New Hampshire Gov. Sununu, in CT to help Bob Stefanowski raise money, calls impending diesel tax hike ‘the dumbest thing anyone could do’

Chris Keating/Hartford Courant/TNS
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Winning as a Republican in New England is not easy, but New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu came to Connecticut to raise spirits and money Wednesday for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski.

Sununu stopped in Waterbury, a critical city for Stefanowski in his quest to defeat incumbent Democrat Ned Lamont in a rematch of their 2018 contest.

But before he arrived in the Brass City, Sununu said, he learned that Connecticut’s diesel tax will be increasing by 9 cents per gallon, to 49 cents, on July 1. Sununu said that stunned him because he lives in a state of 1.4 million residents with an annual budget of $6.5 billion that requires no sales tax and no state income tax.

“I literally thought my staff was joking because I’ve never heard of anything like that‚’’ Sununu told reporters at a family-run chocolate factory in Waterbury.

“That would be the dumbest thing anyone could do,” Sununu said. “But when I got down here, I realized it was the actual truth. Wow. The economy runs on diesel. To get product from point A to point B in trucks. To bring the product into here.’'

Sununu added, “Our national economy runs on diesel. It’s the last thing you should be taxing. ... [Lamont] has the power to stand up and say, ‘OK. We’re pulling back on that one,’ but he’s not.’’

In the hours before Sununu arrived, he was attacked in emailed statements by the Lamont campaign, the Connecticut Democratic Party, and the national Democratic Governors Association.

They focused partially on a bill signed into law last month by Sununu that was described by the DGA as an “extreme abortion ban’' and criticized sharply by Planned Parenthood.

“Anti-choice extremists are piling onto Bob Stefanowski’s campaign because they know he’s on their side,” said Sam Newton, a spokesman for the national governors group. “Stefanowski can’t run from their records of banning abortion or hide his own out-of-touch views that make him too radical for Connecticut.”

Lamont’s campaign spokesman, Jake Lewis, said, “While Bob tries to paint himself as a moderate, his decision to align himself with anti-abortion extremists like Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and pretend moderates like Governor Sununu, reveal that he is too extreme for Connecticut. ... Like Governor Sununu, Bob claims to be pro-choice, but his actions tell a different story.’'

When told that the Democratic governors’ group described the ban as extreme, Sununu burst out laughing. The abortion laws in Connecticut and New Hampshire, he said, are similar.

“They’re virtually the same. It’s 24 weeks,’' Sununu said. “I think 44 other states have some type of late-term ban. But I think ours, even in terms of weeks, is the same. So Democrats can complain about it, considering they’re in power here. It’s hypocrisy. They’ll do anything to distract from the real issues.’'

Sununu added, “I’m an extremist? Well, that’s good. What extreme am I? Am I extreme right or extreme left? I don’t know. They both yell at me.’'

The Republicans gathered in Waterbury, where Stefanowski lost to Lamont by about 3,800 votes in 2018 and has pledged to fare better this time.

During the past three election cycles, Republicans have performed well in the suburbs every four years. But Democrat Dannel P. Malloy in 2010 and 2014 and Lamont in 2018 scored huge victories in the cities — providing enough votes to win the entire state.

After Waterbury, the two Republicans headed south for a fundraiser at the Branford Yacht Club in the upscale shoreline town with a maximum ticket price of $3,500 per person and a minimum of $300.

The appearance with Sununu marked a sharp contrast from Stefanowski’s last fundraiser in which the high-profile guest of honor, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, did not appear due to what the campaign called a scheduling conflict. But that did not stop a clash between Republicans and Democrats over guns and abortion.

The fundraiser had caused controversy among Democrats because Ricketts favors banning abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, if the landmark Roe v. Wade decision were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming weeks.

Stefanowski is locked in a high-stakes, big-money battle against Lamont, a fellow millionaire former business executive. Lamont has already spent more than $40 million of his own money in three statewide races in 2006, 2010, and 2018. He is expected to spend millions more this year to keep his current position.

For more than a decade, Republicans have had trouble winning in New England.

Stefanowski is trying to break a 15-year losing streak by Republicans in major races in Connecticut. In 2006, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell and then-U.S. Rep. Chris Shays of Bridgeport both won reelection. But Shays lost in the Democratic wave that swept in Barack Obama as president in 2008, and no Connecticut Republican has won a seat for Congress, governor or other statewide office since then.

Shays was the last Republican member of the House from New England, a sharp turnaround from nine Republicans when he first went to Congress after an upset victory in 1987.

Today, the governors of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont are all Republicans, but the party’s representation among 33 seats from New England in Washington has been relatively rare in recent years with the high-profile exception of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

While Democrats disagree, Stefanowski says this year will be different.

“We came close to winning Waterbury last time. We’re going to win it this time,’' Stefanowski said, when asked by the Courant. “I won the 5th District last time. ... We’ve made a ton of terrific friends here.’'

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com