State Republicans have a deep bench of possible 2026 gubernatorial candidates, as long as the messaging is relatable to voters, Connecticut GOP Chairman Ben Proto told CT Examiner.
Proto, who has been chair since June 2021, said Tuesday that despite Gov. Ned Lamont’s favorable standing in the polls, there are numerous issues that Republicans can win on, especially the economy and taxes.
Unlike what many are touting, Proto said, Connecticut is not in the best economic shape.
“The biggest issue, not only in Connecticut but across the country, is the economy, the cost of living and inflation,” said Proto, who has a political consulting and law background. “These are all huge issues. I know everybody wants to tout how wonderful everything is, but the reality is, that Connecticut is in an economic downturn. Most people can’t afford basic necessities and most people are tapping into their savings or retirement accounts much sooner than they wanted to. Interest rates are skyrocketing.”
Lamont has yet to announce plans to run for a third four-year term as governor.
Proto said that a numbers of potential candidates have expressed an interest in running for governor. He declined to name them but said most have either held elected office or are currently in office.
“We have some very good mayors and first selectmen that have been doing phenomenal work for a number of years, and there are a couple of legislators who have been doing this for a while and have a really good understanding of Connecticut,” he said.
Asked about New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, who recently won a sixth term and is seriously considering a 2026 gubernatorial run, Proto said she has done a great job in the city.
“She’s been an outstanding mayor and one of Connecticut’s better mayors for many years. She’s had an interest in running for governor and, I think, would be a strong candidate,” he said.
Two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski recently said he was noncommittal on another run.
“Bob carried the banner for us a couple of times and it’s been helpful to the party over the years. And I think he has a lot to offer not just to the party, but to Connecticut and probably in many different roles,” Proto said.
State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, also told CT Examiner on Tuesday that she’s “absolutely considering making a run,” adding that many people “are encouraging me to run from all over Connecticut.”
“Heather is one of those legislators who, I think, has a really good understanding of the situation Connecticut finds itself in, and she’s been a leader on a number of issues in Hartford,” Proto said. “She’s a very good campaigner, she’s a really good politician, and she’s an even better senator.”
Proto’s two-year term as party chair expires in June 2025, and he declined to say whether he’d run again in order to be on board for the 2026 gubernatorial campaign.
Proto said beating an incumbent is exceedingly difficult, but claims Connecticut is no longer a deep blue state.
“I think we are a deep purple state,” he said. “I think there are opportunities that exist for Republicans to do well, and to do better than we’ve done. I think part of it is unifying together and working together, and understanding that we [Republicans] are on the same team and we wear the same uniform.”
Stefanowski’s losses to Lamont were a matter of circumstance, Proto said.
”We were coming out of the Malloy years, and you had a candidate ultimately who was not very well known in Connecticut. I think the late primary does not benefit parties out of power, be they Democrat or Republican,” he said.
As far as 2022, Proto believes issues related to the pandemic were at play.
“There was a belief among a lot of people that the governor had done a good job during COVID when, in fact, there were a lot of issues that, unfortunately, were never really discussed during the campaign,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which overturned Roe v. Wade and pushed abortion legislation back to the states, also played an integral part in the election that year, Proto said.
Lamont made abortion rights a cornerstone of his campaign and painted Stefanowski as an anti-abortion candidate, he added, even though Stefanowski supports abortion rights. This had a devastating effect, he said.
“I think the Dobbs decision played a big part in 2022,” Proto said. “We were on defense on that. You had a governor who was tremendously popular in 2022, and then you added abortion to it.”
But Proto insisted that the Republican Party is the big tent party.
“I think that the people who have concrete issues are the Democrats, as they are completely homogenized on issues and require complete loyalty,” he said, with abortion being the prime example.
Republicans in the state are welcoming of candidates on both sides of the abortion issue, he said, unlike the Democratic Party.
Another barrier for anyone who runs against Lamont, Proto said, could be the governor’s wealth.
“Ned Lamont, without any source of income, made $54 million,” Proto said, noting that the governor spent millions of dollars of his own money in his races against Stefanowski.
Stefanowski spent millions of dollars of his own money, but Lamont spent considerably more.
According to CT Mirror, Lamont’s tax returns showed he made $54 million in 2021, a nearly seven-fold increase over the previous year.
Lamont once chaired Lamont Digital Systems, a telecommunications firm that invested in new media startups. The governor’s great-grandfather, Thomas Lamont, was a banker and partner at J.P. Morgan & Company.