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February 20, 2024

CT Senate GOP forces Kevin Kelly out as minority leader

Kevin Kelly

Sen. Kevin Kelly of Stratford stepped down Friday as leader of the small and fractious Republican minority in the Connecticut Senate, acknowledging he no longer had support of a caucus that elected him by a single vote three years ago.

His successor is Sen. Stephen Harding, a first-term senator from Brookfield who served in the House for four terms before his election to the sprawling 30th Senate District covering 18 communities in western Connecticut.

“I am honored to have been chosen by our caucus to succeed Sen. Kelly as caucus leader,” Harding said in a written statement.

Kelly agreed to make way for Harding during a face-to-face meeting at the state Capitol on Friday without a removal vote by the caucus. The senators then voted to elect Harding.

“As leader, I will make sure our caucus remains unified and focused on standing up for all people, offering solutions and showing a better path forward,” Harding said.

The removal of a leader at mid-term is extraordinary in Connecticut, but the Senate GOP caucus and its staff have been widely seen as divided and toxic at the state Capitol.

Kelly tried to change the dynamic by bringing in a new chief of staff, John Healey, a year ago, but kept other senior staff who resisted the change. Last month, Kelly abruptly fired Healey with little explanation.

The move was unsettling to rank-and-file members, who saw Healey as an experienced operative who would oversee election strategy in 2024, according to one Republican.

Sen. Stephen Harding

Republicans won half the seats in 2016, but Democrats won overwhelming majorities in 2018, 2020 and 2022 and now hold a 24-12 majority. Even worse for the GOP is the possibility of further losses.

Four of their 12 members were elected in 2022 with less than 51% of the vote.

In a statement issued by the caucus, Kelly wished Harding well.

“I have been incredibly honored to serve as the leader of this caucus and will work collaboratively with Sen. Harding going forward,” Kelly said in a written statement. “Our caucus is made up of hard-working individuals who love our state and are ready to fight for it.”

Kelly did not return a call for comment. Harding said in a brief interview that Kelly agreed to step down but will remain an active and valued member of the caucus in a “critically important session and election cycle.”

“Kevin has been nothing but respectful and positive,” Harding said. “Our caucus is going to be a strong advocate for our state.”

Kelly, who has a busy law practice, unexpectedly sought the leadership post after the 2020 election, encouraged by Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven, who did not seek another term.

The deputy leader, Sen. Kevin Witkos of Canton, was surprised to find himself in a contest with Kelly, losing to him on a 7-6 vote by what then was a 13-member caucus.

Witkos did not seek reelection in 2022 and was elected first selectman of Canton last year.

Kelly has filed for reelection this fall, as has the rest of his caucus.

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