not “$ 4.5 bil­lion over two years,” folks; that’s dou­ble- count­ing.) Ste­fanowski seized on that re­mark as proof La­mont will raise taxes, when in fact it’s ba­si­cally a moder­ate, po­lit­i­cally ob­vi­ous po­si­tion to hold.

But La­mont never locked down the base of low-in­come mi­nor­ity vot­ers, la­bor unionists and subur­ban pro­gres­sives. That has kept him from stray­ing to the mid­dle.

That’s why on Fri­day he was out there at a la­bor rally in New Bri­tain, promis­ing, as CT Mir­ror said in a head­line, “We’re go­ing to be fight­ing for you.” Some of that is the tra­di­tional get- out- thevote push on the week­end be­fore Elec­tion Day, of course. And some is him show­ing he still needs to win the un­var­nished sup­port of his core groups.

For ex­am­ple, La­mont has not loudly and clearly said he’d seek con­ces­sions from state em­ployee unions and teach­ers by work­ing with them, as a friend. He’s hinted at it at times, said it out­right a few times and de­nied some as­pects of it at other times — as when I asked him dur­ing a lun­cheon for re­tired teach­ers whether he’d try to re­open the health and pen­sion deal. He said no, a deal is a deal.

The rea­son: He can’t wa­ver to­ward the mid­dle be­cause he re­ally, re­ally needs that base to sup­port him.

Oh, and there’s the Mal­loy fac­tor. Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy cam­paigned in the arms of pub­lic em­ployee unions, only to cut 4,000 jobs, de­mand five years of pay freezes, launch two new, lower tiers of em­ploy­ees with lower ben­e­fits and add manda­tory health pay­ments. Nat­u­rally, some in the la­bor move­ment feel burned. Some are less than ea­ger to do it all again for La­mont, even though they know they’d be far worse off un­der Ste­fanowski — who has said he wants to break the unions out­right.

Any­way, La­mont doesn’t seem to want to back away from his undi­luted sup­port for unions and cities. He and Ste­fanowski seem less will­ing to bend their ide­olo­gies than, say, Repub- li­can Tom Fo­ley and Demo­cratic Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy in the last goaround.

Ste­fanowski has his anti-gov­ern­ment base safe and sound in the back of his cam­paign bus. He could say or do any­thing he wanted and they’d still vote for him, as his model, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, cor­rectly said dur­ing his own cam­paign.

But he never had a road map to the cen­ter, hav­ing staked his jour­ney on a sin­gu­lar, far- right vow: end­ing the state in­come tax and other le­vies with­out adding rev­enues else­where. By re­fus­ing to dis­cuss de­tails, take re­porters’ ques­tions for more than five min­utes or pre­sent an eco­nomic plan be­yond “Mal­loy has killed Con­necti­cut” — which is not borne out by the facts — he’s boxed him­self into the lane on the far right side of the road.

And, like La­mont, Ste­fanowski seems sat­is­fied with that — al­though it makes us all won­der why he was a reg­is­tered Demo­crat from Oc­to­ber, 2016 un­til July, 2017, right be­fore he de­clared as a Repub­li­can.

And so we have a vast, va­cant mid­dle, with dis­sat­is­fied vot­ers giv­ing each can­di­date a neg­a­tive rat­ing around 40 per­cent. “They are both trans­ac­tional can­di­dates at a time when our state needed trans­for­ma­tion,” one ob­server said — a re­minder that true change means more than just promis­ing to stick to an ide­ol­ogy.

But the mid­dle will vote, and Ste­fanowski makes up ground among older, whiter, largely male vot­ers. La­mont, younger, browner vot­ers and women.

Don’t be­lieve the Gravis Mar­ket­ing poll that came out Fri­day, giv­ing La­mont 46 per­cent, Ste­fanowski 37 per­cent and pe­ti­tion­ing unaf­fil­i­ated can­di­date Oz Griebel 9 per­cent, with La­mont lead­ing even among men. That poll’s 681 re­spon­dents were 40 per­cent Demo­crat lean­ing, far more than the 36 per­cent Demo­crat reg­is­tra­tion.

It’s a dead heat, peo­ple. Your vote counts. Cir­cum­stances ap­pear to fa­vor Ste­fanowski al­though La­mont could change that with a big turnout. The fore­cast for rain Tues­day helps Repub­li­cans.

La­mont had hoped the voter reg­is­tra­tion num­bers and Ste­fanowski’s lu­di­crous re­fusal to en­gage in is­sues would put him over the top. In­stead, we have an an­grier state than most of us had imag­ined.

Ste­fanowski feeds off that anger. In a video­tape re­leased Fri­day by Democrats, he tells a gath­er­ing of Repub­li­cans dur­ing the pri­mary that he would “file Hart­ford for bank­ruptcy” and shut down New Haven for be­ing a so- called sanc­tu­ary city.

And, cru­cially, La­mont’s aw, shucks per­son­al­ity has failed to ig­nite peo­ple in great enough num­bers to give him breath­ing room.

On Satur­day af­ter­noon, La­mont and other Democrats filled the base­ment of the Bethel AME Church in New Haven. Margie Ford, an in­sur­ance agent who was in the church for a choir prac­tice, said La­mont has the charisma to de­liver big crowds to the polls Tues­day.

Oth­ers in New Haven are more skep­ti­cal in­clud­ing a woman named Pa­tri­cia, who said she liked “the other guy” more, but couldn’t say why.

Griebel is tak­ing a share of the cen­ter, but his vot­ers are pol­icy watch­ers, not the ones who would have voted for Ste­fanowski — whose ig­no­rance of the specifics on the is­sues tends to at­tract lower- in­for­ma­tion feel­ers rather than thinkers. That does not mean all Ste­fanowski vot­ers are low- in­for­ma­tion, just that he’s a more nat­u­ral mag­net for them than La­mont.

The bot­tom line: La­mont will lose on Tues­day un­less his cam­paign ex­cites 20- some­things, ur­ban African Amer­i­cans and subur­ban women fed up with Trump­ism. The first two of those are the flight­i­est groups in all elec­tion­dom.

Any Demo­crat needs those groups, of course, but more so for La­mont be­cause he’s left the mid­dle up for grabs.

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