Democrat Ned Lamont has defeated Bob Stefanowski to become next governor of Connecticut, maintaining unified Democratic control of one of the bluest states in the nation.
On its face, a Democrat prevailing in a state where Donald Trump got 40 percent of the vote is not particularly surprising. But moderate Republicans — including Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker, Maryland’s Larry Hogan, Vermont’s Phil Scott, and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu — have been polling well in governors’ races in the Northeast, and went into Tuesday in a strong position. Meanwhile, polls had shown Stefanowski giving Lamont a real run for his money.
Democrats have enjoyed unified control of Connecticut since Dan Malloy’s election in 2010, but years of austerity budgeting and economic difficulties have left Malloy as one of the least-popular governors in the country, with a shocking 70 percent disapproval rating according to Morning Consult, leading him to decline to seek reelection.
But unlike other New England Republicans, Stefanowski did relatively little to distance himself from President Donald Trump. The national political climate was simply too bad for the GOP for him to have a chance to win.
Every election is important, but the concrete policy stakes in this election were relatively modest. The lower house of the Connecticut legislature is firmly in Democratic hands, so a Stefanowski administration would have struggled to enact a visionary conservative agenda.
Meanwhile, the past eight years of Democratic governance plus the narrow division in the state Senate mean there isn’t a lot of low-hanging progressive fruit for Lamont to pick either.
That said, the ongoing strengthening of the national economy should steadily alleviate Connecticut’s budget woes and set Lamont up for a happier tenure in office than Malloy enjoyed.
Perhaps most importantly of all, however, is that a national constituency of progressive activists finally has its revenge on former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
The Netroots strike back
The backstory to this election dates all the way to the mid-aughts, when George W. Bush was president and we had political blogs and a thing called “the Netroots.” And while Netroots figures had many causes, the highest cause of all was hating then-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Hatred for Lieberman ran so deep that even professional nice guy Ezra Klein once accused him of being “willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score.” (This was basically accurate.)
The great lost chance to kill off Lieberman’s career in electoral politics came in 2006, when he lost a primary challenge to business leader Ned Lamont.
But then Lieberman refused to endorse the Democratic nominee for Senate, choosing instead to run for reelection as the Connecticut for Lieberman Party’s nominee. Republicans, facing an electoral tsunami that year, basically threw in the towel and let Lieberman soak up conservative votes. National Democrats, meanwhile, wanted to plow resources into beating Republicans and largely sat out the race.
Lamont lost, Lieberman went back to the Senate, he spent the 2008 cycle campaigning for John McCain, and after that was welcomed back with open arms by the Democratic caucus. Once back there, he used his position as a senator from a safe seat to scuttle efforts to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act, seriously weakening the law and raising health insurance premiums for millions of people.
This would all just be a weird footnote to history, except the circumstances of the 2018 governor’s race called for a Democratic Party nominee who was known in the state and yet not actually tied in any way to the state’s unpopular incumbent Democratic administration.
Someone like … Ned Lamont! Lieberman, meanwhile, made news the week before the election by announcing that he was signing on to Team Stefanowski as a transition adviser, thus further heightening the stakes for veterans of the mid-aughts Lieberman wars.
Lamont’s win underscores, fundamentally, that progressives have the wind at their backs this cycle — both in terms of voter sentiment and, crucially in this case, candidate recruitment that let them run ahead of the local party establishment’s bad reputation.