One Republican who survived the recent electoral wipeout of the state GOP was Rob Sampson, the chairman of the conservative caucus in the General Assembly, not exactly someone you’d have expected to weather a perfect blue storm.
Sampson won big. He won by about 5,650 votes, or 13 percent of votes cast, and he moved up from House District 80 (Southington, Wolcott), a seat he has held since 2012, to Senate District 16, adding Prospect and parts of Cheshire and Waterbury to his constituency.
In contrast, the GOP lost every statewide contest, all six federal contests and 115, or 61 percent, of 187 legislative contests, including a House seat held for more than a century and a Senate seat held since 1932.
Sampson benefited from a unique coattail effect, with the popular incumbent of the 16th, Joe Markley, running for lieutenant governor. The top of the GOP ticket won the 16th handily.
Conversely, it was no easy task running against a female opponent, Vickie Nardello, in “the year of the woman,” Moreover, Nardello was an experienced opponent who served 18 years in the other half of the 16th, namely House District 89 (Prospect, Bethany and parts of Cheshire), before losing two close elections during the now-defunct Republican revival from 2012 to 2016 that took the GOP to near parity in the General Assembly before this year’s disaster.
As expected, Sampson was targeted. The chairman of the conservative caucus was a scalp the Democrats and their allies wanted. According to filings with the State Elections Enforcement Commission, outside organizations spent at least $128,000 against him, more than the $114,000 allotted to Sampson and to his opponent under the Citizens Election Program.
So, how did Sampson win? His answer: “When Republicans run as Republicans, we win.”
There are two camps in the Republican Party concerning overall strategy. One believes that the GOP, as the minority party, must appeal to unaffiliated voters and win the majority of them to offset the Democrats’ greater numbers. That’s unarguably true. They believe GOP candidates should moderate their policy positions and their message and “move to the middle.” That’s debatable.
The other camp points out that, if Democrats also move to the middle, the result is that unaffiliated voters can’t discern any difference and wind up voting in roughly equal numbers for each party. They cancel themselves out. This leaves the decision to the partisans, of whom there are vastly more Democrats. So, this camp believes that GOP candidates should stick to their GOP beliefs and present a clear choice.
Sampson is in the second camp. It helps that he genuinely believes in his positions and sees them as worth fighting for. He’s not the only one who feels this way: “I had several campaign volunteers who came from an hour away because they couldn’t work for their local Republican Assembly member who was trying to be all things to all people.”
Sampson had a simple and straightforward message, which he stated positively and, in order to make things clear, in the negative as well: “Yes: Freedom, Opportunity and the American Dream. No: Big Government, Failed Socialism and Identity Politics.”
Often, politicians use broad terms, hoping that voters will read into them whatever they want to hear. Sampson’s yes-no construction employs broad terms, but it conveys clarity usually missing: big government does not create opportunity, identity politics is inconsistent with the American Dream. It also served to define his opponent as the “no” candidate.
Sampson knew what his opponent was going to throw at him, and he employed a preemptive defense. In the last legislative session, he saw Democrats calling votes on issues that would set up wedge issues for the next election: gun legislation, despite that Connecticut already had strict gun laws after Sandy Hook; women’s health care, despite that the state’s health care programs are perhaps the most comprehensive and generous in the nation.
He says “I went door to door telling constituents what was coming and explained my position beforehand. I prepared social media responses. Once the attacks began, I posted them immediately on my Facebook page.”
Political victories are made of many factors, and each contest is unique. However, when consistent patterns emerge, lessons can be learned.
Sampson articulated and defended strong GOP positions.
Ten of the 12 members of Sampson’s conservative caucus won re-election — one lost and Markley sought a different office. In the bluest of blue years, the party’s most conservative members won, suggesting that articulating and defending strong GOP positions is the best GOP election strategy. Evidently voters appreciate candidates who stick to their beliefs.
Red Jahncke is president of Townsend Group Intl, LLC, a Greenwich-based consulting firm.
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Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.