Republican John McKinney, a veteran state lawmaker and a former congressman's son, declared his 2014 run for governor in a press release emailed to reporters at 7:33 Tuesday morning.
It was a low-profile way to announce a high-stakes gambit: McKinney's announcement puts him on a collision course with Tom Foley, a wealthy businessman and former ambassador who was the party's 2010 Republican nominee. Also contemplating a bid to unseat Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy: Danbury's popular Republican mayor, Mark Boughton.
"I'm in 100 percent," McKinney, the Republican leader in the state Senate, said in an interview between sit-downs with TV reporters in his hometown of Fairfield. "I expect to be on the ballot running against Dan Malloy in 2014. That is going to be my goal."
The race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination will probably be shaped by guns, the economy and name-recognition.
Some gun owners were sharply critical of McKinney's advocacy on behalf of stricter gun control laws in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, which is within his senatorial district.
On Tuesday, gun-rights groups were quick to reject McKinney's candidacy.
"Sen. McKinney was instrumental in implementing a historic gun control law with zero consideration for the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners," said Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League. "With his deliberate act of siding with gun control supporters, there will be no support from CCDL for his run."
McKinney, who has been touring the state in advance of his announcement, said he was aware that some gun owners are disenchanted with his vote. "You have to vote your conscience. It's up to the voters to decide if they want to elect you,'' he said.
And although McKinney has heard from some gun owners opposed to his vote, "overwhelmingly people are talking about the economy and how expensive it is to live in the state of Connecticut,'' he said.
McKinney, 49, is the son of former U.S. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney, who represented Connecticut's 4th District from 1971 until his death in 1987. The elder McKinney was the prototypical New England Republican: a pro-business environmentalist and an advocate for the homeless and mentally ill.
John McKinney attended Fairfield Prep, a prominent school in his hometown that is operated by the Jesuits, and played on the soccer team there with future House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey. He graduated from Yale University in 1986 and holds a law degree from the University of Connecticut, although he no longer practices and lists his job as full-time legislator.
McKinney was first elected to the state Senate in 1998; he became minority leader in 2007. He remains largely unknown outside of takhis district, which includes the towns of Easton and Weston in addition to Newtown and Fairfield.
During his time in the legislature, McKinney has advocated for better mass transit for Fairfield County commuters. He helped pass a bill that establishes mandatory minimum prison sentences for child sex offenders. And this year, he worked to win passage of what could become the first state law in the nation that requires labels on genetically modified foods.
A Quinnipiac University poll taken last month found that 75 percent of those surveyed hadn't heard enough about him to form an opinion. By contrast, just 46 percent hadn't heard enough about Foley to form an opinion. In this early stage in the 2014 election cycle, Malloy leads McKinney by 7 percentage points but trails Foley by 3 percentage points.
State Republican party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. praised McKinney. "Like his father before him, John has earned a reputation as a highly skilled lawmaker,'' Labriola said. "He understands complex legislation and how state government works."
But the chairman did not endorse a candidate and said his goal is averting a divisive primary. In 2010, Foley and Republican Michael Fedele waged a bitter and expensive battle for the party's nomination.
"I hope we can avoid the infighting we had in 2010,'' Labriola said. "The Republican vs. Republican [infighting] was very costly and ultimately hurt us in November."
Foley, who has yet to declare his formally candidacy, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. He spent more than $10 million of his own money before losing to Malloy in 2010 in Connecticut's closest gubernatorial election in more than 50 years — and has signaled that he intends to self-fund his 2014 bid, as well.
In contrast, McKinney has filed papers to participate in the state's public campaign financing program, a program thathe has argued in favor of cutting in the past, calling it unconstitutional.
"I do not believe taxpayers dollars should be used to pay for lawn signs and bumper stickers,'' McKinney said. "But that is the law we have.''
Democrats called McKinney "a nice guy" and noted his long record of public service. But that's where the praise ends.
"More often than not, as demonstrated by his legislative record, he has voted against the interests of Connecticut's middle class," said Jonathan Harris, executive director of the state Democratic Party, citing as examples McKinney's opposition to bills raising the minimum wage and mandating paid sick leave.
But McKinney's Republican colleagues praised his skills as a leader as well as his centrist approach to governing.
Sen. John Kissel, a Republican from Enfield who did not support the gun laws that McKinney championed, said that guns and other social issues would be important.
"I know some folks in north-central Connecticut disagree with him on some issues,'' said Kissel, who has yet to officially endorse a gubernatorial candidate and also spoke warmly of Foley. "Without a doubt, I think his stance will hobble him a little bit with those in the Republican base who feel strongly about Second Amendment issues."
But, Kissel added, McKinney "brings tremendous knowledge of how state government works … and overall his vision of where we should go as a state is good."
Courant staff writer Wes Duplantier contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, CT Now