Greenwich business executive Tom Foley roared to victory Tuesday night in a low-turnout Republican gubernatorial primary, setting up a potentially contentious rematch with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy this fall that polls show will start off as a dead heat.
Foley and Malloy clashed sharply four years ago in debates and television commercials, and this year's battle could be especially heated as Malloy tries to win his second term as Connecticut's leader.
"Change is on the way,'' Foley said in his victory speech about 10 p.m. Tuesday. "Change is coming to Connecticut. … Dan Malloy has had his chance.''
Foley defeated Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield by a margin of about 57 percent to 43 percent, according to unofficial results. The primary race started politely in May after a gentleman's agreement between the campaigns but turned particularly harsh by August.
Foley's running mate for lieutenant governor in the fall remained unclear Tuesday night. David Walker of Bridgeport, in a three-way race with Rep. Penny Bacchiochi and former Groton Mayor Heather Somers, said the results might not be known until Wednesday.
Foley could be in a lively four-way race this fall if liberal Democrat Jonathan Pelto and conservative Republican Joseph Visconti can gain spots on the November ballot. Pelto and Visconti have submitted more than 7,500 signatures each, but those signatures might not be validated by election officials for 10 days or two weeks.
In his victory speech, Foley focused much of his attention on Malloy, saying that many citizens believe that "Connecticut's future is at stake'' in the November election. He said that the state would "either have four more years of Dan Malloy's damaging policies'' or "head in a different direction.''
Portraying himself as an outsider, Foley said he would change policies at the state Capitol in Hartford because "I'm not part of the problem.''
Repeatedly touting his 35 years of business experience during the campaign, Foley has noted that he has never held elective office — although he held two appointed positions under President George W. Bush, as director of private sector development in Iraq and as U.S. ambassador to Ireland.
Within minutes of Foley's declaring victory, the battle was joined as the Malloy campaign, the state Democratic chairwoman and the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association all weighed in.
"With extraordinarily low turnout, today Republicans showed their lack of enthusiasm for the candidates running,'' said state Democratic Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo. "For the few Republicans who did show up, they selected Tom Foley, who has run a campaign avoiding the tough questions and totally devoid of specifics and details. Elections are about the future — and in November, voters will have a very clear choice. We can keep moving forward, or we can roll back the clock."
Earlier, McKinney called Foley and then stepped to the podium for his concession speech about 9:40 p.m.
"At the end of the day, Tom Foley ran a better race,'' McKinney said in his speech, adding that his was "the best campaign in my life.''
McKinney added, "Gov. Malloy has insulted every single public school teacher in the state of Connecticut. … Dan Malloy is the wrong governor for the state of Connecticut. … Let's elect Tom Foley as governor of the state of Connecticut.''
Shortly after the polls closed, Foley's supporters announced that he had won victories in multiple communities, including Stamford, Stonington and his hometown of Greenwich. The wins in Greenwich and Stamford were especially important because they are traditionally the two largest communities with the most Republican votes statewide.
McKinney won in his hometown of Fairfield, along with the nearby towns of Newtown, Trumbull, Stratford and Westport, according to the campaign.
Including absentee ballots, McKinney won Fairfield, 1,923 to 588, according to the campaign. He won Newtown, 520-322. McKinney's strength came in Fairfield County, centered on his hometown and his five-town Senate district.
But Foley won in Waterbury, Danbury, New Canaan, Oxford, Hebron, Hampton and Westbrook, among numerous other communities.
Some of McKinney's supporters were not quick to concede. After the race was called for Foley by some news outlets, the Republican vice chairman in the 4th Congressional District, Jeffrey Wright, told The Courant : "I think it's way too early to make that kind of determination. I think this will tighten and be a 2 [percent] to 3 percent result."
But Wright, a McKinney supporter, added that he was ready to back Foley.
"Should this carry out as it looks so far, I know I and every Republican will do everything we can to get the nominee elected,'' said Wright, who lives in McKinney's congressional district.
Dead Heat With Malloy
Foley's rematch against Malloy will be a contentious race that polls already show will start off in a virtual tie.
A television commercial that McKinney released in the primary campaign's final days of Foley's appearance outside a Sprague business that is closing in September could be a preview of Democratic attacks against the Republican nominee. The McKinney commercial was similar to a 2010 ad in which former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele attacked Foley about problems at the Bibb Company — an issue that spilled over into the general election, which Foley lost to Malloy four years ago.
