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Republicans Could Take Control of These 2 Coastal Blue States

An unpopular governor and a moderate candidate have given Republicans the chance for rare victories in Connecticut and Oregon.

Connecticut Bob Stefanowski
Connecticut gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski celebrates his win in the Republican primary in August.
(AP/Jessica Hill)
In the blue states of Connecticut and Oregon, Republicans have fighting chances at winning governors' offices currently held by Democrats. 

In Connecticut, outgoing Democrat Dannel Malloy is one of the least popular governors in the country, with an approval rating of around 20 percent. He's raised taxes substantially, yet the state faces a budget shortfall in the neighborhood of $2 billion. Connecticut remains wealthy, but it's been shedding jobs and population as job creation has lagged well behind the nation as a whole.

"Structurally, it is indeed possible for the Republicans to take the governorship," says Matt Hennessy, a Democratic consultant in Connecticut. "Malloy is actually less popular than Trump, which is really saying something."

The race to replace Malloy is between two businessmen. Republican Bob Stefanowski has served as an executive with companies including General Electric and UBS, while Democrat Ned Lamont is a telecommunications company owner and investor. 

If you doubt a blue state like Connecticut would elect a Republican in a Democratic year, look around the neighborhood. Republican Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Phil Scott of Vermont and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are all favored to win second terms. Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo holds a single-digit polling lead over Republican Mayor Allan Fung in their rematch. And in Maine, the race to succeed GOP Gov. Paul LePage is a tossup. 

In Connecticut, Republicans have steadily been gaining ground on Malloy's watch. A decade ago, Democrats held a 114-37 majority in the state House and a 24-12 advantage in the state Senate. In 2016, however, Republicans tied the state Senate and came within four narrow losses of a House majority. 

"I honestly believe that in this state, it's really about how government policy is impacting local people here in Connecticut," says J.R. Romano, who chairs the state GOP. "It's getting harder and harder to be an average hard-working family in this state, and that's a direct result of Dan Malloy's policies. The cost of living is rising. Your taxes are rising."

For that reason, Romano says Democratic plans to make the governor's race all about President Trump aren't going to work.

Democrats aren't so sure. "What we're hearing at the doors is a lot about Trump," says Lori Pellitier, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. 

Stefanowski, who had not previously been active in politics, took 29 percent of the August primary vote in the five-way Republican field. Like many GOP gubernatorial candidates this year, he prevailed by pledging allegiance to the president.

"Stefanowski was clear to say he'd give Trump an A and would welcome him to Connecticut," Pelletier says. "He even got support from an illustrious tweet of the commander-in-chief." (Trump endorsed Stefanowksi on Twitter after the primary.)

Previous Republican governors of Connecticut have appealed to voters by taking liberal-to-moderate stances on issues such as abortion or environmental protections, says Hennessy. Stefanowski hasn't taken that approach. He argues the Affordable Care Act hasn't helped Connecticut; he opposes an increase in the minimum wage; and he has proposed phasing out the state income tax, which even some Republicans have described as a fantasy.

The two candidates have run ads attacking each other over the issue of payday loans, which can trap poor people in a cycle of debt. Stefanowski served as CEO of a payday lender, while Lamont's wife held investments in a payday lender.

"He’s telling lies about my wife," Lamont complained on Tuesday

Lamont, who spent a total of $20 million on his previous campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate, has devoted $8 million of his own money to this year's race so far, including an infusion of $5 million this week.

The race may come down to which battlefield of issues the campaign is fought on, Hennessy says. If Stefanowski is able to keep the focus on taxes, that could be problematic for Lamont. 

"Ned Lamont is going to raise your taxes, and that's what people do not want," says Romano. 

But Hennessy argues that if Lamont is able to get voters focused on other issues, the state's Democratic tilt -- and the fact that the party's candidates are favored in federal races throughout the state -- could help him overcome Malloy's unpopularity. 

"Ned has embraced a lot of key Democratic proposals on a basic minimum wage, on health care," Hennessy says. "He's checked all the boxes, in that sense."


GOP Challenges in Oregon Governor's Race

The contours of the race in Oregon are different. There, GOP state Rep. Knute Buehler is running against Democratic incumbent Gov. Kate Brown by presenting himself as a moderate. Most prognosticators give Brown the edge, but Real Clear Politics changed its rating of the race last week to tossup.

Buehler "leads with a moderate independent voice," says Monica Wroblewski, Buehler's campaign communications director. "He didn't support President Trump."

As in Connecticut, Buehler is complaining that taxes are too high. Meanwhile, Brown's approval ratings have been in the low 40s, with nearly as many Oregonians disapproving of her job performance. Brown's cap-and-trade proposal has gone nowhere, and the Department of Human Services has been hit with numerous complaints over the past couple of years for its handling of the foster care system.

"If you go half an hour outside of Portland, people feel they're ignored by this administration because it all caters to this liberal pocket," says Wroblewski.

A poll released last week by an Ohio-based firm showed Brown ahead by just a single percentage point. But a poll conducted by a Portland-based firm last month showed Brown with a 10-point lead. 

That's typical of recent Oregon elections: A poll will often come out showing that Republicans are closer than expected. But no Republican has been elected governor of Oregon since 1982. Out-of-state pollsters tend to miss some of the nuances of Oregon politics, says Jim Moore, a political scientist at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. More voters are registered "unaffiliated" than Republican, but their turnout rate runs 20 to 30 percent behind those of Republicans and Democrats. Pollsters sometimes give the unaffiliated too much weight, Moore says.

Buehler, meanwhile, has a "whack-a-mole" problem, Moore suggests. He's presenting himself as a moderate on issues like abortion and immigration to appeal to unaffiliated voters, while at the same time trying to keep more conservative Republican voters on board. Democrats accuse him of talking out of both sides of his mouth, espousing different positions to different audiences, or least shading things differently now than he did during the primary campaign.

"It's created navigational problems for Buehler," say Christian Gaston, communications director for the Brown campaign. "He's trying to position himself in the middle of the electorate, but he's also trying to communicate to his base, which is very supportive of Trump."

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Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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