Connecticut's economy may not be doing so well these days, but it's not from lack of trying on Gov. Dan Malloy's part.
He's courted businesses from the biomedical research industry -- notching a big win when the Jackson Laboratory for Genetic Medicine announced a major expansion in Farmington -- to digital sports entertainment to advanced manufacturing. He's established a Small Business Express Program, tried to bolster economic development around Bradley International Airport near Hartford and has sought to jump-start a long dormant Steel Point project in Bridgeport. He's even been making investments in public transportation, including a Hartford-to-New Britain busway and new garages and stations along the Metro North train system.
And yet, according to our recent analysis of the 50 states, Connecticut ranks second-to-last in economic health, and Malloy, who faces a possible serious challenge from Republican Tom Foley, is no sure bet to win a second term, according to a series of interviews with political observers in Hartford.
"The economy's typically the No. 1 issue on people's minds," said Roy Occhiogrosso, who spent two years as senior adviser and chief strategist to Malloy. "The economy he inherited was in awful shape, and it's taken some time to begin to turn things around."
One of the challenges for Malloy is that many of the investments he's prioritized have been aimed at improving the state's long-term competitiveness. Longer timelines are not always helpful in producing gains on a four-year electoral cycle.
"Kudos to the governor for making tough choices," said George Gallo, the chief of staff of the state House Republican Caucus and a former state GOP chairman. "But it's too soon to tell whether the investments will pan out."
In fact, Malloy's aggressive agenda -- not just on business promotion but also on other issues, including gun control in the wake of the Newtown school shooting -- appears to have been overshadowed in voters' minds by the state's weak economy. His approval ratings have hovered in the mid-40s for months, notably worse than a generic Democrat should be doing if the economy were stable or improving.
Coming into office with an urgent deficit to fix, Malloy pushed for tax increases as well as cuts in services and public employee benefits. His strategy was to do these difficult things first, then "weather the negative stuff and have the economy turnaround," Gallo said. "Unfortunately, it has been bad timing on his end."
Malloy's hard-charging leadership style, which is vastly different from his low-key Republican predecessor, Jodi Rell, may have exacerbated his challenge, observers in Hartford say. In legislative and policy battles, some sense an arrogance and combativeness from the governor. Absent is a talent for schmoozing that would smooth the rough edges.
A striking gubernatorial contrast with Malloy is New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Both men have much in common. They were elected governors of northeastern Democratic states, and they each succeeded a governor of the opposite party. Both of their states have faced serious economic challenges, and both have a headstrong style as well as a desire to use their perch to accomplish things. Both have won praise for leading their states through upheavals -- Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, and the Newtown shootings in Connecticut.
Yet as Christie cruises to an almost frictionless re-election this year, Malloy is rated no better than a 50-50 bet to win a second term in 2014.
Observers in Hartford suggested a few theories to explain why the two governors have such different outlooks.
Perhaps it's because New Jersey voters are more comfortable with an outspoken, aggressive governor than Connecticut voters are. Or perhaps it's because it's easier for Christie, as a Republican, to isolate state employees. Malloy, by contrast, has to balance a need to cut back on the state budget with a need to keep key parts of his Democratic base on board, including state employees, teachers' unions and city leaders.
Still, despite a growing field of potentially strong GOP challengers, including Foley, the Republican he barely beat in 2010 who announced an exploratory committee on Sept. 10, and several respected members of the legislature, officials in Hartford made clear that Malloy should not be counted out.
"He's so hard working -- he's everywhere, with incredible amounts of energy," said Kevin Reynolds, legal counsel for the Connecticut Democratic Party.
Gallo agreed. "You are not going to outwork or out-campaign Gov. Malloy," he said. "Any Republican who runs against him will have to understand that they will be in for the race of their lives."
Whether Malloy's Energizer Bunny qualities can outweigh the weight of a struggling economy, however, remains very much up in the air.