- Associated Press - Saturday, December 9, 2017

WINDSOR, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut’s general election may be 11 months away, but some Republican gubernatorial candidates are already working to broaden their appeal in a Democratic-leaning state, sensing voters may be more willing to consider the GOP after consecutive years of state budget crises.

Several candidates at Wednesday’s Republican candidate forum at Windsor High School boasted about the support they’re receiving from crossover Democratic and unaffiliated voters, as well as from members of certain ethnic groups that hadn’t thought to vote Republican in the past. Considering Republicans comprise just about 20 percent of the state’s 2.3 million registered voters, the candidates contend it makes sense for the party to choose someone with broad appeal and a strong fiscal message.

“I think people are frustrated,” said candidate Michael Handler, Stamford’s chief financial officer, who estimates 60 percent of his campaign contributions have so far come from Democrats and unaffiliated voters. “They’re frustrated by what’s been going on in Hartford, and I think they recognize that we’ve got to make some serious changes, and I don’t think it’s about party.”

Greenwich businessman Tom Foley was the GOP’s candidate in both 2014 and 2010, losing both times to Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is not seeking re-election. While Connecticut’s budget troubles were an issue in both elections, it appears the voters better understand the situation this time around, said candidate David Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general who was a lieutenant governor candidate in 2014. The current two-year, $41.3 billion fiscal year budget already has a projected $207.8 million deficit in the first year. Deficits are also predicted in future budget years.

“People know we’re in serious trouble. They want somebody who can solve the problem, and I think they’re willing to look past party lines for the right person,” said Walker, who said he has Democrats “who never voted for a Republican in their life” holding fundraising events for him.

While several candidates at Wednesday’s forum took strong stances on traditionally GOP issues, such as Fairfield Attorney Peter Lumaj’s support for gun rights, and former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst’s suggestion of reinstating the death penalty, the gubernatorial hopefuls stuck mostly to fiscal issues. And there was scant mention of Republican President Donald Trump, despite the chairman of the Connecticut Democratic Party claiming the president’s “shadow” hung over each GOP candidate.

“All of them have shown time and again that, when given the choice between fighting for Connecticut families or following Trump and his national GOP allies, they will choose Trump every time,” said Nick Balletto, adding how voters will ultimately have the choice of electing a Democrat “who will fight for middle-class families or a Republican who won’t raise their voice if it crosses their party bosses.”

JR Romano, the state Republican Party chairman, contends current voter sentiment across Connecticut benefits his large field of candidates.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “I think this state is desperate for a new direction.”

Lumaj, an attorney and immigrant from Albania, said he has been pitching the conservative GOP message to inner city residents and ethnic groups who haven’t traditionally voted Republican in the past, including Albanians, Portuguese and Eastern Europeans. He said he has amassed about 50,000 supporters from this effort.

“That number is going to make all the difference,” Lumaj said. “We went to those cities. We went to those ethnic groups and converted them into Republicans. That is the strategy for us to win in 2018.”

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