Hennessy Weighs in on Republican Campaign in the Wall Street Journal

Connecticut Republicans Trade Barbs as Primary Nears

Businessman Foley Is Front-Runner Over Senate Leader McKinney


Joseph De Avila, Wall Street Journal

Updated Aug. 7, 2014 8:30 p.m. ET

STAMFORD, Conn.—John McKinney says his fellow Republican Tom Foley had his shot to be Connecticut governor four years ago and blew it.

Mr. Foley lost that 2010 election to Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy by about 6,400 votes out of 1.146 million cast. Now he and Mr. McKinney will face each other Tuesday in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

"Tom's never won an election," said Mr. McKinney, the state Senate minority leader. "He ran four years ago and lost the race." He added that "2010 was a very strong year for Republicans, and he was unable to beat Dan Malloy."

The state's Republicans say they are poised to replace Mr. Malloy after one term, citing the $1.5 billion in tax increases he signed into law in 2011 and his lukewarm job-approval figures.

Mr. Foley has been conducting a "buyer's remorse" campaign: He argues the state would have been better off had he won the governorship in 2010. In casting himself as an outsider, he has accused Mr. McKinney of embracing what he called "big government" policies as a state legislator in Hartford.

"He's a career politician," said Mr. Foley, 62 years old, a businessman who lives in Greenwich. "He's never run anything. He has none of the management, decision-making and problem-solving experience, leadership experience I have ... . I think people are looking for a change."

Mr. McKinney, 50, stresses his ability to win elections (he has been elected eight times) and to work with Democrats, including his role in passing a law in 2013 that tightened gun regulations following the shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

Mr. Foley enters Tuesday's contest as the favorite. He retained much of his name recognition from 2010 when he spent about $11 million of his own money on the campaign, and he earned the party's endorsement in May. He also has been critical of the laws passed after the Newtown shooting.

Those factors will make it difficult for Mr. McKinney to win over conservative voters Tuesday, said Matthew Hennessy, a Democratic political consultant unconnected with Mr. Malloy's campaign. "All those things basically say that [Mr. Foley] is going to be the winner on primary day," Mr. Hennessy said.

What few polls have been conducted in the primary show Mr. Foley with a wide lead. Political observers say primary polling is spotty at best, and unexpected results on voting day aren't uncommon.

"Foley has a strong lead, but primary elections are somewhat unpredictable because you aren't relying on the public, you are relying on" a party's most devoted base, said Paul Herrnson, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

Both Messrs. McKinney and Foley opted to participate in the state's campaign-finance program, which gives them each $1.35 million in taxpayer money to spend on the primary. In 2010, Mr. Foley spent about $3.77 million on the primary—mostly his own money—campaign finance records show.

Mr. Foley made his name running private-equity firm NTC Group. He served as an ambassador to Ireland under the George W. Bush administration. He was also a prominent fundraiser for Mr. Bush and for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid.

Mr. McKinney grew up in a political household. His father is the late U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney, who represented Connecticut's fourth congressional district from 1971 to 1987.

Both GOP candidates are socially liberal, supporting abortion rights and gay marriage. Both say Mr. Malloy's fiscal policies have made the state unfriendly to business.

One issue on which they differ is on how to reduce taxes. Mr. McKinney proposes eliminating the state income tax in fiscal year 2017 for filers earning below $75,000. Mr. Foley favors a reduction of the state's 6.35% sales tax to 5.85%, which he says would boost the economy more than Mr. McKinney's plan.

Connecticut also faces an estimated $1.28 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2015, according to the state's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.

That estimate assumes that state spending will rise by about 7%. Mr. Foley says his proposal to hold spending flat would eliminate the deficit, but hasn't released details. Mr. McKinney says he would cut spending by $1.4 billion.

Mr. McKinney's Senate district includes Newtown, where 26 people were slain by gunman Adam Lanza on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Mr. McKinney's vote on the gun-law package could hurt him with conservative firearms owners in the primary. The gun issue hasn't been a problem for Mr. Foley, who has said the laws didn't adequately address mental-health issues.

Mr. Malloy provides an Election Day upset model for Mr. McKinney. Mr. Malloy overcame a nine percentage-point deficit in the polls to beat Ned Lamont in the 2010 Democratic primary. The difference for Mr. Malloy was a late burst of support from labor groups, though Mr. Hennessy doesn't forecast such a dynamic this year.

"There is no Republican constituency that I can see being electrified by McKinney," Mr. Hennessy said.