John McKinney

John McKinney and his fiancee, Kristen Fox, at the opening of the McKinney-Walker campaign headquarters on Post Road in Fairfield. (Stan Godlewski / Special to the Courant / July 23, 2014)

SOUTHINGTON — After the barbecue chicken was served and before the country and western band started playing, John McKinney squeezed himself on to a picnic bench under a wooden pavilion and began making small talk with Republican voters.

Then the topic turned to guns, as it often does when McKinney, a state senator and Republican candidate for governor, ventures out on the campaign trail.

"You know what I didn't quite get? Whether you were or not in favor of gun control," asked a woman seated next to him at the Southington Republican Town Committee's annual summer barbecue.

"I voted for the gun bill," McKinney responded, launching into his stock answer: that he represents Newtown and felt an enormous responsibility to the victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings. As he spoke, a green rubber wristband, a tribute to those victims, peeked out from the cuff of his striped shirt.

The woman wasn't persuaded. "I want to be able to defend myself,'' she said. "I'm just so tired of government in my face all the time."

McKinney, who is competing against Tom Foley in the Aug. 12 Republican primary, has made fixing the state's economy the centerpiece of his campaign. But the gun question shadows him everywhere.

"He supported the gun thing and that bothers me,'' said Brian Callahan, the Republican chairman in Southington. Though he hasn't fired a gun since leaving the military in 1962, Callahan got his pistol permit last year.

"I'm for the Second Amendment,'' he said, "and I think everyone should have the right to carry a gun.''

Gun control has become a wedge issue for some Republicans who view McKinney's support of tougher gun laws in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings as a profound violation of a core principle.

"He took a position on gun control and look where his candidacy is: He hasn't done very well, to put it mildly,'' said Gary Rose, chairman of the department of government and politics at Sacred Heart University.

McKinney's role as a defier of Republican orthodoxy evokes an earlier era. His father, former U.S. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney, was just a few months into his first term when he tangled with President Nixon over a proposal to offer amnesty for Vietnam-era draft resisters in 1972.

A decade later, the elder McKinney bucked President Reagan, a man he admired, over a defense authorization bill. And throughout his career, Stewart McKinney spoke out for the homeless, the poor and those who rely on the social safety net, causes that are not generally at the top of the Republican agenda.

"Those were not easy positions to take,'' John McKinney recalled. In his father, he saw "someone who was unafraid to do what he thought was right.''

McKinney's mother, Lucie Cunningham McKinney, also provided a lesson in political courage. After Stewart McKinney died of AIDS in 1987, Lucie McKinney decided not to hide the cause of her husband's death from public view.

"She knew the scrutiny that would come with that and the attacks on him that would come with that,'' McKinney said of his mother, who died in May. "She showed a strength that I had never seen before."

The Grown-Up In The Room

There's a certain wistfulness to McKinney's gubernatorial quest. At age 50, with 16 years in the state Senate, including eight as the chamber's Republican leader, he is the consummate political insider in an era that prizes outsiders.

Yet McKinney, the Yale-educated son of a congressman, finds himself largely shunted aside by Connecticut's Republican establishment. The party endorsed Foley, another well-off, politically connected, Ivy League graduate from Fairfield County, at its convention in May.

McKinney has not run away from his insider status; in fact, he has embraced it. He is selling himself to voters as the grown-up in the room, someone with an understanding of the complexities of the state budget and a willingness to make the tough choices needed to help Connecticut prosper.

"I have a unique understanding of our problems, and I have a plan to fix those problems,'' McKinney said.