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Sunday, March 24 Politics

State GOP regrouping, reassessing

The Republican Party might have until June to choose its next leader, but the behind-the-scenes politics of filling the role are already well under way.

Current party chairman J.R. Romano has yet to decide if he’ll seek re-election, and speculation has already begun on who else might step in. Former state Sen. Joe Markley and Ben Proto, a GOP strategist from Stratford who was Donald Trump’s campaign coordinator in Connecticut in 2016, have both been named as possible successors.

“This is a lot of work and it’s not easy,” Romano said. “In politics like anything else, there’s a lot of people talking. I’ve just been quietly doing the work of a chairman.”

While Proto is interested, Markley, who gave up his state Senate seat to run for lieutenant governor, has made it clear: he is not.

“I’m not surprised I’m getting encouragement. I was interested in it four years ago, and I thought it was the right moment for it. It’s not right now. I don’t have any intention of running,” said Markley, who recently took a part-time job doing public relations for Farmington-based Companions and Homemakers, a home care organization.

“Being the state party chairman is a very difficult job and I have great sympathy for J.R,” Markley said. “I think that very few people realize how much falls to him and how tough it is. Even though I ran against him for the position in the first place, I’ve always been hesitant to criticize him. When you have a disappointing election like we did, he’s the first person that’s going to get blamed. I think he’s done a great job, he hasn’t done a perfect job, but I haven’t seen anyone do a perfect job.”

Proto said he’s been “approached by a number of people” to consider the chairmanship.

“Right now what I’m doing is just talking to people about the party, where the party is at, different things we can do to improve our structure and our organization and share our message,” Proto said.

He believes the party’s message could have been better presented, but Proto would not explicitly criticize Romano. He praised the series of five debates Romano hosted prior to the party convention, though he does not think participation in the debates should have been tied to monetary thresholds raised by the candidates excluding some of the early hopefuls including New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart.

“While the concept of what he wanted to do was good, I think it created more belief with second- and third-tier candidates that they were first-tier candidates because they had a stage that they normally would not have had,” Proto said. “State campaigns at the end of the day is about herding kittens and it’s very difficult to do. They all want to run off and find their own little ball of yarn to play with. It’s not easy.”

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Romano said he’s heard that several people might have an interest in his job — which he made clear is not a walk in the park — but none as seriously as Proto, who he knows has had many conversations with party insiders about the role.

Sen. Len Fasano, the top Republican in the Senate, blamed the party’s losses on “the Trump factor,” which he said no party chairman could have overcome.

“J.R. has always had the best interest of the party at heart,” Fasano said. “Bob Stefanowski got 100,000 more votes than (Tom) Foley did (in 2014), and I think the larger turnout had a lot to do with Trump. To say J.R. failed, I look back and say, ‘What else do you want him do to?’ I think he did a fine job. I have an open mind about chairmen, but I don’t think we should make a change just to make a change.”

kkrasselt@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt

Kaitlyn Krasselt|Reporter

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