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Connecticut governor's race: Why independent voters could defeat Democrat Dannel Malloy

2014 is looking a lot like 2010.

In November, Thomas Foley, a businessman and former ambassador to Ireland, will take on Connecticut Democrat Governor Dannel Malloy in a re-match of the 2010 battle for governor that Foley lost by about 6,500 votes.

Foley had an easy time in his Republican primary last week, defeating State Senate minority leader John McKinney by over ten points. But taking on the sitting governor will be a difficult task.

As I’ve discussed in previous pieces on this summer’s primaries, we are in – and have been in – for some major upsets. Chief evidence of this remains Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat as well as Hawaii Democrat Governor Neil Abercrombie’s loss just last week.

There are 700,000 registered Democrats in Connecticut, 400,000 Republicans and 800,000 unaffiliated voters.

Real Clear Politics lists the Connecticut race as a toss-up. A CBS News/NY Times/YouGov poll from July giving Foley a 7-point edge over Malloy, which is in all likelihood a bit of an exaggeration. This is a race that begins effectively deadlocked.

Change is in the air and Foley is trying to use it to his advantage.

“Change is on the way; change is coming to Connecticut,” Foley said, addressing supporters. “Dan Malloy has had his chance, and change is coming.”

“I’m a businessperson,” Foley continued, after citing some problems in the state such as high taxes, poorly maintained bridges and underperforming schools. “I know how to fix these problems. I’ve been doing them for 35 years and will represent everyday citizens, not insiders, not special interests.”

This theme of representing the average citizen and not special interests has been echoed across the nation.

Recent polling shows that eighty-six percent of all voters believe political leaders are more interested in protecting their power than in doing what’s right for the American people. Eighty-three percent believe the country is run by an alliance of incumbent politicians, media pundits, lobbyists, and other interests for their own gain.

As a pollster for over 35 years, I can assure you that numbers like these have meaning and smart candidates will heed them. It follows that Foley’s approach is one that should resonate with voters.

That said, there are two crucial issues to focus on in the Connecticut governor race as we head towards November.

The first is linked to Foley’s call for change and the make-up of the electorate in Connecticut. There are 700,000 registered Democrats in Connecticut, 400,000 Republicans and 800,000 unaffiliated voters.

As in many other states across the nation, those unaffiliated voters could very well decide the election. And the type of language and rhetoric Foley has used thus far in his primary campaign is just the sort that appeals to independent voters. They are unaffiliated because they feel that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are speaking to their concerns.

Moreover, the candidate who can show them that they care about the needs of ordinary Connecticutians will certainly have a leg up.

The second issue to consider is the role that the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy and Hurricane Sandy disaster could play in the race. Governor Malloy has already begun his campaign by airing an ad featuring a Newtown mom who says, “Governor Malloy has the courage and conviction to stand up and do the right thing."

Malloy is also using his handling of Hurricane Sandy as evidence of his accomplishments during his first term.

To be sure, the speed at which gun control legislation passed the Connecticut legislature is a feat to be commended. I myself have been working tirelessly these past few years to get similar legislation passed across the country.

But using the Sandy Hook tragedy in the campaign runs the risk of opening Malloy up to attacks that he is politicizing the tragedy, which certainly has the potential to rub voters the wrong way.

As in all elections, it will be a delicate tightrope to walk for the incumbent governor as well as his challenger who will – and already has – argued that the gun control legislation is overreaching.

We are still months out from the election and surely new issues will come up that could affect the race. For now, though, these are two to pay attention to as we watch this 2010 re-match play out.

Douglas E. Schoen has served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton. He has more than 30 years experience as a pollster and political consultant. He is also a Fox News contributor and co-host of "Fox News Insiders" Sundays on Fox News Channel and Mondays at 10:30 am ET on FoxNews.com Live. He is the author of 11 books. His latest, co-authored with Malik Kaylan is "The Russia-China Axis: The New Cold War and America’s Crisis of Leadership (Encounter Books, September 2014). Follow Doug on Twitter @DouglasESchoen.