Can Obama Carry Dan Malloy across Connecticut's Finish Line?

A poor economy and tax increases in one of the wealthiest states have made the Democratic governor one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.
by | October 15, 2014

Four years ago, Dan Malloy beat Tom Foley by less than a full percentage point in the Connecticut governor's race. It looks like their rematch in November could end with a similar result.

Like Democrats across the country, Malloy is hoping to energize party supporters this fall. He's been running turnout operations for about a year and hopes an endorsement by President Barack Obama will bring out more votes. Obama was scheduled to visit Connecticut for a campaign rally Wednesday but canceled at the last minute to meet with officials to discuss the Ebola crisis. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned for Malloy in Hartford on Monday.

"There is a deficit in voter excitement in the Democratic camp," says Matt Hennessy, a Democratic consultant in the state. "Malloy is going to win if the Democratic voters in urban communities come out in force like they did for him last time."

But that's a big if. Malloy, despite being an incumbent Democrat in one of the bluest states, has been struggling all year in the polls. That's because Connecticut is a wealthy state, but its economic performance on his watch has been poor.

What's more, he's increased taxes substantially. A Gallup poll released in April found that 49 percent of Connecticut residents would move out of the state if they could -- the second highest percentage in the country (after Illinois).

"All of a sudden, we're in a situation where the state is at the bottom of every ranking," said GOP state Sen. Toni Boucher. "People in general are feeling so tax burdened to live here. When the Gallup poll said one out of two Connecticut residents would leave if they could do so, that's the report card."

All of that has given Republicans a big opening to recapture the governorship. Foley, thanks to name recognition from his previous run and a healthy campaign treasury, outlasted a big field of GOP hopefuls to get the nod.

But he hasn't seemed to find his footing in the general election. He hasn't offered much by way of a detailed platform -- except for the certain promise that he isn't Dan Malloy. "Foley has had four years to prepare for this run, but there's not much that's new there," said Ronald Schurin, a University of Connecticut political scientist.

Malloy has wasted no opportunity to try to define Foley, a former ambassador and businessman. Both sides have been negative, but Malloy has pummeled Foley, claiming he bankrupted a business and rides on a 116-foot yacht while not always paying his income taxes.

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy has cast his Republican opponent, Tom Foley, as a heartless businessman. (AP/Brad Horrigan)

Foley has sought to call out Malloy as a liar, but some of the charges, anyway, seem to have stuck. In recent polling, Foley's disapproval ratings have gone up. The more self-identified independent voters learn about Foley, the less they seem to like him, said Scott McLean, a political scientist at Quinnipiac University.

"The arithmetic for Foley gets challenging," McLean said. "It would appear that the independents are a lot less likely to flock to Foley in the homestretch as they did in 2010."

Aside from Foley's negatives, he's hurt by the presence on the ballot of Joe Visconti, an independent running to his right on fiscal issues and gun owners' rights. Visconti has the polling support of about 9 percent of voters and is even doing a little better among independents. "If most of those would have gone to Foley, this wouldn't even be a race," said Boucher, the state senator.

Malloy, by contrast, caught a break when liberal former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto was unable to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. He might have taken four or five percent of the vote away from Malloy, Schurin said.

Malloy has not only borrowed a page from Obama's playbook in seeking to cast his opponent as a heartless businessman, but is running largely on what might be described as the Obama agenda.

Connecticut was the first state to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 and passed new gun control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings -- two items on Obama's wish list that Congress barely considered. Connecticut also ran such a smooth healthcare exchange that Maryland borrowed its software.

By sticking to Democratic ideals and making his Republican challenger out to be a villain, Malloy is hoping the state's natural voting proclivities will afford him a second term, despite the struggles of his first.

"If Malloy can keep it neck and neck, he's going to win," said Hennessy, the Democratic consultant. "At the end of the day, there are more Democratic voters. The dynamics of the state allow a 1 point race to go to the incumbent Democrat."