LEBANON — As in the best of horse races, the Republican candidates for governor raced to the wire Sunday as they greeted as many voters as possible in the final hours before Tuesday's primary.
Both Greenwich business executive Tom Foley and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney chatted with voters at the Lebanon Country Fair, now in its 55th year and one of the most popular fairs in eastern Connecticut. They greeted farmers and fairgoers who spent a sunny summer Sunday afternoon eating kettle popcorn, hotdogs, ice cream and lemonade.
While McKinney believes he is closing fast, Foley said his team intends to make 50,000 telephone calls to likely primary voters between Friday and Tuesday's voting in a huge effort to get out the vote.
The day began for the candidates at 8 a.m. on live television in the campaign's final debate, which featured sharp exchanges on taxes and jobs.
Foley, who lost in 2010 to Democrat Dannel P. Malloy in the closest gubernatorial race in Connecticut in more than 50 years, sought to portray himself as a can-do leader who has the experience to shake up Hartford. McKinney, the Republican leader in the state Senate, emphasized his skills as a veteran lawmaker who understands the complexities of the state budget and has the political courage to make tough choices.
While the candidates were asked about everything from marijuana policy (both oppose legalizing the drug) to the Common Core educational curriculum (both were critical), fiscal issues dominated the hour-long forum, which was hosted by WTNH-TV and broadcast statewide on Channel 8.
With just two days of campaigning before Tuesday's primary, Foley, the party-endorsed candidate, continued to strike the cautious tone that has guided him since he formally entered the race earlier this year. McKinney, the underdog, was more aggressive, repeatedly challenging Foley for what he said was a pervasive fuzziness and lack of detail.
"You don't want to answer a single question,'' an exasperated McKinney said at one point.
Differences On Tax Policy
Both candidates have been highly critical of the fiscal stewardship provided by Malloy, the governor they are vying to tangle with in November. While McKinney and Foley share a core belief that government should be more efficient and taxes need to be cut, they differ in the details.
Foley is proposing a cut in the state's 6.35 percent sales tax, which he said would help all taxpayers, particularly those on the lower income rungs, who would be more likely to plow those savings back into the economy. "That puts money in everybody's pocket,'' he said.
Foley said his experience in the private sector has made him an expert in helping organizations become more efficient. "For 35 years, I've been running large organizations,'' he said. "I actually have experience doing this. John has no experience ... running a large organization."
McKinney has put forth a two-year budget plan that, following a year of spending cuts, would eliminate the income tax for residents who earn less than $75,000 a year. The initiative would cost $746 million and eliminate income tax liability for an estimated 1 million filers, McKinney said. He also proposes cutting spending by $1.4 billion in the 2016 fiscal year.
"We've detailed how we would reduce spending levels,'' McKinney said. "We've put the numbers out there. and we've been criticized for it because quite frankly, there are very tough decisions you have to make.
"But,'' McKinney added, "I know that because I've actually built state budgets, line by line, department by department, agency by agency, I know how to do that ... It's one of the reasons why I'm the better candidate to run for governor."
McKinney repeatedly touted his 16 years in the legislature as a plus. He compared his experience to that of other nationally known Republican governors, including John Kasich of Ohio, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. "Their backgrounds? Like mine, Tom — legislative experience, working in government,'' McKinney said. "None of them had the background you have. The best Republican governors in the country didn't manage anything like you say. Their experience is like mine."
But McKinney's record provided fodder for Foley, who combed through 16 years of votes and found much to criticize. "You have repeatedly voted for tax increases,'' Foley said. "You have repeatedly voted for budgets that have resulted in very significant increases in spending, so you've had some kind of epiphany here in the last three weeks and all of a sudden you're a fiscal conservative.
"I'm glad you've finally come on board and seen the light,'' Foley added. "Your voting record certainly doesn't support what you're talking about.''
At that, McKinney pulled out a thick stack of papers from a binder. "Here's every budget I've voted on in 16 years,'' he said.
"Every one of them has a spending increase,'' Foley retorted, setting the stage for the sharpest exchange of the morning.
McKinney challenged his rival to list the tax increases he voted for.
Foley cited the gross receipts tax on petroleum products and an increase in the cigarette tax.
"I've had 10 budget votes over 16 years that increased taxes, and I voted against all of them but one,'' McKinney said. "I've had five budget votes that actually cut taxes, and I voted to cut taxes hundreds of millions of dollars, so lets talk about ... the cigarette tax increase."
That vote, in 2007, also included funding for the state's film tax credit program, which McKinney said has been a major success.
"Blue Sky [Studios] has brought in hundreds of jobs because of that film tax credit,'' he said. "ESPN, NBC Sports, digital film production has blossomed over the state of Connecticut because of that film tax credit. Are you telling me you would vote against a film tax credit because you wouldn't want to increase the cost of cigarettes?"
Foley did not retreat. "You're talking like a career politician ... You raised taxes."
McKinney: "It's called leadership.''
Foley: "You call raising taxes leadership?"
The candidates also sparred over gun control. McKinney, whose state Senate district includes Newtown, was a key supporter of new restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines passed in response to the Sandy Hook school shootings — a stance he has taken considerable heat for from some members of his party.
