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Connecticut GOP is doing its best to ignore Trump’s baseless claims of stolen election

Former President Donald Trump
Darron Cummings

The first week of 2022 marks the start of a midterm election year and the anniversary of the stunning assault on the U.S. Capitol by protesters egged on by Donald J. Trump’s demonstrably false claim that the election was stolen.

Trump’s insistence the election was rigged and his animus to Republicans who say otherwise is a distraction that GOP candidates in Connecticut say they are intent on ignoring, while Democrats promise to make that impossible.

With polling consistently showing at least two-thirds of Republican voters saying Biden did not win, GOP officials who merely acknowledge reality do so at the risk of antagonizing significant elements of their base.

But Connecticut Republicans largely are avoiding equivocating or expressing doubts about Biden’s win, reasoning that to do only would keep Trump as an unwelcome wingman in 2022.

Trump may be on the ballot in 2024, but the Connecticut Republican state chair, Ben Proto, said his advice to candidates is to acknowledge Trump’s defeat in 2020 rather than engage in a fight that undercuts GOP campaigns in 2022.

“If we want to change things in Connecticut, if we want to take us out of the bottom of every important category that judges a state and get us back on track, then we need to change the people who are making the decisions in 2022,” Proto said. “Twenty-twenty-four will come around soon enough. But our job is to deal with 2022.”

Bob Stefanowski, the 2018 gubernatorial nominee and a likely candidate this year, dodged questions about Trump’s claims a year ago, the day before rioters tried to stop Vice President Mike Pence from certifying the results. On Wednesday, he answered a question about Biden’s legitimacy without equivocation.

“Joe Biden won the election, and it’s past time to move on from 2020 and focus on CT residents trying to figure out how they are going to keep the lights on, gas up their car, get a simple COVID test without waiting in line for hours,” Stefanowski said in a text message.

A rival for the nomination, former House Republican Leader Themis Klarides, offered the same opinion today as she did a year ago: She had no objection to Trump pursuing every legal avenue to confirm the accuracy of the vote prior to certification but not his continuing efforts to mislead Americans about the results.

“He had a constitutional right to those challenges, and not one of them changed the results,” Klarides said. “It’s time to move on. I feel the same way as I felt last year.”

Even Republicans who insist voter fraud is a significant issue in American elections, including Connecticut’s, say it did not rise to a level capable of de-legitimizing Biden’s solid popular vote victory of 81 million to 74 million.

Dominic Rapini, a Republican candidate for secretary of the state, has the view that Connecticut is not nearly stringent enough in investigating election fraud, but he does not share Trump’s belief that the presidential election was stolen.

“Joe Biden is a constitutionally elected president of the United States. I just think that’s important for people to understand,” Rapini said. “I know there’s people in Connecticut that don’t want to hear that, and I understand that.”

State Sen. Rob Sampson of Wolcott says small-scale voter fraud — such as the harvesting of absentee ballots —is a problem that deserves bipartisan attention, but he does not support Trump’s claim that Biden is illegitimate.

“I try to tell people who are on the extreme Trump bandwagon, who believe every word about the supposed election fraud that happened nationally and the President being robbed and so on, is that it doesn’t matter,” Sampson said. “Even if it were true, there’s no one who’s going to actually reverse that election.”

Sampson said the belief that Trump somehow can be restored to the White House without winning an election is more outlandish than the belief that the election can be proven to be rigged, as Mike Lindell of MyPillow claims in a self-funded documentary. Lindell said votes were stolen by hacking, even though voting machines are not connected to the web, and the digital voting machines used in most states produce paper ballots that can be hand-counted in audits and recounts.

“There’s no miracle. Michael Lindell the pillow guy is not going to show up one day with a smoking gun and announce to the world, ‘Look what happened!’ And suddenly we’re going to install Trump,” Sampson said. “That’s not going to happen. That’s just an absurdity.”

Elsewhere, Republicans have frozen, dissembled or expressed uncertainty about 2020.

