Following two candidates’ entrance into the Republican primary late this summer, the contest to win the Connecticut governor’s mansion in 2014 has begun, and the race is wide open.
Connecticut Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a veteran state official who played a key role in crafting gun control legislation last April, and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton both announced their intentions to seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2014. McKinney officially announced his candidacy in late July, and Boughton followed suit in mid-August. The presumed front-runner — 2010 Republican nominee and former ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley — has not officially declared his candidacy yet, though he has verbalized his plans to do so.
The race, experts say, will likely serve as a referendum on the economic record of Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, who has seen a slow recovery from the economic recession under his tenure and an unemployment rate which, at 8.1 percent, hovers nearly a full percentage point above the national average. Malloy’s favorability ratings have stagnated in the 40s since the beginnings of his term, a number that has only briefly spiked in times of crisis.
“The economic conditions of the state put Malloy in a somewhat precarious situation,” said Gary Rose, a politics professor at Sacred Heart University and the author most recently of NO HOLDS BARRED : The 2012 Connecticut Senate Race. “The governor has quite a race ahead of him.”
Many voters have turned against Malloy after his economic policies — primarily an income tax hike Malloy urged the state to pass in 2011 — failed to turn around the state’s economy. Connecticut is currently ranked last in the nation for economic growth by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
“In 2010 Tom Foley and Mark Boughton campaigned on a message of using commonsense reforms to cut state spending, keep the tax burden low and attract job growth to our state,” Zak Sanders, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, said in an email. “In the past two years, Dan Malloy has done exactly the opposite.”
Ron Schurin, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said that Malloy’s economic policies have yet to bear fruit. According to Johnathan Harris, executive director of the state Democratic Party, Connecticut has added 50,000 private sector jobs under Malloy’s tenure — the fastest growth the state has seen since the late 90s. Earlier this month, State Comptroller Kevin Lembo also announced a budget surplus of $400 million for the fiscal year that ended in June.
Others antagonize Malloy for his adherence to the Democratic party line in promoting hot-button liberal issues such as education reform, gay marriage and the legalization of medical marijuana.
“There’s an element of his toughness that his admirers would point to,” Schurin said. “He’s compromised in terms of his education plan, but he definitely has a sense of where he wants to go.”
But Malloy’s latest major achievement, the passage of a gun control package that many say comprises the toughest set of firearm restrictions in the country, won bipartisan backing in the legislature — making it an issue that Republicans will likely be unable to use to their advantage, despite widespread conservative furor over the law. Sanders, the Republican party spokesman, did not mention McKinney — one of the architects of the legislation — as a Republican contender.
Despite his lackluster economic performance, many who follow the governor say that Malloy has performed best in state emergencies — leading the Connecticut through two hurricanes, a massive winter storm and, most notably, a school shooting in Newtown that left 20 children and six adults dead.
“Malloy did very well in the several crises he faced as governor — generally, he got high marks for that,” Schurin said. “He’s not a warm and fuzzy type, but in the crises, particularly after Newtown, he was reassuring — he gave an image of confidence.”
In a June Quinnipiac Poll of Connecticut voters, the latest poll to be conducted on the race, Foley led Malloy 43–40 percentage points, within the poll’s margin of error. But among independent voters, a key swing constituency, Foley led the sitting governor by 21 points.
But Rose said that, since 2010 — when Malloy won by a narrow margin of 6,000 votes — the state’s political climate has only grown more hospitable to Democratic candidates due to a burgeoning Latino population.
Rose added that McKinney is the most moderate of the candidates currently running for the Republican nomination, favoring conservative economic policies but endorsing many liberal social issues. If the Republicans put forward Foley or Boughton, he said, they will not easily be able to cast either as moderate.
“The context of the state itself is conducive to Malloy winning, even though the economy is an important issue in the minds of voters,” Rose said. “That’s not to say a Republican can’t win, but they really have their work cut out for them. In Connecticut, for a Republican to win, they need to really sound like a Democrat.”
Before Malloy took office in January 2011, Republicans had held the governor’s office for 24 years.