A Republican congressional candidate’s arrest on domestic violence charges on the eve of this month’s primary election has prompted some prominent members of the Connecticut GOP to advocate for change so the party can remain relevant in this Democratic-leaning state.
Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, a 2018 candidate for lieutenant governor, called on fellow Republicans to “dismantle and rebuild” the party into one that “truly values women,” after Thomas Gilmer, the GOP-endorsed candidate in the 2nd congressional district, was accused of assaulting a former girlfriend in 2017 — charges he denies. Others contend more needs to be done to attract unaffiliated voters to the fold — including opening primaries — and that party leaders must do a better job scrutinizing candidates.
“It’s not the first time that we have had issues where candidates were not properly vetted and issues were not properly addressed when they materialized,” said Tim Herbst, a former Trumbull First selectman and another 2018 gubernatorial candidate.
Former Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei, a member of the Republican State Central Committee, said it has become clear “there’s an inadequacy of vetting” candidates seeking party endorsements and a clear process is needed.
“These are not people who have previously served in any office,” he said. “They haven’t had any public exposure.”
Republicans are already at a disadvantage. Democrats currently control Connecticut’s five U.S. House seats and two U.S. Senate seats. The state’s last congressional Republican was former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, who lost the traditionally Republican 4th congressional district to Jim Himes in 2008. Democrats also control the General Assembly and all major statewide offices, including governor.
The incident with Gilmer has prompted some prominent state Republicans, including House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, to call on state GOP Chairman J.R. Romano to resign. Herbst has called for an outside investigation into how the party handled the accusations against Gilmer.
Gilmer’s opponent, Justin Anderson, a former correctional officer and lieutenant colonel in the Connecticut National Guard, had informed party leaders about the allegations after being contacted by Gilmer’s accuser and receiving a video purportedly of the incident. Romano said he repeatedly urged Anderson to go the police, and Anderson eventually did.
“As party chairman, every election cycle I’ve had people come to me, make allegations against their opponents on a myriad of things,” said Romano, who has refused scattered calls to resign and continues to have support from the party’s state central committee. “Nothing this severe, but my opinion was that this needed to be hands of law enforcement to sort it out.”
Romano contends the GOP isn’t alone in having problematic candidates, noting how a peripheral Democratic candidate for governor who showed up uninvited to a 2018 debate was dragged off the stage by police.
But the Connecticut Democratic Party has used Gilmer’s arrest as an opportunity to call out state legislative candidates on Twitter, asking whether each was among the “high-ranking Republicans in eastern Connecticut” who “knew a candidate for Congress attacked and strangled his girlfriend” and “said nothing for months.”
Romano said he doesn’t get involved in primaries and doesn’t think it’s a good idea for him to choose candidates, like the days of the old party bosses. District conventions are now held to decide which contender the party will back.
Meanwhile, he argues Connecticut’s public financing system for statewide candidates has discouraged well-qualified contenders from running for Congress, where they have to raise large sums of money on their own to challenge mostly veteran Democratic incumbents.
In some cases, “people on the periphery or extreme” have taken the opportunity to fill the void, said Tesei, who’d like to see the party appeal more to centrists. He noted unaffiliated voters, the state’s largest group of voters, are currently unable to vote in either major party’s primary. Tesei said allowing those voters to help pick GOP candidates could produce more appealing candidates and increase the party’s success in general elections.
A recent string of embarrassing moments for the Connecticut GOP has involved congressional candidates in particular, including one contender in 2018 who abandoned his bid. Frustrated by the lack of party support, he posted “the hell with them” on Facebook. Earlier this year, an obscure congressional candidate, best known for being censured by GOP leaders for offensive and misogynistic tweets, made national news when his name appeared in text messages — released as part of President Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation — purporting to give updates on the whereabouts of a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
While there were strong GOP contenders in the 2012 and 2014 elections who raised more than $1 million for their campaigns, none of this year’s House candidates has so far broken the $1 million mark. The closest by far is Milford real estate executive and political newcomer Margaret Streicker, who had raised more than $648,000 as of June 30 in her bid against veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro. Records show Streicker loaned $350,000 to her own campaign.
In contrast, Mary Fay, the West Hartford town councilor challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. John Larson in the 1st congressional district, had raised nearly $6,200 as of July 22.
“I am deeply concerned about the state of the party and the trend lines. A lot will depend on this November,” said Jerry Labriola, Romano’s predecessor. Besides president and the U.S. House of Representatives, General Assembly candidates are also on that ballot.