In a prelude to the upcoming legislative session and his 2014 re-election campaign, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Thursday that Democrats should be heartened by the failure of Republicans to make state legislative gains in Tuesday's elections by running against his $1.5 billion tax increase.
"Tough times require tough decisions that are not immediately popular," said Malloy, a Democrat whose job-approval rating languishes below 50 percent as he approaches the mid-point in his first term. "But people in Connecticut understand what leadership is."
Malloy was not on the ballot, but the GOP legislative minority built an election plan around mailers and ads connecting Democratic legislators to the governor and the taxes they raised to address an inherited deficit of more than $3 billion. Democrats retained their majorities of 99-52 in the House and 22-14 in the Senate.
"Democrats should have a takeaway. And that is you should not be afraid to make tough decisions, particularly if you are transparent about those decisions, if you explain why those decisions were necessary," Malloy said. "In our case, the tough decisions we had to make were in fact caused by Republican governors."
The leaders of the Republican minorities, Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Sen. John P. McKinney of Fairfield, drew a different lesson: Their message was sound, but their timing was premature.
In a presidential election year, especially one with a high-profile contest for an open U.S. Senate seat, the electorate was not ready to focus on the governor, they said. Both noted that Tuesday was the first presidential election year since 1992 in which the GOP did not lose legislative seats.
Republicans hit Democratic incumbents hard on taxes, the Hartford-to-New Britain busway approved by Malloy, and the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program, which allows inmates to reduce their sentences in return for participating in re-entry programs preparing them for release.
"I wish we could have made the legislative races about what happened in Connecticut over the last two years. The tax increase, early release program and others," McKinney said. "At the end of the day, we were not successful in making the election about that."
"In 2014, there is no distraction of a presidential race, no Linda McMahon or anyone else running for Senate," Cafero said. "It clearly is an election about the direction of the state of Connecticut, its incumbent governor and its incumbent state legislature. That's what it's all about. All eyes are on that. No distractions."
The leaders of the Democratic majorities, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn and J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden, who is slated to take over as House speaker in January, said the GOP's message was heard and rejected by voters.
"I think the Republicans did make it clear that they were making it a referendum on the governor and his leadership," Sharkey said. "They clearly were trying to make that the issue, and it didn't stick."
"The lesson I draw is that the Connecticut electorate is sophisticated," Williams said. "They weren't in the mood for vicious political attacks."
Malloy has reason to be heartened by the legislative results, but he also has ample reason to be concerned about re-election.
His margin of victory over Republican Tom Foley in 2010 was 6,404 votes out of more than 1.2 million cast, the closest gubernatorial race in Connecticut since the election of Democrat Abraham Ribicoff in 1954. Foley is one of several Republicans considering a challenge of Malloy in 2014.
An Oct. 24 Quinnipiac University poll found Malloy with an approval/disapproval rating of 45 percent to 41 percent, an improvement of his August numbers of 43 percent to 44 percent, but less than a solid foundation to launch his campaign for a second term.
The governor's team hopes that his activist leadership style eventually will pay dividends, especially if the economy improves and his economic-development initiatives bear fruit.
At his first post-election press conference, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman introduced him Thursday by praising his "rock-steady" leadership during the state's string of disastrous storms, beginning last summer with Tropical Storm Irene and continuing through Superstorm Sandy.
"The one constant in all the turmoil that all the people of Connecticut has endured is the rock steady command of their governor," Wyman said.
The 2014 race for governor will shape the 2013 legislative session, when the Malloy administration will have to confront a budget shortfall in a fragile economy. Cafero and McKinney each are considered potential gubernatorial challengers.
The administration and the GOP already are struggling to promote conflicting political narratives. Malloy's is that he cleaned up a Republican mess, and the current shortfall is relatively minor. Republicans say the state's finances remain uncertain, despite a record tax increase in Malloy's first year.
On Thursday, Malloy reiterated his vow to balance the next budget without new taxes. He said he is open to working with Republicans, but the GOP leaders say his analysis of the Democrats' 2012 legislative victories indicate otherwise.
"On election night, I saw Mitt Romney and Barack Obama give incredibly gracious speeches, one in defeat, one in victory," McKinney said. "Barack Obama, rather than gloating, spoke of trying to bring the country back together."
Malloy's senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, said the governor was not gloating, but drawing a reasonable lesson in the Democratic victories -- and the GOP's pointed attacks.
"They chose the strategy," Malloy said.