Can fat wallets at the top of the ticket buy GOP legislative gains?

When Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. tried to put the best face on the majority Democrats’ work in the 2010 General Assembly session, he took aim at a criticism leveled by Republican gubernatorial contender Tom Foley.

Foley’s oft-stated charge that state government is “broke and broken” has been “blown out of the water,” Williams said.

But the potential for an election season dominated by well-funded Republican candidates airing frequent campaign ads had GOP strategists feeling giddy this past weekend at the party’s state convention.

“I think Don Williams is nervous because he knows Hartford is broken too,” Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, said at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. “We’ve never really had the perfect storm of top candidates, funding and issues like this since the mid-1990s.”

It was November 1994 when Republicans last won control of any chamber in the General Assembly. They captured a slim 19-17 edge in the Senate, which they held for two years before Democrats reversed that differential and assumed control. In the House, Republicans haven’t been in the majority since 1986.

Since then, Republicans generally have watched their numbers deteriorate while Democrats have assembled two-thirds majorities – the margin needed to override a gubernatorial veto–in both chambers. Currently, Republicans hold just 12 out of 36 seats in the Senate, and 37 out of 151 in the House.

Foley, a millionaire businessman, took to the airwaves early this year charging state government is plagued by big spending, high taxes, heavy debt, and little to no focus on reversing unemployment.

And he isn’t the only Republican taking shots at the state Capitol. Oz Griebel of Simsbury, former president of the Greater Hartford Metro Alliance who says he will primary Foley for the GOP nomination, also has insisted the current leadership dynamic in Hartford just doesn’t work.

Nor is Foley the only Republican with lots of money to spend on ads. World Wrestling Entertainment co-owner Linda McMahon, who has pledged to devote $50 million to her bid to win the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, has aired several ads touting her core values – minimal government, frugal government spending, low taxes. These are a perfect commercial for promoting what’s best about the Republican Party, said state Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven, a McMahon backer who’s convinced her future ads will go even further to raise all GOP candidates’ chances.

“She will have her commercials but we will all be imbedded in the message,” he said. “I’ve talked to Linda. She believes in a top-to-bottom message about the strength of the Republican Party,” he said.

“This is the ripest opportunity we’ve had in a generation” for a big win across the board, GOP State Chairman Christopher Healy said Saturday. “The issues line up perfectly for a unified campaign because the problems are the same in Hartford and in Washington – the economy, jobs, unemployment, and foreclosure.”

Republicans aren’t even the only ones taking shots at the state Capitol.

Democratic gubernatorial contenders Dan Malloy and Ned Lamont both have pointedly repeatedly to the nearly $3.4 billion budget deficit for 2011-12 that the next governor is expected to inherit. But most of their criticisms have been aimed specifically at Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who is not seeking re-election.

Rell, who was honored on Friday’s opening night of the convention, said she was excited by the quality of Republican candidates for all offices, and offered to help this campaign season. “I want to be out there,” she said.

But sources said Republicans won’t be calling on their outgoing governor to assist, hopefully mitigating chances for Democrats to cast blame in the GOP’s direction.

Dean Pagani, who served as a spokesman and later as chief of staff to former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland, said Republicans have a rare opportunity this fall, but could also scuttle that chance if their message isn’t carefully delivered.

“They have to convince people that things are broken in Hartford, but they have an extra burden – they have to prove they haven’t been part of the problem,” he said.”They have to make sure they don’t become the victims of their own message.”

Healy said state House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, has ensured Republican state legislative candidates have the ammunition they need to separate themselves from the Capitol’s fiscal woes. Under Cafero’s leadership, Republican caucuses in the House and Senate have proposed alternative budgets – with deep spending cuts but free of tax hikes – to the spending plans developed by the Democratic majorities over the past four years.

“Larry really has given an intellectual spine to our party,” Healy said.

But Mansfield political consultant Jonathan Pelto, a former state representative and former chief strategist for the Connecticut Democratic Party, said Republicans trying to divorce themselves from Rell’s legacy is “like a drunk driver who tries to walk away from an accident” and deny responsibility, “only it’s all caught on a security camera.”

The day-to-day operation of state government “is fundamentally an executive branch function,” he said. “The Republicans are going to have to live with the fact that it’s their governor who’s driving the bus over the cliff.”

Pelto also questioned whether Foley and McMahon’s commercials would resonate with large numbers of middle-income voters. “The public isn’t going to fall for two Greenwich millionaires saying they and their friends know how government ought to be run.”