"A lot of times people in politics stand on the sidelines and criticize what we do rather than roll up their sleeves and try to work on things," McKinney said. "I've never been the type that wants to sit on the sidelines. ... I rolled up my sleeves, I got into the room with an overwhelming majority of Democrats and the governor, who quite frankly wanted to go quite further than where they did."
Foley said the post-Newtown legislation would have looked a lot different under his leadership. "I said at the time the governor should focus on only the policy changes that would prevent another Newtown from happening," he said. "You went way beyond that. In some respects, Senator McKinney actually advocated for restrictions that the governor wasn't advocating. This was an over-reaching bill."
McKinney disagreed that his proposals went further than those put forth by Malloy. He also charged that, on the gun issue as on so many issues, Foley is refusing to take a stance. "You still won't say whether or not you would support a ban on assault weapons ... or large-capacity magazines," McKinney said. "I know we may disagree and I respect those disagreements, but I think you need to be specific about the answers."
Afterward, both men said they were pleased with their performance. They are each trying to reach a fairly small universe of Republican voters who will turn out on Tuesday to choose the party's nominee against Malloy.
"I've had a very consistent message since 2010,'' Foley said. "We feel very comfortable about the outcome on Tuesday. We don't take anything for granted — every election's important ... We're working hard and ... we're confident we'll prevail."
McKinney said he believes his campaign has momentum: "I feel great ... In the last seven to 10 days ... we've hit our stride. Obviously our hope is that our efforts and our turnout operation will be enough to bring our votes out."
After the debate, McKinney headed southeast toward the Rhode Island border and stopped in the waterfront town of Stonington, an area which he has targeted in recent weeks. There, at a parade celebrating the bicentennial of the Battle of Stonington, McKinney ran into the man he hopes to face in November, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
As they shook hands, the two shared just a few words. Though he is thought to be an underdog in Tuesday's primary, McKinney exuded confidence.
"We'll be seeing a lot more of each other," McKinney predicted to Malloy, who paused before responding.
"Best to the family," the governor told his Republican rival.
At the parade, McKinney was among some of the state's top Democrats. Marching with Malloy was U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who declined to make a prediction about Tuesday's race.
"I don't vote in that one," Blumenthal joked.
Malloy, who said he was in church during the debate and hadn't yet seen it, also demurred when asked about the race.
"Somebody will win," he said with a laugh.
As the parade came to halt on the town's sprawling green, Malloy took the microphone for the governor's ceremonial address. But he picked McKinney out of the crowd.
"We've got a lot of people here, including a state senator, John McKinney, who has got some signs," Malloy said, as McKinney's volunteers cheered and waved "McKinney For Governor'' placards.
"I'm doing that in the spirit of putting things behind us," Malloy said with a laugh. "If the Americans and the British can do it, then Republicans and Democrats can do it for a day."
Campaigning In Lebanon
Both Foley and McKinney headed to Lebanon Sunday afternoon, a pro-gun community in rural eastern Connecticut where a bumper sticker on the back of a truck read that citizens could "take a bite out of crime'' by shooting criminals.
"This is not Malloy country,'' said T. Allan Palmer, a mustachioed, cowboy-hat wearing Republican who escorted Foley around the fair. "You start with the First Amendment, then you go to the Second Amendment, then raising taxes and spending money. … Businesses are moving out. Education mandates are hurting us.''
Foley was stopped at the fair by Wayne Budney, president of the New London County Farm Bureau, who asked Foley to help the farmers.
"Don't take it personally, but everything in this neck of the woods is agriculture, agriculture, agriculture,'' Budney told Foley before the two shook hands.
Foley and McKinney also each took a turn at trying to win the support of Ann Sheedy of Lebanon, who is a registered Republican. Foley went first, and spoke to Sheedy for about 10 minutes. After the conversation, Sheedy told The Courant that she talked with Foley about a range of issues, including his plan for improving the state's business climate.
"He said he was going to cut taxes, and I had to ask him how," Sheedy said. She said that Foley replied that he would cut fees such as the business entity tax, which he has said sends a bad signal to small businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
But the issue closest to Sheedy, she said, is the Second Amendment. Sheedy said that her personal views are closer to Foley's, but she added that she still isn't sure she'll support him.
"For me, it'll be the Second Amendment,'' she said. "It's a huge issue because it's such a constitutional thing. That's the big issue, but I'm still not crazy about Tom Foley."
Thirty minutes later, McKinney tried his pitch on Sheedy, who took the Fairfield-Westport-Newtown state senator to task on the gun legislation he supported. Though she said she disagrees with McKinney's vote on that bill and feels burdened by the new law, Sheedy said she understood McKinney's choice.
"He did say he represents Newtown, and that changes the situation," Sheedy told The Courant. "He was there that day."
Despite spending more than 30 minutes of one-on-one time with Foley and McKinney, Sheedy, like many Republicans, remains undecided. She said she expects to mull the decision over the next day and a half. She did not rule out making her final choice in the demanding silence of the polling place on Tuesday.
Polls are open for Connecticut's Democratic and Republican primaries Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The deadline for new voters and unaffiliated voters who want to vote Tuesday to enroll with a major party in person at town offices is Monday at noon. It is too late for someone enrolled in one major party to switch to another party to vote in that party's primary. To locate your polling place, go to courant.com/pollingplaces. For further details on voting, go to http://www.sots.ct.gov/vote.