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.