WINDHAM — John French, a Republican member of the board of education in Windham and the 2014 nominee for State Senate in the 29th District, announced he plans to run for the seat again at his campaign kickoff event at Windham Town Hall Wednesday night.
His announcement sets up a primary against Mark Sargent, a first-term Republican on the Mansfield Town Council, who announced his campaign for the seat Saturday.
But French is not ready to call it a primary yet.
“There’s a long way to go,” French said. “Everybody keeps saying primary, which is really premature.”
Under Connecticut Republican Party bylaws, nominees for state office are selected at conventions by delegates elected from the Republican Town Committees (RTCs) in each district. The candidates who do not receive the backing of the majority of those delegates are allowed to petition for a spot on a primary ballot.
One member of the Connecticut Republican Party State Central Committee said he was not convinced Sargent would receive the support of many delegates in the district.
“I would be very surprised if Mark made it past the convention or if he had enough delegates to primary,” said John Underwood, an official who represents the 29th District on the state central committee.
Joining French at his announcement were state Sens. Joe Markley, R-Southington, and Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, as well as state Reps. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, and Tim Ackert, R-Coventry.
Ackert framed the race as part of the larger battle for Republicans to take control of the State Senate. Republicans need to pick up four seats in 2016 to claim the majority. Democrats currently hold 21 seats while the Republicans hold 15. He said French would be the strongest candidate to win in the general election against the district’s incumbent Democrat, state Sen. Mae Flexer.
The speakers told the more than 50 people gathered for the event that nobody knows the issues facing the district and the state better than French. Dubitsky said residents of the 29th District “need a person who cares as much and will fight as hard” as French.
French said he believes he has “already proven” that he is the most viable candidate for the general election, citing his 2014 campaign that was competitive in every town in the district except for Mansfield and Windham.
When asked why Republicans in the district would not want a nominee with ties to Mansfield and the University of Connecticut, Underwood said he “would love to have one” but that he wants to stick to the plan laid out two years ago when French first announced.
French said he always saw the race as a two-election project, the first election to establish name recognition and the second to take the seat from Flexer after she had been in office for two years.
French, who has been a business owner for 40 years and served in various local elected capacities in Windham since the 1980s, touted his ties to the district as the reason he was able to run a strong campaign in 2014. He has served on both the board of finance and the board of education in Windham. In the 2014 race, he finished with 48.9 percent of the vote to Flexer’s 51.1 percent – a 520-vote margin.
French’s campaign will focus on his business experience, part of the larger message promoting necessary fiscal conservatism at the state level. Markley said business experience is “something that is very much missing in the General Assembly.”
In what appeared to be a subtle jab at Sargent, Markley said French has the “maturity” to govern and would be a much-needed “grown-up” in Hartford. However, he said it is “no criticism” of Sargent to say French is the stronger candidate.
Underwood refuted the claim that local Republican leaders were trying to “anoint” a candidate, as several of Sargent’s campaign staff claimed at his announcement, saying instead any candidate is welcome to run and work to earn the support of the district’s residents.
Sargent said he has “high admiration and respect” for French but said his campaign is the “candidacy for the future.”
“I’m not running against anything,” Sargent said. “I’m running for the people of the 29th District. We’re running to make change here in Connecticut.”
Sargent said he has raised $2,500 in the first 48 hours of accepting donations.
The 29th District contains the towns of Brooklyn, Canterbury, Killingly, Mansfield, Putnam, Scotland, Thompson and Windham.