Lamont’s powers rise as election issue as emergency extends into 2022

Photo of Ken Dixon

When the General Assembly approved Gov. Ned Lamont’s request for a five-month extension of his emergency powers this past week, they gave the governor extraordinary leeway in the coronavirus pandemic, well into an election year in which he is nearly certain to seek another term.

Will that sixth extension to Feb. 15 - approved with solid Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate - prove more of a hindrance or a help to Lamont’s candidacy?

National political analysts say there’s little doubt the 67-year-old Greenwich multi-millionaire will run for a second term in 2022, and rate his chances for victory between solid and likely. He would run in large part on his record of managing the pandemic aggressively.

“Blue states seem more open to the Democratic positions, with more desire for government to do something, as opposed to Republican laissez faire,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which tracks federal and state races from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

He noted, however, that Connecticut has a history of close elections for governor.

State-based political scientists agree Lamont has an edge over potential GOP opponents, including Themis Klarides, the former house minority leader, and Bob Stefanowski, the 2018 runner-up. But a lot may depend on how Lamont continues to handle the coronavirus pandemic.

Will Lamont’s orders, such as continued mandatory face masks in public schools, offend more parents as the illness wanes? Will his order for vaccinations or weekly testing for unionized state workers alienate a group that is dependably Democratic?

Democrats are wagering that continued competence and strong action will outweigh any charges of executive bullying and over-reach among undecided voters. The logic goes that the protesters who surrounded the Capitol over the presidential election, the mandatory childhood vaccines for children, the face mask orders and most recently the 100 or so who shouted outside the Capitol as the House debated the emergency powers extension, would never have voted for Lamont’s reelection anyway — and represent a small minority of voters.

Republicans will use the emergency powers to their advantage.

“The executive orders will absolutely be an issue next year,” said Ben Proto, chairman of the state GOP. “It’s going to be an issue for Democrats going forward. I think you frame it with a couple things in the next election cycle. What is the governor’s role in regulating our lives? What is the governor’s role inserting himself between parents and their children? It’s going to be about freedom. It’s going to be individual liberties.”

How Lamont has used his power

Democrats say Lamont has used his powers judiciously, for exmple, allowing cities and towns to decide locally on whether to impose mask mandates for local businesses and municipal buildings. And a new law allows a bipartisan group of legislative leaders to meet and possibly veto any new executive orders within 36 hours of Lamont’s — and future governors’ — announcements.

Lamont has consulted legislative leaders throughout the pandemic, Democrats argue, although Republicans have said he’s not talking with them enough and is not considering their advice when he does.

During the recent General Assembly debates, Republicans charged that very few states are still relying on executive orders, especially in the Northeast, which was hit hard in the early months of the pandemic in 2020, but have higher vaccination and lower illness rates now.

Even moderate Republicans, while acknowledging the importance of science during debates on the House and Senate floor, charged that Lamont is usurping the constitutional separations between the executive and legislative branches.

Back in March, Sacred Heart University’s Institute for Public Policy found that Lamont enjoyed bipartisan support among voters, including 57 percent approval overall and 42 percent from Republicans. The poll found that 70 percent approved his overall response to the coronavirus crisis.

Quinnipiac University polls reported Lamont with a 78-percent approval rating at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and a still-robust 57.3 percent in May of this year.

Gayle Alberda, professor of politics at Fairfield University, said Thursday that the Republican strategy of framing the issue as a misuse of power comes with risk. “On the flip side, you have the ongoing pandemic,” Alberda said. “The reality is, Gov. Lamont is a strong candidate for reelection.”

If COVID-related deaths stay down and schools remain open safely, it’s going to be hard for a Republican challenger, Alberda said, adding that both the World Health Organization and the CDC still say that we’re in the pandemic, even though vaccine rates are generally high in Connecticut.

Dangers for Democrats

The extension is also fraught with potential dangers for Lamont and Democrats

“If Republicans push hard and become more-extreme in the sense of no-mask mandates, the way Florida has become extreme, and we were to see a spike in cases or increase in deaths, that would be a wrong policy,” Alberda said. “The Democratic side has to worry about the narrative becoming too, for lack of a better word, controlling.”

She noted that while Republicans complain of Lamont’s powers, the issue has gone through multi-hour debates the General Assembly, which approved them. “It’s not as if Lamont is acting like a tyrant. He created the powers when the pandemic started, and to continue he asked the legislature,” Alberda said. “Lamont has to do something to really mess things up.”

Emergency orders have becone rarer among states. They remain in effect in New York and Rhode Island. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker ended the emergency in June, but some public health orders remain in place. Maine lawmakers have continued some public health requirements through the end of the year while others, such as the allowance of to-go cocktails, are now permanent. Other states retain a variety of public health measures, according to the Council of State Governments.

Scott McLean, professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, said that while the recent special session might have been the focus of Democratic and Republican insiders and their activist bases, he believes there was little resonance in the statewide population at-large.

“I think Democrats are fine with the extension of Lamont’s emergency powers, and while the Republicans are trying to raise concerns that we shouldn’t be alarmist about COVID, we have not quite turned the corner on the pandemic,” McLean said on Thursday. “We should wait to see how it plays out in social media. All signs point to it being a Republican talking point next year, but things could get very bad this winter and if there’s a huge spike in COVID it will become much less.”

‘In the driver’s seat’

One question is whether the emergency orders issue will move voters or only solidify positions they already hold.

“My sense is that people who are upset will not support his campaign in any event. My sense is that towns want strong guidance from the state,” said Ronald Schurin, a political science professor at UConn. “They don’t want 169 different policies for each community and school district.”

“Lamont is kind of in the driver’s seat right now, for sure,” said Gary Rose, chairman of the Department of Government at Sacred Heart University. Attacking Lamont on the continued executive orders could be a “questionable” tactic, Rose said.

“As long as the delta variant is going around and the pandemic is still with us, I think the public is willing to accept the emergency orders, and the portion of the GOP that is opposed to face masks and vaccinations might be splintering a party that is a distinct minority statewide,” he said.

There are about 480,000 registered Republicans, 850,000 Democrats and 940,000 unaffiliated voters in Connecticut.

Rose, whose latest book is New England Local Government: The Case of Connecticut, warned that the GOP is in danger of dividing itself. “There is a Trumpish dimension that has been growing, with the ‘stop the steal’ and anti-vaxxers, which could play out in the primaries next year.”

Rose believes that Republicans might have better political traction during the 2022 campaign by citing the rise in crime, particularly the issue of stolen cars in the suburbs. “Lamont has held the line on taxes, although Republicans can still make an issue out of how many taxes we have in Connecticut. Crime could actually be the one issue that could resonate very effectively with voters.”

Proto, chairman of the Republican State Central Committee, thinks that the executive orders are a winning issue. “The virus is going to be with us for a very long time,” he said. “Why is it okay to go to a concert without a mask, but we can’t put 20 school kids in a room together without masks?” Twitter: @KenDixonCT