During a debate in Minnesota last month, Hugh Hewitt, the prominent conservative radio host and writer, asked five Republican candidates for governor, “In your opinion, did President Biden win a constitutional majority of the Electoral College? If yes, how definitive is your conclusion, and if no, could you please explain which states you think are in dispute.”

“I can’t know what I don’t know, and I think we have to take that attitude towards 2020,” said Scott Jensen, a family doctor and former state senator.

No one gave Hewitt an unqualified “yes,” though two acknowledged the Electoral College gave Biden sufficient votes to win.

After the debate, Hewitt tweeted, “It is an important question and needs to be framed, I think, as I did. I expect it will be often asked and answered (or not) of many candidates in the year ahead.”

Connecticut House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, and other Democrats said in a news conference Thursday they will press Republicans to say whether they stand with Trump and his continued efforts to perpetuate “the Big Lie.”

“So for anybody who is running for the House of Representatives, we will ask you that question publicly, [on] social media, many, many times,” Ritter said. “If you’re going to be part of the House of Representatives, is that who you support, and what do you think about what happened on that day, and are those the values that we should be teaching our citizens and our children?”

Bronin said Republican leaders have a responsibility to help restore faith in free and open elections.

“When two-thirds of Republicans nationwide say that they believe the ‘big lie’ about the 2020 elections, the only people who can change that, the only people who can protect our democracy today, are the leaders of that party,” Bronin said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, among the last members of Congress evacuated from the House chamber on Jan. 6, said in an interview the unwillingness of more Republicans to acknowledge Biden’s victory and the belief of so many GOP voters that Trump was cheated is more alarming than the riot.

“Viking-horn guy with spear was not going to be the way our democracy ends,” Himes said. “But two-thirds of the adherents of a major political party, believing a lie for which there is not a shred of evidence, is the sign of a deeply, deeply sick democracy.”

On Jan. 6, 2021, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky unequivocally said Trump was wrong to insist Congress could reject the results, warning of permanent damage to the democratic republic.

“The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken. They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever,” McConnell said. “This election, actually, was not unusually close. Just in recent history, 1976, 2000 and 2004 were all closer than this one. The Electoral College margin is almost identical to what it was in 2016. If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral.”

Himes said too few Republicans in the House are willing to rebuke Trump’s unprecedented undermining of an American presidential election. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Liz Cheney of Wyoming were the only two to vote to create the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Congress.

“Yes, there is an Adam Kinzinger. And yes, there’s a Liz Cheney. But there’s one Adam Kinzinger. And one Liz Cheney,” Himes said. “How is it possible that the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt can’t even muster 50% of its members to adhere to reality around something as important as our democratic republic?”

Himes holds a Fairfield County seat held by moderate Republicans for 40 years before his victory in 2008 over Chris Shays, the last GOP member elected to Congress from Connecticut. By some measures, the last GOP seat now is the safest Democratic seat in the state.

Revulsion to Trump has played a role in that transformation, accelerating what had been a Democratic trend, he said. Himes said he takes “some comfort” in Connecticut Republicans showing greater independence of Trump.

“I know that we’ve got Trumpy authoritarians in Connecticut, but I think —I know — most Republicans are deeply uncomfortable with Donald Trump and all that he represents,” Himes said. “You know, that’s how you win a Senate seat in Greenwich, Conn.”

Himes was referring to Republican Ryan Fazio of Greenwich flipping a state Senate seat in a special election in August.

Greenwich reached a tipping point in 2020: Democratic voters surpassed Republicans, 12,435 to 11,973. There are 15,917 unaffiliated voters, meaning that the GOP ranks third in Greenwich — a stunning fall that accelerated with the nomination of Trump in 2016.

A year ago and now, Fazio refused to stand with Trump on the legitimacy of Biden’s win.

“I think the behavior of the president in the aftermath of the last election was deeply untoward and problematic and dishonest,” Fazio said in an interview Wednesday. “And that was very, very disappointing to me — and I think many other Republicans.”

Fazio said the question Hugh Hewitt posed in Minnesota should get a clear answer.

“It’s not a difficult question,” Fazio said. “President Biden was duly elected. And it’s as simple as that.”