GOP sees chance to beef up its power in blue Connecticut

In this Monday, July 23, 2018 photo, Madison businessman Bob Stefanowski, one of five Republican candidates for governor, speaks with members of the Ashford Republican Town Committee during a campaign stop in Ashford, Conn., ahead of the Aug. 14 primary. Stefanowski said he can relate to voters in this more rural part of Connecticut because he's a "blue collar guy." (AP Photo/Susan Haigh)
FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2017, file photo, Tim Herbst speaks during a debate between GOP candidates running for governor in Windsor, Conn. Herbst is one of five Republicans seeking the nomination in the Aug. 14, 2018, primary. (Peter Casolino/Hartford Courant via AP, File)
In this Thursday, July 26, 2018 photo, Westport tech entrepreneur and Navy veteran Steve Obsitnik, left, waits as Army veteran Jim Kichline, of Westbrook, signs Obsitnik's campaign motorhome during a campaign event in Waterford, Conn. Kichlline said he never got involved in politics until Donald Trump ran for president, saying, "the left has really motivated me to do something." The five GOP candidates for governor are hoping eastern Connecticut voters will support them in the Aug. 14 primary. (AP Photo/Susan Haigh)
In this Thursday, July 26, 2018 photo, Westport tech entrepreneur and Navy veteran Steve Obsitnik, right, one of five Republicans running for governor, meets with voters in Waterford, Conn., during a campaign event ahead of the Aug. 14 primary. Obsitnik, who was stationed at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Groton, said he's been campaigning for a while in eastern Connecticut, where many communities voted for Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Susan Haigh)
FILE - In this July 24, 2018, file photo, Tim Herbst listens as an opponent responds during a Hearst Connecticut Media sponsored debate of Republican candidates for governor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. Herbst is one of five Republicans seeking the nomination in the Aug. 14, 2018, primary. (Brian A. Pounds/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP, File)
In this Monday, July 23, 2018 photo, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, center, the Republican Party's endorsed candidate for governor, and East Lyme state Sen. Paul Formica, right, speak with Steven Kelly, left, of Groton, a line cook at Flanders Fish Market and Restaurant, which Formica owns, during a campaign stop in East Lyme, Conn. Boughton, who faces an Aug. 14 primary challenge from four fellow Republicans, said he has spent a lot of time campaigning in eastern Connecticut, a part of the state where many voters are now supporting GOP candidates. (AP Photo/Susan Haigh)
In this July 20, 2018 photo, Republican candidate David Stemerman speaks about running for governor during an interview in Meriden, Conn. Stemerman is one of five men seeking his party's nomination to run for the seat in the Aug. 14 primary. (Richie Rathsack/Record-Journal via AP)

ASHFORD, Conn. — It used to be that Connecticut's Gold Coast — the famously wealthy communities near the New York border, including Greenwich — was where campaigners mined the state's few Republican votes. In the Trump era, that's changing.

In this year's election, candidates for statewide office often stump east of the Connecticut River, reaching out to the many blue-collar Republicans who enthusiastically backed Donald Trump in 2016 and now complain they're fed up with the Democrats at the state Capitol.

In Ashford — a community of 4,300 about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Hartford — Gerald Nagy, the Republican chairman of the Town Committee, is seeing the shift before his eyes.

"Over the last year, since last summer, I have had 10 guest speakers in this room speaking to this committee," Nagy said. "The candidates see an opportunity."

While Democratic candidates in Connecticut and other traditionally blue states have been exploiting Trump's unpopularity, hoping it will bring out voters, GOP contenders are courting newly discovered pockets of Trump supporters for the Aug. 14 primary.

Connecticut has supported Democratic candidates for president in the past seven elections and hasn't sent a Republican to Congress since 2006. But the state does have a recent history of electing Republican governors, and polls show the current Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy, to be deeply unpopular.

Given voters' weariness of Malloy, along with Connecticut's sluggish economy, persistent budget struggles and cuts in aid to small communities, GOP candidates see an opportunity to pick up votes in some of the more rural or working-class communities in eastern Connecticut.

Nagy, also vice chairman of a regional GOP group called Grassroots East, has kept track of how eastern Connecticut has trended red in recent years.

In the 2nd Congressional District, primarily east of the river that neatly bisects Connecticut, the number of Republican-controlled state House seats has grown from 10 in early 2013 to 20 today. The number of state Senate seats climbed from three in 2014 to five today.

"There is definitely frustration, and I think that's why you sort of see that red tide, a mini red tide if you will, out in this part of the state in terms of seats flipping from blue to red," said Mark Boughton, the GOP's endorsed candidate for governor, after leading a recent discussion with local Republicans at an East Lyme restaurant. Boughton is mayor of Danbury, in western Connecticut.

Connecticut has regained about 88 percent of the private and public jobs lost in the 2008-2010 recession, according to state labor statistics, but eastern Connecticut was initially slow to recover. The Norwich-New London labor market, in southeastern Connecticut, for example, has recovered only about 42 percent of lost jobs.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, who has represented the 2nd District since 2007, acknowledges that the 2008 recession was "traumatic" and that recovery missed parts of the country, such as eastern Connecticut — creating frustrations Trump was able to tap into in 2016.

But, he said, the region's economic picture and people's "sense of well-being" began to improve before the presidential election and have since "picked up speed." He noted how home prices have stabilized or increased, and how manufacturing apprenticeship programs that had been dormant since the 1990s are back in business.

Courtney, who recently endorsed Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, praising him for focusing on education and job-training, contends the district has "always been the most volatile" of the state's five congressional districts, long before Trump. Malloy lost the 2nd in both 2010 and 2014.

While Democrat Hillary Clinton won the district in the 2016 presidential election, it was by a much smaller margin than Democrat Barack Obama's performance in 2012.

"Obama ran well out here, there's no question about it. But, you know, the DNA is always going to be: you've got to be on your toes. That's my view of this district," said Courtney, who recalled the district looking similar when he defeated a three-term GOP incumbent in 2006 by less than 100 votes. It was one of the tightest congressional races in the country that year.

Tim Herbst, a former first selectman in southwestern Connecticut's Trumbull, who has pitched himself as the only "true conservative" in the governor's race, has focused heavily on courting eastern Republicans, arguing he has spent more time in the 2nd than all four of his GOP competitors combined. He contends the region is "becoming the Republican stronghold of Connecticut" and will help him win the Aug. 14 primary.

Trump supporter and Army veteran Jim Kichline, 74, of Westbrook, a 2nd District community just west of the Connecticut River, turned out at a recent campaign event in Waterford to meet Republican candidate and Westport tech entrepreneur Steve Obsitnik. Kichline said he was never involved in politics until Trump came along. He's now a believer.

"The left has really motivated me to do something. And that's why I'm here," he said. Kichline is particularly fed up with Malloy and his support of stronger gun control laws.

Madison businessman and gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski played up the gun issue on recent visits to the Ashford and Willington Republican town committees. Stefanowski promised to fight further restrictions on guns.

"Good hunting ground for me," he said of the region. "I'm a blue-collar guy, worked at GE for a long time, and I find that I can relate to people pretty well."

Gubernatorial candidate David Stemerman thinks his platform of cutting spending and growing jobs will resonate with eastern Connecticut voters, despite him being a former hedge fund manager from Greenwich. He mentions how Trump, a wealthy businessman, connected with people who felt forgotten, like those in eastern Connecticut.

"When I go to those voters," Stemerman said, "they have exactly those same concerns."

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