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Foley vs. McKinney: Does message matter?

Published August 10. 2014 4:00AM

When Tom Foley founded the Connecticut Policy Institute after narrowly losing the election for governor four years ago, Republicans who realized that the state's big problem is mistaken policy premises rather than mere budgeting and personalities might have hoped that he would use the institute to study those mistaken premises and articulate alternatives on the way to next election.

Democrats turned that hope into a complaint - that the institute would be just a political front for Foley. But it didn't happen. Foley largely disappeared from public life, the institute was nonpartisan and uncontroversial, and now that Foley has reappeared as the candidate for governor endorsed by the Republican state convention, he seems to have no platform at all and little to say. His campaign strategy seems to assume that the electorate's dissatisfaction with Connecticut's economic decline and with incumbents generally will be enough to carry him to victory.

At his occasional interviews and campaign appearances Foley has been not just studiously vague and platitudinous but also embarrassingly unprepared and uninformed, thus signifying arrogance despite his gentle demeanor.

Governor Malloy, the Democratic nominee, says he is hoping for many campaign debates, a position unusual for an incumbent, a position Malloy may take not just because he senses the electorate's dissatisfaction and knows he needs to catch up but also because he thinks debates will contrast his mastery of state government's details with Foley's ignorance.

While Foley's vagueness may be strategy, it also may be bad strategy and a lack of leadership, as suggested by his astonishing failure at the nominating convention, where he enjoyed a comfortable majority, to propose a nominee for lieutenant governor. As a result Republicans face a nasty, personality-driven, and unnecessary contest among three candidates in their primary Tuesday.

Foley's challenger in the primary for governor, state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, ran a weak campaign prior to the convention, but his teaming with lieutenant governor candidate David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general, qualified their ticket for ample campaign financing from state government, with which they have produced broadcast advertising far crisper and more pointed than Foley's. McKinney and Walker emphasize reducing state government spending and exacting concessions from the state employee unions - precisely what Foley promised not to do when he pandered vainly to the state employee union convention.

McKinney strikes the right pose. "We're not going to beat Dan Malloy by ducking debates and giving vague answers," he tells the Connecticut Mirror. "We're going to beat him by standing toe to toe on issue after issue and showing how the governor's solutions have not fixed the problems and our solutions will."

What solutions exactly? McKinney isn't much more specific than Foley. While McKinney wants to eliminate the state income tax for earners below $75,000, he would accomplish this in part by eliminating the state's earned income tax credit for the working poor, who don't pay income tax and are presumed not to pay attention either. After all, exempting people from income tax encourages their indifference to civic obligation, since they are not reminded of it by tax withholding from their paycheck every week.

But then McKinney has a long record in the Senate of opposing the Malloy administration's major initiatives, so he has less to prove, even as his 16 years in the General Assembly make him, like the governor, a master of the details of government. He is much less likely to be blindsided and embarrassed than Foley.

McKinney's name recognition is not as great, but as Foley is discovering, recognition can be unfavorable, and an upset in the primary might solve anyone's recognition deficit.

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