Less than three hours before the polls closed, Foley said, "We feel very confident that we're going to win by a comfortable margin.''
Compared with the 2010 primary, Foley said, "It's much lower turnout, but remember there was a Senate race last time that was very high-profile, and the Democrats had a primary that time. … So it's many fewer people."
Despite winning the state Republican convention and maintaining a lead in the polls throughout the race, Foley said he has "stayed neutral" in the lieutenant governor's race and would be "happy to run with any of them."
His contact with all of them, he said, had been about equal. When asked to predict that race, he said, "Dave Walker had a lot more money to spend and got more TV exposure, so I think his name ID is higher than the others, but he's not the endorsed candidate, and that top line position is worth a lot in a race where the candidates aren't that well known."
Before the polls closed Tuesday, McKinney said that he had seen a surge in the past seven to 10 days and that his campaign had caught fire with voters, but that he would campaign for Foley if he won.
"We've done everything we've wanted to do,'' McKinney said Tuesday before the polls closed. "We're happy with it.''
McKinney got an early boost by winning at his home polling place — the Fairfield senior center — with about 78 percent of the vote, according to his campaign. But that was only one of hundreds of polling places throughout the state in all 169 cities and towns.
Soon after McKinney conceded, Democrats already were gearing up for the fall campaign.
Mark Bergman, the Malloy campaign's senior adviser, said, "Elections are about choices, and the choice facing the people of Connecticut couldn't be more clear: Do we want to continue the progress that's been made over the past three and a half years, or hire someone who will stop this progress dead in its tracks, make a sharp U-turn, and take us right back to the failed policies that drove us into the ditch Dan Malloy and Nancy Wyman have been digging us out of?''
Guns: A Key Issue
One of the factors in Tuesday's primary was the passion of voters on guns — both for and against. Leaders in the pro-gun movement said that Malloy's signing of a gun-control bill after the tragedy of 28 shootings in the Sandy Hook section of Newtown in December 2012 had raised the profile of the gun issue far more than in recent years.
Bob Crook, the chief Capitol lobbyist for the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said the gun issue had far greater impact during the Republican primary than it would have in the general election because of the smaller turnout. The group was strongly against McKinney, who earned an F rating from the National Rifle Association for voting in favor of the bill that Malloy signed.
"I talked to McKinney at least a dozen times when this bill was coming up,'' Crook said before the primary. "When McKinney first came on board, he was rated A by us, and I think his last rating was a C plus. I understand that part of his district is Newtown, and he was under an awful lot of pressure. My guys don't understand it. McKinney did what he thought he had to do, and now he's going to have to pay the price. That's the way politics works.''
But the gun issue cut both ways on primary day.
In Simsbury, retired florist Robert R. Duguay Jr. said he voted for McKinney because of his stance on guns, which differs sharply from Foley and all three Republican candidates for lieutenant governor.
"McKinney is the only one for gun control,'' Duguay told The Courant. "They say the real problem is mental illness, and they're going to solve it. It's a bottomless pit. Our national party has sold their soul to the NRA.''
As Duguay was speaking in the parking lot outside the Latimer Lane School in Simsbury's Weatogue section, the sounds of gunfire could clearly be heard from the state police gun range across the Farmington River on Nod Road.
"A little bit ironic,'' Duguay said as multiple shots could be heard on the calm day.
Name Recognition And Ballot Position
One advantage that Foley had over McKinney was statewide name recognition gained from running against Malloy in 2010. Foley spent more than $10 million of his own money on the 2010 race, and that total has helped boost his name recognition. Since then, Foley has helped various candidates throughout the state.
Former Rep. Christopher Coutu, who served in the legislature for four years and received Foley's help in a race that he lost for state Senate in 2012, said that Foley's experience translated into Republican votes.
Foley has visited eastern Connecticut "a lot over the last four or five years,'' Coutu said. "He was always in contact with us. It's Tom who calls you. It's not an aide. That one-on-one contact lets you know he cares.''
Foley agreed that campaigning statewide for the third time — including two primaries — was helpful. McKinney, by contrast, had never run in a statewide race or won a vote outside of his Senate district, which covers his hometown of Fairfield and four nearby towns.
"All around the state, people have known me since 2010,'' Foley said in an interview before the vote. "That message has not changed. It's that we need to reduce spending. We need to provide tax relief, and we need to become more business-friendly and restore jobs. We need to get the state headed back on a track with smarter policies and new, more thoughtful leadership than what we have under Gov. Malloy."Copyright © 2015, CT Now