Connecticut’s not used to this.
Nearly 30 candidates have filed to run to be Connecticut’s next governor. At least another five have filed as exploratory candidates. In all likelihood, more candidates will enter before the deadline to file in June.
In 2010, the most recent election without an incumbent, only 14 people total filed as exploratory candidates. Five made it onto the primary ballot for their party.
Even more unusual, it’s possible that the next governor will be a Republican. A recent poll by Tremont Public Advisors, a public affairs firm, showed that, while 50.9 percent of Connecticut residents said they would support the Republican candidate, only 44.8 percent would support the Democratic candidate, even though registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the state nearly two to one.
Though both parties are outnumbered by Connecticut’s 861,766 unaffiliated voters, the state has voted blue in every presidential election since 1992. And it’s currently one of only eight Democratic trifectas in the country, meaning that the governorship and both state houses are controlled by the party.
Despite Democratic Party’s hold on Connecticut state politics, 2018 has revealed some deep-seated unrest in state functionality. Candidates on both sides of the political spectrum have campaigned on promises of change.
On some important points, the Republicans and Democrats in the race don’t sound that different.
The state’s financial situation has emerged as the biggest of several key issues in 2018. Candidates from both parties have criticized the current governor and the state legislature for their handling of the budget and mounting debt. Dave Walker, a Republican, and Susan Bysiewicz LAW ’83, a Democrat, both said that the state’s finances were “a mess.”
“The state is sinking,” Walker said. “This election is arguably the most important in the state’s history. You need to vote for who can get the job done, forgetting about their political party.” He pointed to the flight of businesses and high net worth individuals from Connecticut as a major problem.
“The dam is leaking, and the town is filling up with water,” Democratic candidate Sean Connolly said. “And too many people are pointing fingers and assessing blame. We’ve got to come up with results and solutions.” Fellow Democrat Ned Lamont said he was the best person to navigate the “perilous waters” of the state’s finances. The growing budget deficit could amount to $3.5 billion over the next two years, according to Reuters.
But the deficit is only one part of the state’s financial disorder. Connecticut’s General Assembly could not reach a budget agreement during its 2017 legislative session, which ended July 7. To avoid a shutdown, Gov. Dannel Malloy had to sign an executive order to keep the government running. On the very last day in October, after the state had gone 123 days without a budget, Malloy signed a new one into law. By that time, his approval rating had plummeted to 24 percent, one of the lowest in the nation — and more than 10 points lower than President Donald Trump’s at the time.
The only governor with a lower approval rating was Republican Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey. Christie decided not to run again, and Democrat Phil Murphy claimed his seat in the November 2017 election. Murphy was one of two Democrats who flipped governorships that night. The other was Ralph Northam, who won 53.9 percent of the vote in Virginia. Many cited these two elections as evidence of an impending blue wave that would flip governors’ mansions across the country. Statistical analysis blog FiveThirtyEight listed 18 governorships that Democrats could pick up in 2018. Despite a galvanized Democratic base, Connecticut’s governorship is a true toss-up between the parties.
Though Malloy could run for a third term, in an emotional announcement last April, he said that he would not. During his remarks, he addressed his low approval rating, saying that his “personal popularity has never driven [his] decision-making as governor. Period.” But that assurance doesn’t mean that his perceived poor management of the state won’t hurt the Democrats running to succeed him.
To that end, many Democratic candidates are distancing themselves from him. Bysiewicz pointed out that, unlike some of the Democrats running, she had never served a day in office with Malloy. Lamont brought up the fact that he had run against Malloy in 2010. Others have statements opposing the governor on their websites. Even Connecticut’s Democratic Party skirted a question of how Malloy’s approval ratings might affect the race.
“Governor Malloy is not on the ballot,” said Christina Polizzi, the organization’s communications director. “But the Democrat candidates, who are up and down the ballot, are talking about their ideas. And our grassroots base is focused on implementing those ideas.”
But among the Democrats — and even the Republicans — the voices decrying Malloy seem to have become unified. Candidates on both sides believe Connecticut taxes are too high. Republican Dave Walker said that, though his home value has decreased over the years, his property taxes have increased. He’d like Connecticut taxes to be lower, but until the state’s finances are in order, that is not possible, he added.
“I have talked to people who have sold their homes and are moving to Florida because they can’t afford property taxes,” Bysiewicz said. The average effective rate of the Connecticut property tax is currently among the 10 highest in the nation.
Many candidates also identified the departure of businesses and residents for other states as a major problem. From July 2016 to July 2017, 22,000 residents left for other states. The state’s population grew by a net total of just 499 people during that period. Businesses are also moving out. General Electric Co. — which employed 5,800 people as of January 2016 — left Fairfield for Boston.
“Businesses and people vote with their feet,” Walker said.
As Connecticut looks to emerge from its fiscal nightmare, candidates have focused on revitalizing education and job training as essential for spurring the economy. Democratic businessman Ned Lamont said that, though Connecticut has “the best-trained workforce in the world,” the population is aging and the next generation doesn’t necessarily have the same skills.
Bysiewicz said that she has spoken to many parents who are frustrated that their children cannot find well-paying jobs in the state.
Most candidates are concerned with the economy, education and emigration. They all have something else in common: They each believe that they alone can solve the state’s problems.
“I think I’m a very different breed of cat,” Lamont said, referring to his work in the private sector. Connolly also has never held office before, which he said allows him to elevate “service over politics.” Though Bysiewicz previously served as Connecticut’s secretary of state for over 10 years, she said that, during her time as a corporate lawyer, she had helped “over 80 companies grow thousands of jobs.”
Walker said he’s the only candidate that can answer three essential questions: “First, Why are you running? Second, What do you want to accomplish? And third, Why do you believe you are uniquely qualified for the job?”
The next step for the candidates is to raise $250,000 in donations between $5 and $100. If they do so, they can qualify for public financing through a statewide program that provides candidates who make it onto their party’s ballot with grants of up to $1.25 million to finance their primary campaigns. Candidates from each party have to obtain at least 15 percent of the vote at their party’s statewide convention in May in order to appear on the primary ballot. They can also collect verified signatures, which is difficult, in order to be on the ballot if they do not meet the 15 percent threshold at their party’s convention. Candidates who meet the fundraising requirement and make it to the general election are eligible to receive grants of up to $6 million.
Walker has already met the threshold. Other candidates are getting close. Bysiewicz has raised $145,000, according to the most recent report her campaign has submitted to the state. But many candidates will likely not meet the $250,000 threshold. Jacey Wyatt, a Democratic transgender woman who supports President Donald Trump, has raised just over $1,000, according to her financial reports. Another fringe candidate, Lee Whitnum, a perennial candidate, has raised just $25 but reported that she had spent $311 on her campaign committee’s credit card. Whitnum claims that her campaign is being derailed by erroneous claims that she stalked the judge who presided over her divorce case. She was later exonerated and maintains that the judge was “politically motivated” in the claim. Whitnum previously sued Malloy for defamation after he called remarks she had made anti-Semitic.
Malloy’s impending departure seems to have left a gaping hole at the top of the state’s government, with dozens on both sides of the aisle vying to fill it.
Walker thinks that many of the other candidates would be qualified to steer the state if the situation wasn’t so dire. In previous years, he didn’t think it was necessary for him to run. But this year is different.
“The ship is sinking,” he said. “And this may be our last chance to save it.”
It’s unclear whether the next governor will be able to correct the state’s course. All that’s clear for now is that it’s all hands on deck.
This is the third installment of a three-part series that has appeared in the Yale Daily News Magazine.