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Rallying behind Foley may be GOP's best option

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published March 09. 2014 4:00AM

Last week's Quinnipiac University poll showing Tom Foley locked in a 42-42 percent tie with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy should bolster the Republican's argument that the party would be better off backing his rematch with the governor, rather than risk damaging the brand via a primary fight for the nomination.

The poll indicates Foley has maintained his ground since his November 2010 defeat. Recall that Malloy won that race by only 6,404 votes out of more than 1,146,000 cast. Foley can certainly make a strong argument that having come so close, and having remained a strong challenger more than three years into Malloy's term, he deserves a second crack at the Democrat.

Most disappointed with the poll result had to be Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield, who was the party candidate choice of just 3 percent of Republicans surveyed, compared with Foley's 36 percent. That's a pathetic showing for the top elected Republican in the state. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who obtained name recognition as Foley's running mate in 2010 and has remained visible in meetings with Republican town committees across the state, received 11 percent.

The last thing Republicans need if they want to regain the governor's chair is a bruising primary. Everyone always starts with promises to play fair, and then the advisors get to work and spell it out for the candidates - go on the attack or lose.

Some in the Foley camp remain angry with former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele for The Bibb Co. attack ads in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary. The TV ad cast Foley as a cold-hearted business owner who bled the Georgia textile mill dry before letting it expire. Foley noted he was no longer with the company by the time it went under. And the fact is very few textile mills survived the outsourcing of jobs to lower-wage markets overseas.

The advertisement was damaging, the message later taken up by Democrats in attacking Foley. It could have well spelled the difference in the close 2010 election.

Looking more closely at the recent poll, Foley, if he gains the nomination, should see an opportunity to peel off younger voters, ages 18-29. The poll shows them backing Malloy over Foley by 51 percent to 29 percent, the only age group where the incumbent leads. My guess is that the support is soft. Many young people are struggling to find work, and many of the jobs they do land don't pay the bills.

Foley can make the argument that they are not being served well by a Malloy administration, but he will need a message that resonates with them. So far, he doesn't have one. Foley doesn't exactly exude the type of charisma that can get the attention of young people who are borderline voters.

This time Foley is talking more about the cities, pledging to reduce property taxes and implement an "urban policy agenda." A policy institute Foley founded proposed Friday to tie tax breaks to job creation initiatives in cities while providing workforce training. Foley also says he would work on crime reduction with mayors. In 2010, Foley got killed in the cities. He only needs to pick up a small percentage of the urban vote to have a different result in 2014.

However, Malloy is a great politician. By a 60 percent to 35 percent margin, voters told the pollsters he has strong leadership qualities. By 59 percent to 33 percent, they see him as "honest and trustworthy," showing that Republican efforts to attack him on ethics and for raising campaign funds from special interest groups have caused little, if any, damage.

Malloy will be able to point to an improving job picture, take credit for addressing the budget crisis he inherited (though Republicans will remind voters he did so in large part with tax increases), and can depend on a huge base of Democratic support in this Democratic state, 79 percent to 10 percent over Foley in the survey.

However, as poll director Douglas Schwartz pointed out, Malloy has this nagging problem of an approval rating stuck below 50 percent - 48 percent approve of the job he is doing, 45 percent do not.

That means Malloy is vulnerable and it should have Republicans doing some soul searching as to whether they want to circle the firing squad, or get behind one candidate quick.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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