Few places have embraced President Obama — and his policies — with as much gusto as Connecticut.
The state recently became the first to raise the minimum wage to Obama’s preferred rate of $10.10 an hour. The state also toughened already strict gun laws following the Newtown school shooting, something the president was unable to persuade Congress to do.
Connecticut’s health insurance exchange has been running so smoothly that Maryland decided last month to dump its troubled system and borrow Connecticut’s software.
Dannel Malloy, the state’s Democratic governor, is touting all these initiatives in his re-election bid this year. Sometimes, in fact, he seems to be channeling Obama himself.
“We should not turn back over the keys to the people who ran us into the ditch to begin with,” Malloy said at a recent campaign stop in Stamford.
That’s a reference to the large budget deficit Malloy inherited from his Republican predecessor — an exact copy of rhetoric Obama himself employed in his 2012 campaign.
It was also an acknowledgement of Malloy’s biggest weakness: Connecticut is a wealthy state, but its economy has underperformed on his watch, even by the recent tepid standards of the nation as a whole.
That fact has left Malloy highly vulnerable, even as a Democratic incumbent in a blue state.
“Voters are locked in,” says Matthew Hennessy, a Democratic consultant in the state who is not working for Malloy. “About half don’t approve of the job he’s doing and about half do. He’s never gotten above a 50 percent job approval rating.”
A Struggling Economy
Malloy can claim to have tamed a budget deficit of $3.6 billion, but to do it he had to raise taxes substantially, early in his term. A recent Gallup poll found that 76 percent of Connecticut residents believe their taxes are too high — which rates among the highest percentages in the country.
A fresh Brookings Institution ranking of economic performance of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas in the period since the recession found Greater Hartford and Fairfield County each in the bottom five.
“Statistics show we have one of the worst-performing economies in the country, no matter what the governor says,” complains Toni Boucher, a Republican state senator who explored a race for governor. “We’re the only state that has negative GDP. We have not recovered half the jobs we have lost.”
No surprise, then, that polls show Malloy drawing less than 50 percent support against any likely GOP opponent.
Whom Will GOP Pick?
But whom will Republicans nominate? They haven’t decided.
“The governor’s vulnerable, but you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” says Pauline Kezer, a former GOP secretary of the state.
On Friday, five Republican candidates gathered for their first televised debate. Tom Foley, a businessman and former ambassador whom Malloy beat by a whisker in 2010, was notable by his absence.
Foley is the favorite this year, but hasn’t enamored himself to party faithful by complaining of corruption in the Republican ranks as well as among Democrats. It’s possible he could lose the nomination, but it’s not at all clear yet who else in the large field will emerge as the most likely alternative.
That field includes state Senate GOP leader John McKinney, who is running as a relative moderate — he’s the only Republican who backs the state’s gun law. There’s also Danbury Mayor Mark Bouton, and several more conservative candidates, including attorney Martha Dean.
Each has regional or ideological bases of support, but none has the money to match Foley.
Another Obama Replay
Democrats stand ready to depict Foley as an aloof millionaire who doesn’t understand the problems of most voters.They note that all of the Republican candidates oppose the recent minimum wage increase, which polls suggest is highly popular in the state.
“There’s a clear pattern on the Republican side,” says James Hallinan, Malloy’s campaign spokesman. “The Republican field has a lot to do to connect on the issues that impact working families in Connecticut.”
If Malloy hopes to borrow a page from Obama’s playbook by castigating his wealthy opponent’s worldview, his fortunes may ultimately rest on mimicking yet one more Obama trick — namely, turning out every available supporter in a year when Democratic enthusiasm is not running especially high.
“This time, it’s still a question mark whether the Democrats are going to get fired up for this guy,” says Scott McLean, a political scientist at Quinnipiac University. “It’s going to take organization on the ground just to squeeze the votes out of those highly Democratic areas in a slow turnout election.”
Malloy is preparing to do just that. A disciplined organizational effort along with the state’s generally Democratic voting habits are what the governor is counting on to eke out a win.
“Even they realize that this is going to be a very close race,” Hennessy, the Democratic operative, says of the Malloy campaign. “They’ve made peace with the fact that they’re not going to win by 10 points.”