Stefanowski hires aggressive leader of anti-tolls movement to be his campaign manager

HARTFORD — Facing a tough political fight in a blue state, Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski has hired the leader of the grassroots movement against highway tolls to be his new campaign manager for the three-month battle against Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont.

Stamford firefighter Patrick Sasser has already started in his new role to increase the energy in the Stefanowski campaign at a time when polls show he is trailing Lamont.


Sasser became the face of the anti-tolls movement as he helped collect 130,000 signatures against Lamont’s plan for electronic highway tolls. Sasser was known for his aggressive, high-energy style in bluntly criticizing Lamont and generating a grassroots campaign against the tolls.

“I’m going to use the tools I’ve learned over the years on smaller campaigns‚’’ Sasser said Wednesday, adding that the campaign against Lamont’s tolls was “probably the largest grassroots movement this state has ever seen.’'


Sasser says he intends to “bring the energy, increase the ground game, use a grassroots effort to mobilize people, get boots on the ground, help develop some of the strategies to get the messaging out and make sure that the folks in Connecticut come out and vote for change.’'

The move was not publicly announced when Sasser took over on Aug. 1. He is replacing former state Rep. Dan Carter, who has left for a position with the state Republican Party. While keeping his fulltime job as a Stamford firefighter, Sasser says he will delegate various duties to deputy campaign manager George Brehl.

Sasser was an unlikely leader of the grassroots movement. A blue-collar Republican with little political experience, he went up against a powerful, multi-millionaire governor with degrees from Harvard and Yale and the entire political administration in Hartford.

On Wednesday, both Lamont and Stefanowski ramped up their attacks for the final three months of the campaign.

“Expect Governor Lamont to continue to do what he did this morning, put politics over people, focusing on imaginary election ballots rather than the person in Connecticut who can’t afford to buy groceries today or the family who will go to bed tonight worried that they will be the next victim of an unprecedented crime wave in Connecticut,’’ Stefanowski said. “The people of Connecticut are too smart for Ned Lamont’s bait and switch campaign. They want someone who understands what they are going through today and who cares enough to do something about it — and as your next governor, I will!”

Lamont’s campaign is trying to tie Stefanowski to both Levy and Trump.

“Bob Stefanowski invested thousands of dollars in support for Leora Levy. Last night, she delivered a return on that investment and then some,” Lamont campaign spokeswoman Onotse Omoyeni said Wednesday. “Long gone are the days of the responsible Republicans in Connecticut. With Levy and Stefanowski leading the ticket, Trumpism has hijacked Connecticut’s Republican party, and the choice for voters this November could not be clearer: four years of anti-choice, pro-NRA, fiscal recklessness or four more years of responsible fiscal leadership, tax cuts built to last, and protecting women’s rights.’’

Levy vs. Blumenthal

On Wednesday, after an exhausting primary season for many candidates in extreme heat, Republicans and Democrats pivoted to blast their opponents in the November elections.


The general election campaign started in the morning with a statement from U. S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s campaign that cited his differences with Republican Leora Levy that “could not be more clear’' between the candidates. Levy, a conservative fundraiser from Greenwich, won a stunning primary victory Tuesday night over Themis Klarides, a moderate attorney who was the party convention’s endorsed candidate.

“Leora Levy is Donald Trump’s choice. Dick Blumenthal is Connecticut’s Senator,’' Blumenthal’s campaign said. “Leora Levy is way outside the Connecticut mainstream. She opposes a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions. She opposes common sense gun safety measures. And she supports calling January 6th ‘legitimate political discourse’.”

But Levy fired back, saying that Blumenthal is a career politician who has not gotten the job done.

“Dick just wants to distract you,’' Levy said. “Dick Blumenthal has been in elected office for nearly 40 years. He has played a part in creating virtually every challenge our country faces today, and has been a rubber stamp for Joe Biden’s failed policies as President. Dick Blumenthal wants this election to be a referendum on a President. Donald Trump is not on the ballot in November, but Joe Biden is. Here in Connecticut, Dick Blumenthal IS Joe Biden.”

The battle lines are already drawn sharply for November. A key theme that will be repeated is that the Democrats say that Trump is on the ballot, while Republicans say that Biden is on the ballot.

State Republican chairman Ben Proto told top Capitol reporters in a conference call Wednesday that they are asking the wrong questions about Trump and abortion.


“Look, the reality of the situation is the issues that are important to voters are very different than the issues that are important to the media,’' Proto said. “We know that there is literally no overlap to those issues. ... Abortion just simply is not that big of an issue at the end of the day with voters.’'

Proto added, “The single-issue pro-choice voter is never voting for the Republican. The single-issue pro-life voter is never voting for the Democrat. Now that we’ve taken care of probably 5% or less of the total voter population, the rest of the voter population looks at issues and weighs those issues. When we look at the polling, abortion simply doesn’t make the top five or six issues that people are concerned about. ... It’s maybe in the top 10, but it’s not in the top 5 to 7.’'

Some Republicans are concerned that the defeat of Klarides is a blow to the socially moderate tradition of former longtime party stalwarts like Lowell P. Weicker, U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney, U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, and Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

In her victory speech, Levy touched on conservative themes that will likely reemerge during the fall campaign.

“There is a difference between boys and girls,” Levy told the crowd at a hotel in Old Greenwich. “Boys do not belong in girls’ sports or in their locker rooms. That is insane.”

Levy is receiving strong support from the Trump base, including Simsbury landscaper Robert Hyde, a major Trump supporter who dropped out of the U.S. Senate race after receiving fewer than 1% of the delegates in the final tally at the party convention.


“Today, we celebrate this victory and let’s get to work to end the Blumenthal blight affecting all of us!,’' Hyde wrote to supporters. “Leora is a principled, common-sense conservative Republican who isn’t afraid to take the fight to Biden, Blumenthal and D.C. Democrats.’'

Longtime political science professor Gary Rose of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield said Klarides ran a somewhat lackluster, low-energy campaign with mediocre television commercials.

“Her presence on TV is not compelling,’' Rose said in an interview. “It’s not charismatic. It seems rote, as if she’s reading a script. ... Ads for other races are pretty darn good. In comparison, Themis’s ads are sub-par. ... It really is not impressive or memorable.’'

Christopher Keating can be reached at