John McKinney

State Sen. John McKinney is seen at his new campaign headquarters in late July. (Stan Godlewski / Special to the Courant / July 23, 2014)

After the Newtown massacre of Dec. 14, 2012, the state's Democratic governor and legislative leaders began work on a major gun safety bill. Republican state Sen. John McKinney, whose district includes Newtown, had to make a decision. He could oppose the bill and play to a part of the GOP base, or he could engage the process and try to influence the drafting of the law.

He chose the latter and voted for the bill. The decision earned him an F rating from the National Rifle Association. It is, however, one of the reasons The Courant endorses him in the Aug. 12 gubernatorial primary against Tom Foley.

If a Republican is elected in November, he will have to work with a General Assembly dominated, almost certainly, by Democrats. It will help a great deal if the candidate knows how the place works, and has the trust of the people he is working with. That is Mr. McKinney.

Why Mr. McKinney?

Mr. McKinney, 50, of Fairfield, has been in the state Senate for 15 years, the last seven as the upper chamber's minority leader. He is, make no mistake, a Republican. He voted against paid sick leave, against increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, against abolishing the death penalty and against legalizing medical marijuana. He has been a relentless critic of the economic policies of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

But Mr. McKinney is a Connecticut conservative, not a nihilist. He has a strong environmental record, supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, and understands that government services have to be paid for.

He voted for the transportation bills that authorized new rail cars and rail and highway improvements. This left him open to the charge that he voted to increase taxes. But the taxes went for goods and services the state desperately needed. That's what conscientious lawmakers do.

Why Not Mr. Foley?

Mr. McKinney's opponent is a Greenwich business executive, a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland and the front-runner. Tom Foley has the party's endorsement and nearly defeated Mr. Malloy in 2010. He promises to use his business acumen to streamline state government and improve Connecticut's dismal business climate.

But Mr. Foley is often light on details in his proposals. He says he will hold the line on state spending with no layoffs in the next two years — but without many specifics of how he'll do that. There's a projected deficit of nearly $1.4 billion next year. It's hard to see how he can accomplish this.

Mr. McKinney, in contrast, has promised spending cuts. He would try to reopen state employee pension and health care contracts, in place till 2022, for more concessions; Mr. Foley would not.

That said, it's also hard to see how Mr. McKinney can promise to eliminate the income tax for the middle class in fiscal 2017.

Granted, neither campaign's website is loquacious on policy, but Mr. McKinney's 1,060-word explanation of his tax plan beats Mr. Foley's 57 words on the economy.

Both candidates have crossed lines. The Courant has chastised Mr. McKinney's campaign for altering an audiotape for a TV ad that misstated Mr. Foley's budget position. But Mr. Foley has made a disquieting number of distortions. He once asserted, for example, that Daniel C. Esty, then a Yale professor, gave Mr. Malloy a no-show consulting job during the 2010 campaign and got a commissioner's job in return. It was not true. Mr. Foley said he brought up "the rumor" to show what peoples' perceptions of ethics in government were.

Mr. Foley makes much of the fact that he "is not a career politician." But having political skills will be critical to getting the state out of its economic malaise. In that, Mr. McKinney has the edge.