Odds for Malloy's re-election just got longer

No longer able to make the case he turned a record deficit into a surplus, and stuck with an economy that continues to struggle despite heavy government investment in job creation, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy faces arguably the toughest re-election bid in 60 years in Connecticut.

In November 1954, incumbent Republican Gov. John Davis Lodge, seeking a second term, lost to the dynamic Democratic challenger, Abraham Ribicoff, by about 3,000 votes. Connecticut, along with the nation, was still recovering from a brief recession when Lodge sought re-election. There was also voter discontent with disruptions caused by the Connecticut Turnpike project (now Interstate 395). It is officially named the Governor John Davis Lodge Turnpike.

Since then other first-term governors have faced tough re-election prospects, but chose not to run.

In 1974, Republican Gov. Thomas J. Meskill, criticized for not returning from a vacation quickly enough to deal with a destructive ice storm, announced he would not seek a second term. He would go on to a long career as a federal appellate judge.

In 1994, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a former Republican U.S. senator who had become governor as a third-party candidate, decided not to seek a second term. Many voters reviled Weicker for implementing the income tax in Connecticut, in the process reversing the position he had taken in the campaign.

Unlike Lodge, Malloy will not face any challenger as skillful as Ribicoff. Instead, he will be the best politician in the gubernatorial race no matter who emerges from the field of Republicans competing for the nomination. However, being the most skillful at politics may not be enough.

The current front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination, Tom Foley, could present his own special problems for Malloy. It would be a rematch. Foley lost by only 6,000 votes when the two faced off in 2010 and the challenger seems better prepared as a result of the experience.

While Foley cannot match the incumbent for dramatic oratory or natural people skills - he comes across professorial and earnest, as opposed to inspiring - he can argue that voters would have been better off electing a successful businessman, i.e. him, rather than opting for the former mayor and career politician, Malloy. In other words, an "I told you so" campaign.

Malloy must defend his record and that task got harder last week.

Malloy oversaw implementation of one of the biggest tax increases in state history. Along with some labor concessions and reductions in the government bureaucracy, it was meant to address the $3.5 billion deficit Malloy confronted after winning the 2010 election.

By last January, Malloy was pointing to a projected $500 million surplus for this fiscal year, enough, he proposed, to give everyone a $55 tax rebate, restore the sales tax exemption on clothing and footwear costing less than $50, beef up the state's underfunded pension system and help rebuild the rainy day fund.

Then came last week's report that the big surplus was a mirage, the new projection lowering it to a razor-thin $43 million surplus in a $19 billion budget. The administration's tax revenue estimates had proved far too optimistic. Jobs grew by under 1 percent last year, the economy expanding an anemic 1.4 percent.

Malloy immediately abandoned the tax rebate scheme and pension investment. He announced Friday the $43 million surplus would go into the rainy day fund. That brings it to $314 million, still a far too thin safety margin.

Thankfully, Malloy and Democratic legislative leaders decided not to implement keno - according to polls an unpopular way to raise $18 million next year. There had been fears that desperate lawmakers would be unable to resist grabbing the keno cash.

The updated projections last week also blew a $300 million hole in the budget the legislature is now working on for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Malloy and Democrats in control of the legislature announced Friday they had reached a budget deal, but details were few. Expect to find some smoke and mirrors when details are known.

Meanwhile, the deficit projected for the first state budget after the election - 2015-2016 - rose to nearly $1.4 billion, not a number any incumbent wants to talk about going into an election. Malloy will be hard pressed to make the case that the state's fiscal problems are fixed.

Foley wasted no time responding.

"It was clear as early as January that the governor's revenue forecast and projected budget surplus were phony, which I pointed out in a statement on January 22," said Foley. "Either the governor is intentionally misleading the public or he can't do basic math."

In January, Foley had called the projected $500 million surplus "fictional" and based on "phony Malloy math."

Malloy would love to be saying today that Foley was full of it. Unfortunately for him and his re-election prospects, he can't.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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